Deadly White

A woman without paint is like food without salt.



Poisons that led to tooth decay. Hair loss. Blindness. Madness. Addiction. Early death.

It sounds like the plot of a thriller.

But for centuries women have applied cosmetics full of toxins directly to their faces.


Women strove for the appearance of youth and innocence. Women in the Middle Ages bled themselves to achieve this. In Georgian times women used white powder that contained mercury, sometimes known at Venetian Ceruse. The powder hid age spots, freckles, or other blemishes. They had to be careful not to show too much emotion, or their faces might “crack.”


But prolonged use of mercury can lead to addiction. Women lost their teeth and hair. Their skin even blackened.


Another side effect to whitening one’s skin was the inability to blush. But it was desirable for women to blush, to show modesty. So women began applying vermillion to their cheeks and lips. Unfortunately, the vermillion also contained mercury, which made the tooth decay even worse.


The wide eyed, dewy look was also desirable. Women began dropping belladonna into their eyes in Renaissance Italy to dilate their eyes. Though it was called Belladonna for beautiful lady, it is also known as deadly nightshade and is a known poison. But prolonged use could lead to visual disturbances and eventually blindness. Some women even went mad.


To this day, belladonna is considered a top murder weapon for its effectiveness and its availability. It is easily hidden in the victims’ food or drink.


When the leaders of fashion began to lose their hair and teeth, it was suddenly considered beautiful to have high foreheads and gray locks.


For some women, the appearance of youth and loveliness was worth dying for. One renowned beauty died at age 27, poisoned by the cosmetics she used, but unable to stop using them.


As I wrote this I thought how lucky we are to be past these fashion expectations. But in the future will people look back on what we did for beauty, and be amazed at what we were willing to do?


It sounds like the plot of a good story.


Ghost Stories


“Mad from life’s history,
Swift to death’s mystery;
Glad to be hurled,
Anywhere, anywhere, out of this world.”

— Thomas Hood, quoted by Violet Whaley, in her suicide note (1885)

I love to write about ghosts. I love the idea of them. I love the idea not having to say good bye, forever. I love the idea of unfinished business, tasks so important they have to be carried over into death. It’s the perfect plot.

I recently took a trip with my family to San Diego. I’d heard of several haunted buildings, in Old Town, in particular. In one restaurant, the staff doesn’t bother laying out spoons, because the spoons clatter to the floor, on their own. Supposedly the presence that haunts that building doesn’t care for spoons. But why wouldn’t it? Do the spoons remind it of ice cream eaten with a duplicitous lover, just before it died? Is it envious as they watch those who still get to sip warm, savory soup from a spoon?

Ghosts make such good stories.

I also wanted to visit the Whaley House, called the most haunted building in the US. I imagined wandering through the house, hearing the footfalls of Yankee Jim, who was hanged on the property a century ago. Or catching sight of Violet Whaley, who’d committed suicide after a heartbreaking marriage. But when I arrived I found out that I would need to pay for a tour that left off from a gift shop full of touristy knick knacks. Somehow it all seemed less mysterious. I decided against the tour.


The Whaley Family

Chatting with my sister in law later, I mentioned that I regretted not visiting the Whaley House. She is a practical person, so I thought she’d agree that the tour would have been a waste, that ghosts don’t exist. Instead she told me about how she was absolutely convinced that the house in which she and her family lived in Mobile, Alabama was haunted. Each time someone in the house took a shower, the name Amanda appeared in the steam in the mirror as if someone had traced it with their finger. It appeared in a different place each time. She and her husband both felt an unfriendly presence during the three years they lived there. My sister in law asked around and found out that a woman had died while living in the house, and that she’d always wished she had a daughter named Amanda.

Perhaps that spirit had a desire so strong that she needed to return from death to try to fill it. Or maybe she wanted to be sure her story was told. Ghosts make for interesting stories, whether you believe in them or not.


