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Molly and the Magic Suitcase

Puerto Rico and How to Help

The situation in Puerto Rico remains bad, however, an aid package passed through Congress today. The Washington Post reports an estimated 80% of the Puerto Rico power grid remains offline. Federal aid agencies are operating effectively according to personal acquaintances.

We are doing what we can to help. When our six year-old daughter learned about the hurricane, she decided to have a lemonade stand in support of hurricane victims. She raised well over $100, and many people donated sums beyond the cost of what was sold. Our thanks to everyone who stopped by for their generosity.

Amy and I also made the decision to donate all of our book earnings for October to hurricane relief. Please join us in this effort, whether through buying books or donating directly to an aid effort of your choice. The organization we chose is GlobalGiving, mainly because of the the transparency in the way they do things.

It all goes to hurricane relief this month.

We met many, many kind and generous people in Puerto Rico. When we ran into trouble, there were several offers of help that went beyond what anyone would expect. As I said elsewhere, after just a short time, you feel as if your among old friends. That is our enduring memory of the people of Puerto Rico, and it is our turn to help.

Thanks to all who choose to donate or simply help by spreading the word.

Colossal Understatement – Adventuring in Old San Juan

It was already Day Three of our Puerto Rico adventure and the beach, unsurprisingly, featured prominently. Our plan for the day was to walk around Old San Juan and see the fortresses. We knew there was a time limit to the activity because our children Molly and Michael are age six and five, respectively. Fortunately, one of the items in the condominium we rented was a stroller.

We hit the beach for about an hour in the morning, repeating a pattern from our trip to Florida earlier in the year. While there, we went to the beach pretty much first thing in the morning and, as it turned out, the habit saved the day a couple of times.

As the Day Goes – Planning

Amy and I pretty much let the kids establish the schedule. Because the sun set so much earlier in Puerto Rico than at home, the kids were generally in bed early and up at dawn. This schedule was key to the success of our trip, particularly when we moved on to Luquillo. That’s a story I’ll share in the coming weeks.

Molly and Michael (and Bear) at the Parque del Indio.

Our early days meant opportunities for more activity. After the beach we had a meal and headed out. We caught a special “tourism bus” near Parque del Indio. The bus seemed to operate exclusively between the beach areas and Old San Juan. It was a hot day and we were thankful for the comfortable, cool bus. I’ll underscore here that buses are the best way to get into Old San Juan. There is a long lane (Calle del Tren, “The Train Street”) running through San Juan that seemed for bus use only, and possibly only the public-run system.

The tourism bus did not make use of the lane, but delivered us directly to Castillo de San Cristobal with little delay, and perhaps a little quicker than the public system because it wasn’t obliged to stop in the convention district.

Largest Spanish Fort Outside of Spain: Castillo de San Cristobal

No description does justice to Castillo de San Cristobal. Considered for its original purpose, it intimidates, though in its modern context it’s simply a wonder. It towers above both the Atlantic Ocean and the old city, and in fact marks the border between the San Juan Historic District and the rest of the city.

A friendly iguana greeted us at the gate for some light fun. “Friendly” might be stretching it; I don’t think it really cared we were there, but it was a cool moment and we enjoyed watching it forage for a couple of minutes.

We took an elevator up and came out facing the east side of the fort that faces the modern parts of San Juan. I was excited about it because one of Amy’s illustrations for Molly Goes to Puerto Rico depicted our characters there. I took several photos of Amy, Molly, and Michael checking the particular garita that was a prominent feature in the illustration.

Scale view from the top of San Cristobal. Note my position in relation to the beach and street level.

The fort was modified during World War II to be a lookout station for U-Boats. As you might imagine, these areas provide stunning views, especially turning west (photo) to take in the colorful architecture of Old San Juan, with another fortress, El Morro, providing the backdrop. It was a unique experience. Amy said over and over how the photos simply cannot show the majesty of it all.

The Importance of Puerto Rico

Look at a chart or map that shows the wind currents of the Atlantic Ocean. The “Trade Winds,” you will see, blow directly from Europe to Puerto Rico. It was simply the first stop in coming to the New World. You begin to understand the importance of Puerto Rico to Spain, and why these fortifications were built.

Old San Juan is actually an island, one that sits astride the entrance to a natural harbor. It’s not difficult to imagine this as a key port not only for trade, but for repair and outfitting ships headed further west or south. As steam replaced sail, this first outpost became a little less visited, but for roughly 400 years, Puerto Rico was the gateway to the Americas.

