Where do you live?
In Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
How many children do you have?
Two! A daughter and a son, who have both grown up to be amazing creative artists themselves—in theatre and film.
How many books have you written?
Nineteen total. Twelve YA and Middle-grade novels; five picture books with illustrator Lynn Munsinger; and two adult nonfiction books I wrote when I was a magazine journalist.
How and when did you start writing?
Honestly, I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t scribbling down stories. I was lucky to have a healthy imagination like Storm Dog’s Ariel, and by elementary school I was writing stories on the old-timey onionskin typing paper my parents would staple into “books” for me. I do recall the loud scratch a well-sharpened pencil made on the crisp sheet, and that it was hard to erase my drawing boo-boos. Most of those stories included animals as “supporting characters,” something I still seem to do today. My illustrations were….well…. let’s just say I am incredibly lucky that my picture books are graced with the beautiful artwork of Lynn Munsinger! (https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/munsinger-lynn-1951 )
I think what I instinctively loved about writing was it allowed me to ask all those “how-come” questions, like Alice in Flying South. “How-come” people act the way they do? Writing helps you explore and come to understand and then celebrate—or challenge the thinking of—the rather remarkable creatures that human beings are.
Did you have a favorite author as a child?
Frankly, I was a bit of a tomboy and spent most of my childhood romping through wildflower fields behind our home, climbing trees, and playing with our pets. I was lucky to live in one of the lusher parts of Virginia, where the hills roll green—so I was an outdoor child. But when I went indoors, a phenomenal library awaited me. I grew up in what had been my grandfather’s home. He was a commonwealth’s attorney (a prosecutor for the state, prone to quoting poets in his closing arguments), and an avid reader. I wish I had known him. But I felt a kinship with him through his vast collection of books. His study was filled with stories of adventure, chivalry, and quests. I grew up on retellings of Robin Hood; Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; Robert Louis Stevenson poems and novels like Treasure Island; the real Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne with that wry humor and delight in childhood; C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, E.B. White’s Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, T. H. White The Sword in the Stone, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and O’Henry’s short stories. These are often classified as “boy books” – thank goodness no one told me that!
I think that’s why I can write stories like Under a War-torn Sky, A Troubled Peace, Across A War-tossed Sea, or Give Me Liberty that feature male protagonists coming of age and following ideals of hope and courage, even amid the destruction and hatred of war. Or Suspect Red, exploring the impact of national politics and rhetoric on two teenage boys during McCarthyism, and Walls, following two cousins divided by the Cold War’s propaganda and dangers.
In that childhood library, I also found books my grandmother and mother loved, Little Women, Jane Austen’s dramas, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and the Little House on the Prairie series, which told me to look for women of strength and resilience, wit and spontaneous ingenuity—no matter what constraints society put on them. A sixth sense that served me well as a journalist and when writing characters like Peggy (Hamilton and Peggy!); Ginevra (DaVinci’s Tiger); Madame Gaulloise, Claudette, and Patsy (Under a War-torn Sky); and Cousin Belle in my upcoming novel, Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves.
There were also poetry collections. Favorites were Wordsworth, Keats, Longfellow, and Emily Dickinson who celebrated the world’s small glories, like bees, “the buccaneers of buzz.” My mother read Charles Dickens novels aloud to us at night, dramatically changing her voice for each character. Listening to Dickens, I learned about the hook of cliffhanger chapter endings. I also met up with Shakespeare early, and if I didn’t understand the plot lines I simply relished the pictorial language. I very much wanted to be the faery Puck. I still sit down with some Shakespeare when I need to be inspired to write image-infused descriptions.
What other authors would you recommend young aspiring writers to read?
There are SO MANY wonderful writers now for young people. These are but a few suggestions:
For voice: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, (her Shiloh trilogy and Alice series in particular), Kate DiCamillo, and Kwame Alexander.
For championing young people who triumph over tragic pasts or hidden personal challenges: Leslie Connor, Kathryn Erskine, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Lauren Volk, and Tiffany Jackson.
For compassionate humor: Jerry Spinelli, Christopher Paul Curtis, Carl Hiaasen, Madelyn Rosenberg, and Jane Leslie Conly. For anything to do with nature, and fanciful retelling of history through the witnessing eyes of animals, Henry Cole.
For outdoorsy coming of age: Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain series, and for sports: Fred Bowen, Mike Lupica, and John Feinstein.
For historical fiction: Elizabeth Wein, Monica Hesse, Laura Ruby, Jennifer Donnelly, Eugene Yelchin, Rita Sepetys, Laurie Halse Anderson, Karen Hesse, Ari, and Deborah Wiles. For fantasy/dystopia: Veronica Roth and Tamara Pierce.
Why do you write about history so much?