The Whaley House, San Diego, CA


The thought of going to a writer’s conferences can make writers quake with fear:

  • What should I wear…? Are jeans too casual, a suit to formal, yoga pants…?
  • What do I bring…something completely polished, something I want a critique on, or something I’m just starting to work out the idea on…?
  • Who should I talk to…? Editors, agents, authors…and what should I say?
  • Will I seem too pushy if I approach an agent, too shy if I hang back, too confident if I read my work, too insecure if I just listen?
  • Should I go to the talks by the professionals, or sign up for critique sessions…?

The list could go on and on. But let me remind all the new writers/conference attendees…you are in the same boat with a whole lot of people who are worried about the exact same things. Think of this as your opportunity to connect with other like-minded people. Other writers, agents and editors are book lovers and that’s something you have in common. So, strike up a conversation about your favorite book, author or publishing house. You are sure to get others engaged in the discussion.

And, remember, children’s book writers and illustrators are some of the nicest people there are. Plus, there’s always a lot of good food. Just look at this food art. It was like a smiling plate of fruit that greeted me the very first morning of the Oregon SCBWI Spring Conference.


And even the professionals admitted that writing…and getting published, is complicated.


But it sure doesn’t hurt to sit around with a bunch of other writers and listen to inspiring words from people who have made it to the top…like Victoria Jamieson with her AWE…mazing Rollergirl.


Or…having an opportunity to get your book signed by your favorite author


And chat with a Newbery Honor Award winner.

All-in-all, an SCBWI conference is the perfect place to work on the craft of writing, to listen to others who know what they are talking about, and to make new friends.

So, if you love to write, and you want to see your words on a written page, BE BRAVE and come to a conference. You don’t want to miss out. And, there is a whole lot to gain from the experience  – but you have to be brave…because we all know that most writers are shy…but take that first step and you’ll be on the path to publication.


SCBWI Oregon Conference

There were a lot of inspiring moments at this Spring’s SCBWI conference. But for me some of the best were during Matt de la Pena’s keynote speech.


Matt is the author of Mexican White Boy, Ball Don’t Lie, The Living, and its sequel, The Hunted. He has also written two picture books, A Nation’s Hope and Last Stop on Market Street, which won the 2016 Newberry Medal.

Some of the highlights: that revising is his favorite part of writing. He loves getting the words just right. He also said that it’s tempting for us, as writers, to always want what we think others have: to get an agent, to be published, to receive an award. But it’s important, he added, to be sure to stop and appreciate where we are in the process, whether we’ve finished a draft or written a pivotal scene. No matter where we are as writers, we should stop and celebrate.

I am nearly finished with The Living. My husband is not a big YA reader, but he and I argue over whose turn it was to read the book. The pace is quick and exciting, like a movie. Shy, the main character, is a teenager working on a cruise ship to help his family pay the bills. He has lost his grandma to a gruesome disease, and his nephew has been diagnosed with the same. One night a man tries to jump over the side of the ship. Shy catches him and tries to hold on, but the man slips from his grasp. Just before he dies, the man tells Shy something cryptic. Before Shy can make sense of what’s happened, a catastrophic earthquake destroys the West Coast. The ship is struck by a series of tsunamis. And Shy is fighting to survive in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by sharks.

I hope that readers of my stories have trouble putting my books down, that they argue over whose turn it is to read them. But no matter what, I’m going to remember to celebrate every step in the process.


An Interview with Award Winning Author Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson is the author of Hattie Big Sky, winner of the 2007 Newberry Honor, and Dash, which won the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Prize. Kirby is known for her historical fiction. We interviewed her for tips on researching. Here are her thoughts:


1)    Have you had to do research for your books?

Yep. Every single one of them! I’ve even done research for the fiction picture books.

2)    Which books did you research?

(see above)


3)    What method of research was best for you? Going to the library, reading about the subject, taking a class, traveling to the site, interviews?