Next up: El Morro.

The view of the greater San Juan area from Castillo de San Cristobal. Molly and Amy are inside the garrita, the small turrets that are today a symbol of Old San Juan.

Puerto Rico Adventure: Arrival

Wow! We had an absolute wonderful time in Puerto Rico and for many reasons. There is much to share and we’ll do it over the course of three, maybe four posts. I first wanted to share our arrival and first day and a half or so. This provides a few travel tips and can help you get settled if you opt for an experience similar to ours. We loved Puerto Rico and highly recommend a visit.

First Flight for the Kids

We booked an early flight. Our flight plans for the day included one connection with a fairly brief layover. Our children, Molly (age six) and Michael (age five) were great. The only squeals came from their delight and were brief. Several people napped around us (phew!).

One thing that helped Michael was his car seat. We drove to Florida last spring and it is a comfortable, familiar space to him. One thing to note: our airline required the car seat to be placed in the window seat. Check your airline’s policies on this if you choose to bring one along. Anyway, the familiarity of the seat seemed to make it a better experience for him and us.

We also had a booster for Molly and checked it with the other baggage. The booster did not count

Molly also gets a window for the first leg. This is her trying-to-smile-big smile.

as a checked bag in terms of fees. We knew we had to have both to be safe on the road, so there was never a question of bringing them with us.

Another thing that helped with our flight was a series of surprises for the kids. This isn’t original thinking, many family travel blogs recommend this. We were also successful using this tried and true method.

First Day in San Juan

The eventual arrival in San Juan was mid-afternoon. We thought having a bit of time to leisurely settle would be nice. We didn’t stay at a resort, but booked a three-bedroom unit via HomeAway. I want to share more about our accommodations in another post, but will say were thrilled with the place.

We chose to simply get a taxi after conferring with the condo owner. It was easier than we expected because the man running the taxi lane at the airport prioritized us because we had kids. Nice! On the way to the Condado area of San Juan, our driver gave us a tip on where to eat. That is yet another post, but it pays to listen!

Near sunset and it’s so bright the camera barely registered any color here.

The leisurely settling in would have to wait because the beach wouldn’t. We didn’t bother to unpack, but changed and hit the sand shortly after arrival. There are many details to share here, but I want to stay focused on a bigger picture.

Our second day was largely the same. We spent time on the beach and made it to the local grocery. Tip for the grocery: the supermarket delivered both the groceries and us back to the condo. We just had to meet a certain threshold of spending, and, actually, we tripled it.

Yes, we cooked while there, even after having some wonderful mofango our first evening. We did, however, decide to dine out again our second evening. This was our first adventure into Old San Juan.

The Charm of Old San Juan

We had no rental car at this stage. I didn’t think we’d need one in San Juan and it turned out to be

the right call. Instead, we made use of the local buses and had no problem. There is a public bus terminus in the south-east part of Old San Juan, just about a six-block walk from Castillo San Cristobal. All bus lines that go to Old San Juan end here and it’s as good a place as any to start exploring. Bus Tip 1: they take exact

Antiguo Casino, with part of Castillo San Cristobal visible behind it.

change only ($.75 per rider).

We didn’t explore much that evening, but found an excellent restaurant. Molly wanted a milkshake, but was more than satisfied with the fruit smoothies on offer. We finished dinner and to our surprise, it was dark out. Another travel note here: we live in the Midwest and the sun sets around 9:30 or later during the summer. In Puerto Rico, the sun set around 7:30. I never thought to check on this detail.

 

Waiting on a bus at the Old San Juan terminus.

We took a brief stroll on the darkened streets and saw the Antiguo Casino before heading home, again on the bus. Bus Tip 2: the lines seem to run about every thirty minutes. This is a potentially difficult situation with small children. Wherever you are in San Juan, I suggest finding a stop that serves more than one bus line.

It was a successful trip so far, and the kids were having a great time at the beach. Our third day would be a test: touring Old San Juan. Can’t wait to tell you about it in the next post.

Interview with Kids Travel Books

We’re featured this week at Kids Travel Books!

Molly and the Magic Suitcase Week at Kids Travel Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The latest post is an interview, excerpted below:

Tell me more about you and your wife. What made you want to start writing/illustrating travel books for kids?

