Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome Brandon Marie Miller, an author who writes extraordinary YA. Check out her new YA biography Robert E. Lee, The Man, The Soldier, The Myth, published by Calkins Creek/Boyds Mill & Kane, and see her journey below…
BUT first- YAY! Brandon is generously giving away a free signed copy of her book (US only). All you have to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends June 18, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for Robert E. Lee, The Man, The Soldier, The Myth.
I had written for editor Carolyn Yoder years ago, and through another author, I heard she was interested in a bio of Lee. I spent a few months working up a proposal (book overview, annotated outline, market analysis, competing titles, author bio, proposed bibliography, and sample chapter) and they offered a contract based on the proposal. Then the real work started! A note here: Lee did not follow the project described in my book proposal. The finished book went from MG 40,000 words, 8 chapters to YA 70,000 plus words, 20 chapters. It truly is a journey!
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration?
Robert E. Lee is one of the most mythologized men in American history. I hoped this book might help young people question what myths we are taught as history. For instance, some people today believe firmly that Lee did not own slaves, he did not believe in white supremacy, and that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. But all of these things are true. Having Lee in the news as I researched and wrote the book put extra pressure on me. I needed to give my readers context for Lee’s time that helps us understand our own. I needed to use Lee’s own words to help readers discover the real man, and not just the symbol that was too-good-to-be-true. That was my inspiration.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project?
My books are MG or YA history and biography, so I pretty much follow the same process for each. I start with research because you cannot write what you don’t know! I put together a list of books and articles (tip: scour the bibliographies in other books to find great resources) and search for documents, images, and other sources online. I begin with general books and articles on the subject and then narrow my focus onto different aspects of my topic. Most importantly, as well as secondary sources, I use primary sources like period letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, etc. If possible, I visit places and soak up details. And I talk to experts. But before you travel or talk to someone have enough research under your belt to make it meaningful. When I feel I have a firm grasp on my subject, I start writing.
I break things down into “scenes”. I love incorporating quotes from my primary sources—these add intimacy, immediacy, and sensory details to the story. My favorite part of the process is revision where I take my first drafts and make a mess of things. A large part of this is done not on the computer, but old-fashioned brain, to hand, to paper, with a row of sharpened pencils and a pink eraser. Also, keep careful track of your sources. It’s miserable when you need to find where a quote came from, and you don’t have it written down.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book.
Set up: Lee has just surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865
“Lee left the house and mounted Traveller. Union officers in the yard raised their hats as a show of respect as he rode by. Word of his surrender spread like an electric current through the ranks on both sides. When he reached his camp, hundreds of ragged, loyal men broke their lines and engulfed Traveller, reaching out to touch Lee, touch his horse. Tears streamed down Lee’s cheeks and men cried at this, the end, the loss. But there was also a numb sense of relief that the blood and carnage was over. Lee tried to speak but failed, so overcome with emotion.”
How long does it take you to research and craft YA nonfiction?
It takes me at least a year once the contract is signed and a few times I’ve had to ask for more time. I also do the photo research for my books which is time consuming finding images and applying for permissions. After I’ve turned in my manuscript there are still months of work ahead with editorial and copy editor notes and questions. And there are also source notes, the bibliography, index, timeline and other back matter to create.
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
Right now I am switching things up working on a couple YA historical novels based on previous research. Will these manuscripts ever find a publishing home? I have no idea, but for a nonfiction writer it is fun and freeing to MAKE STUFF UP!
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts.
There are so many wonderful writers tackling history and biography for young people. Some of my favorites include MG and YA books by Deborah Heiligman, Candace Fleming, Gail Jarrow, Steve Sheinkin, and PB by Carole Boston Weatherford, Don Tate, and Lesa-Cline Ransome.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Find the little gems in your primary sources for insights, details, and the emotion to carry you and your reader through to the end.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
Long ago I had a horse and I’d love to experience the power of running free with your ears flat, the wind tossing your mane, and the rhythmic tattoo of your hooves on the ground!
Brandon Marie Miller writes award-winning history and biography for young people. She writes about famous people and common folk, about great events and everday life. Her newest book, ROBERT E. LEE, THE MAN, THE SOLDIER, THE MYTH earned a starred review from Booklist and was named a National Council for the Social Studies/Children’s Book Council Notable Book, a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year, and an Illinois Reads Title. Her books have also been honored by the International Reading Association, the New York and Chicago Public Libraries, and YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association/American Library Association), among others. A long time ago she earned her degree in American History at Purdue University and lives in Cincinnati OH where she drinks tea and eats dark chocolate.
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