Not to sound flip, but the truthful answer is all of the above. When I’m tackling a topic I know very little about, my favorite thing to do is check the children’s book section for titles on the topic. It’s a great way to give myself an introduction, and to identify next books to read (from the bibliography). My goal is always to keep drilling until I uncover primary sources – letters, journals, diaries, old newspapers/magazines, recipes, songs, etc. I especially love interviewing people who are knowledgable about a topic. I also love traveling to the site if at all possible. For example, with Hattie Big Sky, had I not taken a trip to the Vida area, I never would’ve realized that prairie grass is dotted with tiny cacti. That information gave me new insights when I realized many children went shoeless all summer! The one thing on your list that I have not done as part of my research is take a class. But who knows — that might be next!


4)    How do you fund your research – i.d. personally, grants, contests?

I have self-funded all of my research.


5)    What do you enjoy most about doing your research?

When I was in grade school, I wanted more than anything to be a detective like Encyclopedia Brown. My dream has come true, with one great benefit: no danger! I love finding stories others know little about! And I look at research as trying to understand ordinary people in past times and places; my digging is always to deepen that understanding. I have learned that research can be a form of procrastination, however. Sometimes I keep digging for that one more fact merely to put off starting to write. (I’m working on this vice!)


6)    What do you do when the research doesn’t match your story – do you write to the research or write the research bending to the story?

This is such a great question and tricky to answer. I would say that I rarely bend important/significant research to fit a story. But if the detail is relatively minor (at least in my reckoning) I have changed it. One example from Hattie Ever After: President Wilson actually stayed at the Sir Francis Drake, not the Fairmont, when he visited San Francisco. But if I learned something that would make my basic plot implausible, I would generally revise the story to fit the facts. Prior to writing Audacity Jones to the Rescue, I would have said I would always revise the story to fit the facts. This new book, however, is more of a historical romp than historical fiction so I felt quite comfortable tweaking what actually happened. In that book, Audacity helps to rescue President Taft’s niece, Dorothy, who has been kidnapped; though, for a 24-hour period on January 1, 1910, it was thought that Dorothy had been kidnapped, it turned out that she had only missed a train. I allowed myself to take poetic license and write a story as if she had been kidnapped.

7)    What do you find challenging about researching your project?

Having sufficient time to dig as deeply and thoroughly as I’d like! The book that’s coming out in the fall, Liberty, is the first time I’ve ever had to hire a research assistant. I simply didn’t have more than a few days to spend in the archives of the city of New Orleans and I needed much more time than that. I found a fabulous researcher who really got what I was looking for and proved to be a tremendous help. I prefer doing my own digging but sometimes it’s not feasible.


Liberty will be released on October 11th, 2016.

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Writing and Research

20160430_104530Kristin and I both know that writing books takes a little research…or maybe a lot, depending on the story you’re writing.  And sometimes, that means more than looking up information on the internet or in books.

When Kristin  started writing about Marie Antoinette (or “M.A.”), she discovered that hair played an integral part in M.A.’s life. ;D

She had many styles and stylists. So Kristin and I decided to find out a little bit more about hair styles. There were a lot of illustrations and descriptions in books and online, but we wanted to know what steps the hairdressers had to follow to achieve those amazing styles. So we went to a beauty school to find out some of the things we didn’t know about hair and styles.

So, we sat our butts in the chair and let the hair stylists show us a few things about styling hair back in M.A.’s day.

20160430_105702 20160430_105710 20160430_111530 20160430_111542 20160430_111548 20160430_111550 20160430_114338 20160430_114350 20160430_115225 20160430_115242 20160430_121020 20160430_121024 20160430_121028 20160430_133306 20160430_133324_001 20160430_133335 20160430_133424 20160430_133435 A20160430_133634 20160430_133741 20160430_133758My hair style took three hours to perfect, which gave us something else to think about:  how did these hairdressers do the marvelous things they did without hairspray, bobby pins, clips, curling irons or any of the modern day conveniences stylists have today? That is a true mystery.