Travel was always an interest of mine. I always looked at travel as an opportunity to experience something new. The writing side of it comes mainly from my love of reading. The magic of books, I always thought, was both the story and being transported to different places and times. The more vivid the setting, the more I was drawn into the story.

Amy has drawn all her life, as long as she can remember. She illustrated cartoon series for fun and for the school paper. Later, she was an intern for Marvel Comics and became very interested in the Disney style. She always wanted to illustrate a children’s book series and the inspiration struck when we took our (at the time) one-year-old daughter Molly to Florida.

Molly crawled into my suitcase as we were packing. She bounced up and down a little as if she expected it to take her for a ride. I said, “Look! There’s Molly and her magic suitcase!” Amy immediately seized on that as inspiration.

For the rest of the interview go here: http://kidstravelbooks.com/meet-author-chris-oler-molly-magic-suitcase-series/

Thanks, all and happy travels!

The Piazza at Night: An Evening in Rome

There are occasions we receive opportunities. Some years ago I received the advice, “when someone asks you to do something, say ‘yes.'” The reference was to volunteer activity. There are some moments I wished this advice came to me sooner, but then I wouldn’t be where I am and there is nowhere else I’d rather be. One occasion I said ‘yes’ was on this trip.

Day Five: Still Getting to Know Rome

The day continued after our stop in the ancient Roman Forum. We boarded the bus and made the short trip to the Circus Maximus. Today the Circus is essentially a long, flat park. During Natale di Roma (Rome’s birthday, April 21st), the park serves as a showcase for various events including battle reenactments. Our guide talked mainly about the Imperial Palace, which overlooks the grounds.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
Southeast end of the Circus Maximus.

The Circus was essentially a huge race track with two tight turns at each end. Chariot races and other events were held there. According to Pliny the Elder, the stadium seated 250,000, but historians think it was considerably less. Regardless, it must have been something. The original movie Ben-Hur gives an idea of the thrill and danger of the races.

The Imperial Palace didn’t seem terribly impressive from our vantage point. The panoramic photo I share below doesn’t show much. It seemed like so much ruin and it was difficult to picture the splendor the palace once had. Appearances are deceiving.

When I wrote The Shield of Horatius there was a need to revisit the grounds, and in much greater detail than before. Fortunately, Google Earth allows you to explore the palace as it is now, and the Internet at large gives us access to numerous artistic renderings of the Circus and the Palace (scroll to the bottom of the linked page).

One of the things hidden by the ruins is the Hippodrome of Domitian (middle photo of the article). Scholars aren’t certain whether this was a stadium or simply a garden. Either way it shows the ruins of the Imperial Palace have more to offer than what is seen from the roadside benches on the other side of the Circus Maximus.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
A stitch of two photos I took produces this panorama of the Imperial Palace. You’re looking at the Palatine Hill, immediately adjacent to the Forum (on the other side of the hill). In the foreground is part of the Circus Maximus. The line between the two photos is clear at grass level, but hard to pinpoint further up.

Domitian expanded the palace significantly in his day and renamed it the Domus Augustana in honor of Caesar Augustus. Augustus, ironically, lived mainly in a borrowed home. The house, like the palace later named for Augustus, was also on the Palatine Hill and is a fairly recent addition to a tour of the area. The house was discovered just 50 years ago.

We piled into the bus again and went on a motor coach tour of the city. I do remember the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, but there wasn’t time to snap a photo. Given the area, Giovanna, our guide, probably also discussed the Aurelian Walls. One other moment burned itself into memory. We drove past the Israeli embassy and I saw armed guards at the road gates. I must have been looking the right way this time because the men were armed with Uzi sub-machine guns. It seemed pretty clear they were ready for anything.

Say ‘Yes’ to the Piazza Navona

The lead chaperones on our trip were an English teacher and his wife. I never had this particular teacher for class, but his influence was greater than many teachers I did have. Much of it comes down to this first evening in Rome.

Most of the adults, you see, decided to have an evening out. Not a dinner or anything that took hours, they planned to go to the Piazza Navona. The day was pretty long and I felt the extent of our travel to that point, but was privileged to be asked along.

An artist draws Molly in the Piazza Navona, from "Molly Goes to Rome." Illustration by Amy Houston Oler
An artist draws Molly in the Piazza Navona, from “Molly Goes to Rome.” Illustration by Amy Houston Oler.