Because it’s fascinating! The odyssey of how we came to be what we are today. The choices, the challenges, the mistakes, the triumphs, the villains, the heroes.
I grew up just outside Washington D.C., very aware of history in the making. One of my earliest memories was of JFK’s tragic assassination. For days, my house boomed with the sound of anxious news broadcasts. Fast upon that came the killing of his brother Bobby and another man of eloquence, Martin Luther King, Jr. I came of age during the Vietnam War protests and then Watergate. It would have been impossible not to have a sense of events changing the world and the way people thought. This is why my first life was as a journalist. For twenty years, I was a senior writer with the Washingtonian magazine, after spending high school and college working for student newspapers or “stringing” for local papers.
My own growing up was permeated with political discussions around our dinner table, witnessing demonstrations in D.C., and arguments, sometimes heated, with my peers regarding the slow-drip revelations about our troops in Vietnam and our elected officials during Watergate. So I am very aware of the trickle-down impact of national dialogue and polarization on teens and their friendships—themes I explore in Suspect Red (1950s’ McCarthyism) and Walls (East/West Berlin during the Cold War).
But the real love of history probably started with my knowing as a small child a number of elderly ladies in what was then a small-town community. In their garden, over fresh-squeezed lemonade, they’d talk and talk in musical voices and long anecdotes. They told me of history—but not dates, battles, or political figures. It was personal, about how their relatives (or they) survived hard times, how mothers worried about their children during epidemics and wars, where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and how they helped the war effort afterward. From them, I learned that history is a very human drama and that the way to make it captivating, truly enlightening, and oh-my-gosh-tell-me-what-happens-next-intriguing was to focus on one individual’s journey through turbulent, trying times.
Why do you set so many of your novels in Virginia?
The author Willa Cather said, “Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.” I didn’t set out to become a “Virginia-writer,” but so I have. It’s just fact that so much of early American history, political movements, and battles, occurred here. Give Me Liberty, Flying South, Across a War-tossed Sea, Annie, Between the States, and my upcoming, Louisa June are all rooted in the commonwealth’s experience during ground-shifting eras.
As I wrote, my contemporary narrative Storm Dog turned into a bit of a love song to the state. Part of that has to do with the solace and affinity Ariel instinctively feels out in nature—in the rolling green of Fauquier and Loudoun counties. Ariel goes to Sky Meadows State Park (a gorgeous 1,862-acre sanctuary up against the Blue Ridge) to escape her troubles, to have a hawk’s cloud-down perspective on the world, where she finds the ethereal and a sense of the divine—however you wish to define it—in a catbird’s song, the delicate design of a Spring-beauty’s tiny blossom, and in the winds that kiss the earth up on those hills. All things I grew up rejoicing in and still do.
With Storm Dog, geography also handed me a palpable push-pull between disparate but neighboring cultures and the poison of thinking in stereotypes. Within the 50-mile radius of Ariel’s world, in that northwest corner of Virginia, you will find elbowing each other: the diverse, international suburbs of D.C, designer-boutique luxury shopping meccas, and the million-dollar tract homes of the exurbs beginning to encroach on rural, 19th-century country estates where equestrians still “ride to the hounds” and working farms and orchards picked by recent immigrants or migrant workers, where plenty of people struggle to get by. As such, the area percolates with frictions and misunderstandings born of preconceptions and prejudices.
I never forget when I write for young people that they are still forming their own set of beliefs and fervently believe they can make a difference in this world if they just try hard enough. So it is a privilege to create characters who resolve some of these issues for themselves through personal exchanges and actually coming to know one another, to “show rather than tell” my readers how mighty and transformative for them and our ability to cooperate with one another such revelations can be.
It seems like music comes into your novels a lot. Why?
Music was my first love. I think nothing is as mystical or redemptive or more of a communion with the sublime in this universe or with one another. I play the flute, piccolo, and piano, minored in music in college, and was the field conductor of Wake Forest University’s marching band. (Love those Demon Deacons!) At that point, I hoped to perform or conduct classical music professionally. I promise, in terms of showmanship, camaraderie, and plain old fun, nothing beats being in a high school or college marching band. It comes from my heart when I have Ariel say: “If you’ve never seen a parade live—felt the street throb and your heart pulse in rhythm with a passing band’s drum cadence, been swept up in all the colors and confetti and celebration—promise yourself to do it before you die. Better yet, march in one.”
Ariel helps the runaway dog that saves her in a wild thunder-guster storm to find trust again through music and “dog-dancing.” (Yes, that’s a thing! See demos of it here: https://lmelliott.com/book-landing-page-contemporary/storm-dog/dogs-dogs-dogs-storm-dog .) The name she gives him comes from his reaction to Stevie Wonder’s marvelous tribute to big-band legend Duke Ellington in his song “Sir Duke.” You can listen to all the music that Ariel plays for Duke to get him happy here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5DPXEe3w2Zn7PA17rp2dcc
I have also written about the historical importance of music—its use for protest or expression of changing attitudes in society—most directly in Give Me Liberty. Music has always been a way for humans to express and spread ideas and was particularly important as a political forum and as military signals during the American Revolution.
