Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
I’m Kirsten W. Larson, a self-professed geek. I used to work for NASA, but now I write nonfiction books for curious kids. I’ve written 20+ books for young readers on topics from tsunamis to space robots. My next book is WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane (Calkins Creek). The book, for ages 7 and up, is illustrated by Tracy Subisak and will hit bookshelves in February 2020 (but you can preorder now).
What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
Emma Lilian Todd was the first woman to successfully design a working airplane on her own. It flew in 1910, just seven years after the Wright Brothers made their celebrated first flight over Kitty Hawk. Lilian was a self-taught engineer and inventor, and her work was widely covered in newspapers during the period; however, in the last century she’s been largely lost to history.
What inspires/inspired your creativity?
Curiosity always inspires me. I try to stay open to ideas, which are everywhere. I’ve found story ideas reading books and magazines, watching TV shows and movies, traveling, visiting museum exhibits, and so much more! I keep an electronic story file with people and ideas I find interesting. When I’m ready for the next project, I start going through my files and see what I really connect with.
How do you deal with creative block?
I think of each book as a puzzle. I have the pieces – the facts – but I have to find my edges and figure out how to shape the pieces into a whole. I love research, but finding a story’s structure is where it gets really fun. I try lots of different things – different points of view, voices, tenses, approaches. Often I finally see the big picture when I’m not overly focused, but am just letting my mind wander. This can happen during a shower, a walk, yoga, or meditation. While I’m thinking, I read mentor texts to see how other authors have dealt with similar issues.
How has your creation process improved over time?
Having been through the book-making process multiple times, I have a better sense of my particular process. During research there will be a point where I flounder and feel completely disorganized, until I figure out what information I need and where to get it. There will be a time when I think the draft is truly terrible, and I have no business being an author. But the awareness that I’ve been in these spots many times before helps me know it ultimately will be ok. And that encourages me to stick with it. This doesn’t mean every draft becomes a book, but I do know when something has the potential to come together, and I’m just in a difficult place temporarily.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
When sifting through story ideas, I consider my reader and what they might connect with. But, honestly, I can’t write a topic I haven’t first fallen in love with. Picture books take 3 to 4 years from acquisition to publication. And that doesn’t include the year or two I’ve spent writing and rewriting before an editor has acquired the project. During that long drafting (and redrafting) process I always write for myself. I’ve learned when I’m over the moon with a draft, it’s highly likely my agent and an editor will love it to. And since there’s no guarantee an editor will buy my book ever, my definition of success has always been knowing in my heart I wrote the book I wanted to write.
With that said, because I write for children, I do have to consider their experience and point of view. I constantly ask myself, “What does my reader need to know to understand this story?” and ,“Would this bore a nine-year-old?”
Do you have any creativity tricks?
As I mentioned, I’ve learned a lot about my process over the past few years. I always have to write a kitchen sink draft filled with every fact and figure. Once I have that timeline in place, I can let it go and finally focus on the pictures and the beauty of the language.
When revising, I make a separate file where I dump any sentences I delete from the main draft, and I always save subsequent versions as new files. Somehow this helps me feel freer about changing things since I know my darlings aren’t really dead – just sleeping in another file, ready if I need them.
I often switch back and forth between computer and pencil in my journal. Sometimes “sketching” my ideas with words on thumbnails helps free me up creatively since picture books are art driven. Or I dummy up a little book, cutting and pasting text, and sketching pictures (even though I don’t illustrate my books). This helps me see what part of the story the art can carry vs. what I have to say with words.
And, as mentioned previously, I always rely on mentor texts to help me figure out how others have solved problems in their own drafts before me.
What are your plans for future books?
I have another nonfiction picture book scheduled for fall 2021 and a third under contract. And of course many more drafts living on my computer. Folks can keep up with my work at kirsten-w-larson.com or by following me on Twitter and Instagram @KirstenWLarson.