The Piazza Navona is a large square in what was once known as the “Field of Mars.” When Rome was still pretty small this was the assembly area when they needed to field an army. The same part of Rome today boasts the Pantheon, the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Campo de’ Fiori area, Trajan’s Forum, and many other sites of interest. Piazza Navona was once a relatively small (compared to the Colosseum) stadium. It hosted competitive athletic contests, as opposed to involuntary gladiator bouts. We might call it an Olympic stadium today. The area of the Piazza closely conforms with what was once the athletic field. The city market relocated here in the late 1400’s and there is a continued market today of artists.

I can’t put a finer point on this: this brief evening excursion was an important life event. If I only wrote about this and left out all the other lessons learned, the story would be nearly as complete. Well, let’s make an exception for Pompeii.

The Piazza Navona was then and continues to be a great place for gelato. Partially because of this it is a great place to take kids. We confirmed these things when Amy interviewed a former coworker who grew up in Rome and takes her kids there often. The interview was part of our research for Molly Goes to Rome.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, illustration by Amy Houston Oler. From our first book "Molly Goes to Rome."
The Fountain of the Four Rivers, illustration by Amy Houston Oler. From our first book “Molly Goes to Rome.”

The open air market is part of the attraction, but also the three fountains. The most well known is the Fountain of the Four Rivers. It is a tradition to throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain and you should do so with the currency of your home country. I brought along a few quarters. One thing I didn’t bring was my camera. The Canon Snappy AF was not a low-light performer, at least not with my photography skills.

My memories are certainly romanticized. I recall the lighting of the fountains, the tropical air, the imposing (due to the lack of lighting) edifice of Sant’Agnese in Agone, the few artist stalls still there from the day, and the community of travelers there to experience it all. The crowd was small and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Families and small groups took photos, there was a general festive feel.

We didn’t stay long, maybe an hour. It was the first bit of Europe I experienced without our large tour group. It allowed me to relax and really absorb the atmosphere. It was similar to the experience in Siena, but magnified. All this and my first instinct was not to go. Why was I asked? Who knows?! I am thankful it happened.

Molly Goes to Rome features two illustrations from the Piazza Navona, more attention than we gave any site. There is simply something more to it. It is, as others say, a place to observe today’s Rome and its culture.

Roman Holiday for Us

There is no place like Rome for the holidays. Two of our books are set there and the Eternal City, well, I admit it’s my favorite. It is an easy bias because, over the course of writing Molly Goes to Rome and The Shield of Horatius, I learned so much. I love talking about Rome.

Our first book had a distinct disadvantage: it was our first book. Molly Goes to Rome is a fun story and we immensely enjoyed the process of putting it together. However, each book is a learning process and many lessons were learned with our “prototype.”

Amy has a few more pencils and more tricks to show off these days.
Amy has a few more pencils and more tricks to show off these days.

So, we’re revising it. The story won’t change, though one misspell will be corrected. There will be a new illustration for the cover and each of the existing illustrations will get a makeover, as this one, featuring the Pantheon, has.

The revised edition will be out in the next couple of weeks. We’re very excited to do this.

Oval Meets a Square

While you’re here, let’s talk a bit more about Rome. One of the locations featured in Molly Goes to Rome is the Piazza Navona.

The Piazza is a plaza with three fountains, the most famous of which is the Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) by Bernini.

The fountain and square area is a large oval. Some of my research indicates it represents what was once the competition ground of the Stadium of Domitian. This may or may not be true as the oval also defines the street that runs around the square. What is true is that portions of the stadium remain and are visible when you take a stroll.

One of the striking aspects, maybe because I was only there at night, is how enclosed the area feels. There is no visual continuity for the small streets that lead into the piazza. In other words, you can’t look down the street to see other buildings, etc..

When you’re on a tour looking for the next thing is a natural thing to do. The Piazza Navona, however, forces you to reckon with it, to appreciate it.

The old illustration, soon to be updated. Molly in the Piazza Navona.
The old illustration, soon to be updated. Molly in the Piazza Navona.

There was  another reason for me to appreciate it. I visited Rome as a student in my teens. The excursion to the piazza was not a planned one, and only a couple of students were invited. I was thankful then and continue to be grateful for this.

Then, as now, the piazza had a good place to get gelato. After we confirmed it still existed, there was no question that Molly and Michael would find their way to it. Our contributor to the book, who was born and raised in Rome, agreed it was an excellent place to include.