Finally, studying music made me a better writer. It taught me a sense of pacing, rhythm, and that any composition—whether of words or musical notes—needs motifs that repeat, modulate, and evolve to a harmonious resolution. When I want to hear if a section I’ve written works, I read it aloud. If I stumble over phrases or I don’t sense a cadence, I know I need to tweak it.
Why are animals often so important to your stories?
Like any dog-lover, I know well the joy a dog can bring. My family has always taken rescue dogs, so I have also felt the touching moment when a previously abused or abandoned dog suddenly looks at us with trust and love. Something that was very important in Storm Dog. I’ve also had and marveled at the aura of wisdom surrounding cats, which comes into play in my upcoming Louisa June.
Historically, horses were VERY important (both as transportation and companionship), so it is authentic to include them in my narratives set during certain time periods, like Give Me Liberty. In that novel, a mare named Vixen grew in importance without my really planning it. Inspiration is often an unconscious thing. Sometimes characters or situations creep into a book and grow with their own force. My daughter is an accomplished rider, an eventer during high school and college, a former National Champion with USPC (pony club). The bond between her and her horses as they trained to compete together was a beautiful and truly inspiring symbiosis to watch—clearly the seed for the horses in my novels. I also ride, but purely in an amateur mode. I consider one of my greatest accomplishments, though, to be learning to drive the horse trailer for my daughter’s lessons and competitions—and to back it up and park it evenly, which is even harder!
Why is there French dialogue in Under a War-torn Sky and A Troubled Peace? I don’t speak French.
Because most American flyers didn’t either. When they were forced to bail out of their planes, they fell out of the sky onto territory occupied by German-speaking Nazis with their only hope for survival being French-speaking civilians. Including snippets of French lets you experience briefly (and only slightly) the discomfort, the confusion, even the terror those boys must have felt during WWII. The French strangers on whom they depended could just as easily have been collaborators as Resistance fighters. Also, those passages (which are always basically translated for you in the next paragraph) give you a chance to see how very clever you are. I purposefully chose French words that mirror English ones. Most times, you can figure out quickly what the French person is saying.
What influences your writing most?
My children, even now as adults! Gifted and imaginative storytellers, they are my muses, my first readers, and as a professional screenwriter and theatre director, they are particularly astute editors for character development, theme continuity, authentic dialogue, and meaningful, gripping plot twists. I get no “fat” or “vague” prose past them!
Both have traveled with me as I research my historical novels, and help me gather facts. They are incredible sleuths and scholars and the best of companions on these adventures.
When they were young, their interests and concerns sparked my choice of subjects. Sometimes they inspired the story itself. The Hunter and Stripe picture book series, for instance, started as bedtime stories for my son when he was dealing with some playground issues of peer pressure and competition. Vladimir, in Suspect Red, a well-read, jazz-loving, saxophone-playing, sizzling point guard is very like him—something I realized consciously only after creating the character.
A great lover of art museums, my daughter was the one to introduce me to Ginevra de Benci, the young, proto-feminist poet in Leonardo’s first portrait, and the only work of his permanently housed in the U.S.—(in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art)—the heroine of Da Vinci’s Tiger. The whip-smart and idealistic Natalia in Suspect Red is very like her. And I came to know and be enthralled by the Schuyler Sisters—Peggy becoming the fascinating “wicked wit” heroine of Hamilton and Peggy!—because as a young theatre director my daughter absolutely had to see Hamilton and its impact on the paradigm of possibilities in theatre. I got to tag along!
Which do you enjoy writing most: picture books, novels, or nonfiction? For youth or adults?
I enjoy and grow as an author by having variety. That’s one of the glorious things about writing for a living—every day, every story is different. A writer is always learning.
As a journalist, among other things, I wrote about soccer star Mia Hamm, followed doctors who saved babies born three months too early, watched a choreographer create a new ballet, and profiled an extraordinary woman who’d been attacked, handcuffed, and thrown off a bridge into a river and survived. My covering “women’s issues” solidified my more feminist instincts, which has served me well in my biographical fiction like DaVinci’s Tiger. Being a reporter first really taught me how to spot a story, to interview/report for authenticity, to be grateful for editors, and to make a deadline. (Learn more in https://lmelliott.com/writing-and-research)
Researching my novels, I’ve learned—among other things—about flying airplanes; how young fifers and drummers were critical live-savers during battles; about 15th-century women artists, philosophers, and poets long forgotten by history; discovered an ordinary farmer who became a double-agent and saved us from disaster and defeat during the American Revolution; spy-techniques used by George Washington and French teenagers during WWII; and of women who refused to be cowed by Nazi cruelty and kept one another alive in concentration camps as well as those at home who welded ships that kept America afloat.