Part of the charm includes the art market that sets up there. This is depicted in our book where an artist does a drawing for Molly.

If you’re going, particularly if you travel with kids, the Piazza Navona is not to be missed.

 

Notes from Sydney: Roads Not Taken

A couple of weeks ago I shared some things we learned while working on the Shanghai book. These were things we didn’t explain in the book because they were fairly complex or we just didn’t have room. We faced similar decisions on every book.

The process is different every time. I wanted to share some of the thought process because we often are asked about this. Plus, it’s an opportunity to share the attractions and unique places that don’t appear in the books.

Bondi Beach, Logic, and Clothing

World-famous Bondi Beach did not appear in Molly Goes to Sydney. This was not an oversight, we skipped it on purpose and there were good reasons for it.Sydney Front Cover Small

The first of those reasons is geography. This is a good time to reveal a big secret about the Molly and the Magic Suitcase booksGrab a map of Sydney (or any city or country the books visit) and plot out the sites Molly and Michael visit. What do you find? There is a logical pattern. The sites form a sort of trail, or, in the case of Molly Goes to Barcelona, a circle.

Why did I do this? It just seemed like common sense. Molly and Michael spend a day at these destinations. Now, I certainly don’t make the claim that their tour of Peru or Thailand is possible in a single day (without a magic suitcase), but when it’s a different story when it comes to visiting a city. The Sydney book starts at Manly Beach, makes a quick trip up to North Curl Curl, then down to Shelly Beach. From there, the story moves to the Sydney Zoo, then Luna Park (just on the north side of the Sydney Harbor Bridge), and then on to the downtown sites.

Bondi Beach is well south and east of downtown. It didn’t fit the pattern. Plus, there was another factor: it’s somewhat clothing optional. Thankfully, this was discovered in casual conversation. I talked to someone who traveled to Sydney and knew the beach. He said, “I’m surprised you included Bondi Beach.” I was taken aback. It was world famous, why wouldn’t I include it? “Because it’s a topless beach.” Oh.

Our Sydney contributors failed to mention it, probably because they didn’t think it was a big deal or just assumed I knew. Thank goodness for that conversation.

The Powerhouse

The old Ultimo powerhouse in Sydney is now the Powerhouse Museum (aka Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences) and it is geared to children. It’s interactive, has great family programs, exhibits and a focus on “creativity and curiosity.” In short, it is someplace we’ll definitely take the real Molly and Michael. The building would have been an excellent visual.

Alas, it too was a little outside of our geographic trail. It also never came up in our interviews with our two contributors that grew up in Sydney.

There was a timing issue as well. It was the last illustration set for the book and we decided the book was already long enough, so the Powerhouse was cut, even though both Amy and I are looking forward to seeing it.

And the Rest

Arrrgghhh!
Arrrgghhh!

Amy was particularly keen on the World Square and how great it would look as an illustration. A quick internet search shows you just how right she is. But in the end, it is a shopping center and likely not a top priority for our nine (Michael) and ten (Molly) year-old characters. No, the pirate ship is a much more compelling activity for these characters, as well as for our intended early-reader audience.

No trip to Sydney would be complete without an excursion to the Blue Mountains. The “world’s steepest railway” was mentioned by our contributors and I don’t recall any travel resources failing to include it. At a minimum, three more illustrations would have been needed to show the train, a view of the Three Sisters, and the Skyway cable car ride over the canyon. We simply could not fit it into the book. It is also a full-day activity (at least) and there are some time constraints in a day trip to Sydney.

If our intention was to produce an illustrated travel guide, we could make the books as long as we wanted or just have the host character (Wesley, in this case) mention a long list of sites. Other books do this. Because they do, we don’t. Our books are adventure stories and they’re meant to pique a child’s interest in faraway locations and cultures.

All of the places the books visit are enthralling and we try to share things beyond the typical travel book, things specific to kids having a good time. These discoveries are a wonderful thing to share, we love this work. There was never an illusion we could share everything, particularly because our first book was set in Rome. Instead, we want children and parents to discover more about these places together.

The Immersive (Pre)Travel Experience

Many people talk about how travel changes a person. What is it about the experience that changes you? You see, feel, taste, touch, and hear another culture. There is the beginning of an understanding about the people. You detect the general atmosphere or energy of the city.

This doesn’t have to be an overseas or international thing. There are plenty of differences between Indianapolis and San Antonio, or even San Diego and Los Angeles. The two cities are close to each other, but contrast enough to notice a few things. The differences are subtle to others, but probably not to the people that live there.

The illustrator and author at travel (Red Rock Canyon).
The illustrator and author at travel (Red Rock Canyon).

Austria was the first place I had an experience with this. We were in Salzburg, to be precise. Anyplace where mountains hundreds of feet high shoot suddenly from grassy plains must have a few peculiarities. Everything was clean, and it started with the air coming off of the snow-capped mountains. The cool, crisp, mountain-scoured air seemingly inspired the local residents to likewise behaviors within the city. I cannot recall a place as clean as the birthplace of Mozart, and have seen very few (if any) places as beautiful.

That trip also taught another lesson: if you speak even a bit of the local language, everything is different. A barrier is breached. Locals in many places throughout the world will breach the barrier willingly and show their hospitality, but if you do it and show just a hint of your awareness of the culture, the smiles will be bigger, the laughs heartier, the conversations more open.

Molly and the Magic Suitcase LogoI was pretty young and some of the adding of two and two happened after the fact. Just a few years later I had a much keener experience. This time the city was Washington, D. C.. The Washington I experienced was in a presidential inaugural year. There was energy, probably much more than at other times, there was a fast pace, and there was time to explore. That was the key.

Molly and Michael play Sepak Takraw with friend Yung in Thailand.
Molly and Michael play Sepak Takraw with friend Yung in Thailand.

When we conceived Molly and the Magic Suitcase one of our main goals was to provide an immersive experience. Our characters Molly and Michael do not make the tourist rounds reading from a guide book. There is much value in that, but showing what is in the city only partially gives a sense of being there. Molly and Michael begin the journey by befriending a local.

We begin the process of developing each book the same way by interviewing people from the places and others that have traveled there often. In the story, the local boy or girl that helps Molly and Michael essentially speaks with the voice of our contributors. There are a few instances where the characters’ dialogue is a direct quotation. When Yung talks about his favorite dessert in Molly Goes to Thailand, the words are from someone savoring the memory of the flavor. When Marco explains the game elastico in Molly Goes to Rome, it is the remembered youth of someone that grew up there.

These are the ways we seek to give children and their parents a brief immersion into the sights and culture of the many places our books visit. Even an eyewitness account from us wouldn’t be enough to deliver the same experience. Whether or not there is an opportunity to go, you can travel and share the experience with your kids.

Notes from ‘Molly Goes to Shanghai’

This is not something I’ve done before. Consider it the “special features” section on a DVD. I wanted to record some of my thoughts (and/or the shared thoughts between Amy and I) and learning experiences while working on the books. These posts include things we learned that are not shared in the books, as well as the thoughts behind the content we did share.

Shanghai Vibe

The city is busy, fast, modern, and perhaps a bit more worldly than the capital in Beijing. This mirrors the differences between New York City and Washington, D. C. here. One travel article I encountered said that taking the high-speed maglev train from the airport into the city was a perfect introduction to Shanghai because of the high speed. The words “fast” and “fashion” were the first used to describe the city when I interviewed our contributor.

The skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.
The skyline of the Pudong area of Shanghai as seen from the Bund.

She said that Shanghai men are immaculately dressed. Not in terms of social events, but for business. Tailored suits, precisely-manipulated hair, expensive imported shoes, a Shanghainese businessman spares no expense in terms of appearance. Well, there is likely a lot of competition in the world’s most populous city, so I can understand looking for an edge. Li, our contributor, did not talk about the fashion habits of Shanghai businesswomen.

There is a sense in the city that it is elite. It has long been a trading center. When Deng Xiaopeng instituted economic reforms in China (1978), many coastal cities were given some economic leeway. He left out Shanghai. This was in spite of the city’s status as a driver of the economy. In this, perhaps the city’s elitism worked against it. I recently read Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng and it gives the impression that the city was never quite tamed, at least in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party.

No matter, the reforms extended to Shanghai in 1992. Since then, the famous new skyline of the Pudong area of the city arose. More than a little of it was the result of investment from firms in Hong Kong and overseas. As the buildings grew, so did the population.

Language

Another important piece of the “elite” self-image is language. In China there are, in the main, two languages: Mandarin and Cantonese. There are also a number of other forms of the language and Molly Goes to Shanghai Calligraphy Smallthey share aspects of one of these. Wu Chinese shares the same characters (spelling) as Mandarin, but the pronunciation is different. Shanghai has its own dialect of Wu that is called Shanghainese.