I’ve traveled centuries, marveled at the human spirit, found inspiration and warning, and tremendous hope in what is magnificent in us even as we fight our baser, more selfish and fearful demons.
There is a special joy in writing for teens—they have a way of cutting to the pith of a matter, brook no baloney (as my Dad would have said), and have not yet been conditioned to accept compromises or apathy. Their righteous indignation at the injustices of the world prods me as I write. I know to lace even dire moments or harsh truths with a thread of hope because young adults believe that if they try hard enough, keep to their moral compass, and think with compassion that they can make a difference in this world. Amen. I write in ways to encourage that.
(BTW, students often ask me how much money I make. I always answer that a writer is rarely rich monetarily, but she is certainly rich in spirit.)
Who is your favorite character?
Students almost always ask this and, I’m sorry, I cannot pick one over all the others. They are all precious to me in some way. But here are a few:
For my WWII novels: Under a War-torn Sky, I’d like to have the courage and sophistication (and the wardrobe!) of Madame Gaulloise; I marvel at Henry’s tenacity and ability to care about others in the midst of war’s cruelties as well as little Pierre’s compassion, his hope. In A Troubled Peace, Claudette delights me with her fiery idealism and personality. (I swear she wrote herself—much modeled on my daughter!) I have a real fondness and admiration for the British evacuees Wesley and Charles, their pluck, resiliency, and droll sense of humor in Across a War-tossed Sea.
I was so taken by the real-life Peggy Schuyler, her bodacious intelligence, her brave devotion to her siblings and father. It was a true honor to recreate her in Hamilton and Peggy! (I also admit to falling a little in love with George Washington, Lafayette, and a philosophizing double agent named Moses Harris.)
I learned so much from Abbess Scholastica in Da Vinci’s Tiger, ached and dreamed with Ginevra, and couldn’t help but be amazed by that real young woman’s fierce independence that sings through in the one remaining line of her verse—“I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger.” As soon as I unearthed that sentence I knew—I wanted to glean all I could about her!
In Give Me Liberty, Basil makes me laugh, Moses makes me cry, and Nathaniel reminds me of how much bravery it takes to grow up. I am very proud of him at the end of the book. Suspect Red is full of yearning, inquisitive, artistic young people I’d love to spend hours and hours listening to—and the siblings, Richard and Ginny, Vlad, and Natalia all have large dashes of my children’s personalities and interests in them. Walls allowed me to pay homage to all those military kids I knew as I grew up, who moved and adapted constantly in service to our country, in Drew and his sisters Joyce and Linda.
Storm Dog's sassy, idealistic Ariel takes me home to the hills of Virginia, the allure of a catbird’s song, the sheer delight in dance, the incantation of music, and the salvation of unexpected friendships. And how could I not be delighted with the country-philosopher and big-hearted Marcus and his piccolo-playing, reformed alcoholic, Revolutionary War re-enactor father? And I am so looking forward to sharing Louisa June and her wonderfully quirky and worldly Cousin Belle with you in 2022.
So... I can’t pick one.... can you?
When do you write? Where do you write?
Mostly in the early morning and in my home office, which I am happy to report is sunny and serenaded by wrens and chickadees. Its walls are covered with photos of my children, our adventures together overseas, and their childhood artwork. So it is very conducive to creative thought, although it was never some quiet ivory tower. My training as a journalist makes me able to write whenever and wherever. I’ve outlined and edited on plane trips to visit them at college or waiting for their athletic matches and horse rallies, their plays, and concerts to begin. I email myself notes all the time when an idea hits me while running errands—otherwise I might forget them.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends. For my historical novels, typically it takes me about eighteen months, the longest work being the research. I can work faster if I need to, though. To catch the Hamilton wave, for instance, I got that assignment, researched, and wrote Hamilton and Peggy! in ten months. That was an insane, all-hands-on-deck, 24-7 marathon, though, that I wouldn’t recommend!
What slows me up during the writing phase is if I have a hole in my knowledge, which I have to stop and research. I hate that because I lose my rhythm! For A Troubled Peace, for instance, when I was writing a chapter that included Henry borrowing a bi-plane I realized in the middle of a paragraph, that I didn’t know how cranking the propeller would kick-start the engine or how to land it. Luckily, a very nice man at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in New York answered my telephone call and explained.
I am completely indebted to historians who generously share their vast knowledge, like the Schuyler Mansion interpreters who so graciously gifted me their expertise, meticulous research, and enormous patience with my constant questions.