I have contradictory information about Shanghainese. The thoughts shared, at the same time, is that a Mandarin speaker cannot understand a Shanghainese speaker, but they speak the same language. This is true, from what I’ve learned, with many phrases. The differences are in pronunciation. However, Shanghainese is more expressive than Mandarin. That is, it has a larger vocabulary so the language is more descriptive. This means a Mandarin speaker would not recognize at least some words, possibly many. A Shanghai native could write down something the Mandarin speaker understood, but then say it aloud and be incomprehensible.

Crossroads

Shanghai is open to the ocean via the Yangtze River. It is the longest river in Asia and third longest in the world. As such, Shanghai is not only open to the ocean, but also to the interior. It’s important to note, for geography quiz purposes, that the city is not actually located on the banks of the Yangtze, but on its last major tributary (the Huangpu) before it empties into the East China Sea.

It is also roughly located in the middle of the two dominant cultures of China. We’re painting with a broad brush here, but there are, essentially, two major cultures within China, the North and the South. Some commentators say Shanghai is its own culture somewhere between and I am inclined to agree. Anyway, because of all these factors, geographical and cultural, Shanghai is at the center of things. This is also true politically as Shanghai politicians often have significant influence on national politics.

 

These are a few of the things I learned while researching Molly Goes to Shanghai. It is a privilege to learn so much while working. It makes it fun. Thanks for reading!

From End to Beginning (Creativity Part III)

Let’s take a moment. I know this doesn’t need to be said, but here it is: everyone’s approach to creativity is different. That said, I talked to a friend today who also writes and consults in marketing about his approach to the process. It was basically the same as mine.

Finish at the Start

The end dictates everything that happens. Because this is true, you have to start with the end. Story arc is something I always cover when we speak at elementary schools. It’s an easy thing with the illustrated series because the stories start and end at Molly and Michael’s house. There are many other elements we present, but the story itself ends where it begins, with knowledge gained.

It is, naturally, different with a longer story and the example genre here is a mystery. There is a sought outcome that may or many not involve location, but has everything to do with knowledge. The knowledge may be a location, or who did it–basically, the resolution of the main conflict. Items must be found, secrets uncovered, clues understood, trials faced, shortcomings overcome, and villains defeated. Some of it happens along the way. The story’s goal must be clear, both to writer and, eventually, reader. Everything in your story arc must serve the story resolution.

At our most recent school talk.
At our most recent school talk.

You have to know the end before you begin. If you do not, there is nothing to direct where the story goes. Obscure the end, make it uncertain to the reader, but be certain for the purpose of writing.

Wide Open Choices

The Shield of Horatius is a story about a lost artifact. That was the resolution I sought. So…where do I start?

It’s much easier to see the process in hindsight. I introduced the story of the artifact, its user, its protector, and then its finders (while also revealing the reason for their journey). It is a four-and-a-half page introduction that spans 2,500 years. It’s not a dry introduction, the first two segments take place in the heat of battle. Actually, I didn’t write the first segment, it is quoted from the Roman historian Livy. The second segment is historical fabrication on my part, though it takes place during events that are part of the historical record. The third part (re)introduces two of the main characters.

There was an end, now there is a beginning.

Creative?

How do we go from Point A to Point B? There must be points along the way. We move, within the story, in increments that inform, shock, frighten, endear, or produce any other effect we want to have on the reader. The goal is twofold: move toward the end and keep the reader interested.

It is at this point that you stop looking at the whole process as “creative.” Why? Because you’re filling gaps, doing things that make sense, creating the necessary events to lead to a plausible and exciting conclusion. You’re creative at every turn–varying sentence structure, using vivid language, revealing character–but it doesn’t seem so. For the writer, it’s a straight line from beginning to end, though the story may (and should) include twists and turns.

That is why creative process, in this context, is difficult to describe. There is no ritual I can give someone to think creatively. When you have the end and know where to start, the rest reveals itself. It doesn’t have the feel of creation, it is just storytelling. The thing is, and this is difficult to remember, the story only exists inside of you. No one else knows even if it is something that in your mind seems so clear.

And it is clear, or will be when things are going well. Things line up, twists pop to mind, the story pours out of you…when things go well.

When things don’t go well, there are a few things that help and we’ll discuss those next time.