If you yearn and burn to be a writer, how can you make that a reality? From the time I was a teenager, I wanted writing to be my life’s work. But even though I loved to write, how to become a writer stumped me. I thought education must be the answer and had master’s degrees in both English and journalism before I realized that the only one who could harness and develop my inner writer—my writing soul—was me. Like most writers before me, I had to mostly teach myself what I needed to know. I have since published hundreds of articles and a dozen books.
While writing a book about Charles Dickens, I was surprised to learn that even he—one of the greatest writers of all—also had to teach himself. Because of family circumstances, he had only two years of formal schooling, so he learned the fine points of grammar and style on his own. Beginning at age fifteen, he worked upward through a series of jobs until, based solely on his writing ability, he became a newspaper reporter. In his spare time he wrote stories, articles, sketches, essays, editorials, theatre reviews, and plays. Gradually he began getting published in a monthly magazine. It didn’t pay him, but he was honing his craft, finding and training his voice as a writer. Then a publisher who liked his magazine stories gave him the opportunity to write his first novel—and the rest is history.
My advice to you is Dickens’ advice to you: don’t wait for someone to give you permission to be a writer or to teach you how. Give yourself permission. Teach yourself. Just write. Do it every day. Write about what you see, what you feel, what you dream. Make up stories. Observe people closely: what they wear, how they speak, what they do, how they feel and why. Learn how to write articles and essays. Study your favorite authors and pattern your work after theirs. Don’t worry that you are mimicking them, for you will find your own style. Trust me on this. Draw from the wisdom and skill of writers who have gone before you, because everything you need to know, you can learn from them. When you’re ready, publication will follow.
Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
If you want to become a writer, start now.
Be a writer.
Charles Dickens at age 37
(c) Andrea Warren 2014
Andrea Warren often teaches writing classes, and she often talks about Charles Dickens and how writing ultimately comes down to teaching yourself. Warren talks more about the writing process on her website, And to learn more about Charles Dickens and his quest to become a writer, check out her book, "Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London."
Andrea Warren is also a member of Authors on Call. Bring her into your classroom via interactive video conferencing. Here’s where you can learn more about her and her programs.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "How Do You Become a Writer? Ask Charles Dickens." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 21 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/how-do-you-become-a-writer-ask-charles-dickens.
Charles Loring Brace, a young Presbyterian minister with a big heart, was deeply distressed at the plight of the tens of thousands of abandoned children who roamed the streets of New York City in the early 1850s. Brace saw them everywhere. To stay alive, they had to beg and steal. In even the coldest weather, they had to sleep outdoors.
Some of the street children were orphans. Others had been turned out by parents too poor to feed them. Or they had become lost in the vast city, or had run away because of abuse. Many were the children of immigrants and had no other family in this country.
Brace was determined to do something. He raised money and started the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to assist homeless children. While he started several beneficial programs for them, mostly he wanted to find them families—ones that would nurture, protect, and love them. Small town and farm folks would be best, he reasoned. He felt they were goodhearted and would be touched by the children’s plight and want to help. The child they took would help with chores and field work, just as all children did at that time.
Could such a plan work? He decided to find out.
So began what was soon known as the orphan trains. CAS assumed guardianship of orphans and children whose families couldn’t—or wouldn’t—care for them. Many lived in CAS facilities for months, growing strong and ready for travel. Then, in groups averaging 25 to 50, the children boarded trains dressed in new clothing, hair neatly trimmed, and bibles in hand. Posters went up in small towns along the tracks, announcing when the children would arrive. When they did, they were lined up, looked over, and matched with interested families. Whenever possible, CAS agents traveling with the children placed siblings together or near each other. They also tried to follow up on every placement, moving children to new homes if there were problems.
Between 1854 and 1930, a quarter-million children made this journey in search of families to call their own. Sometimes they were taken only to be laborers or were never truly loved or accepted. But for most it worked well, and for some it worked splendidly. Said one rider who found a happy home at the end of the ride, “My life began when I got off that train.”
Giving Voice to Children in History
One of the joys of research is uncovering the unexpected. Most recently this happened to me when I was writing Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London. Dickens was a patron of the London Foundling Hospital, a charitable home for orphans founded in 1741. (Foundlings were children whose parents were unknown, and hospital meant shelter back then.)
Researching the Foundling, I learned that a century before Dickens, German composer George Frederic Handel was one of its greatest benefactors. I thought this must be a mistake since he was German. Curious, I took a side journey into Handel’s life to find out.
Brimming with musical talent, Handel moved to London at age 26 to find work and quickly became a popular composer and performer. He decided to stay, eventually becoming a British citizen. Londoners readily recognized him, for he was a great bear of a man who wore stylish clothes and an enormous wig. He spoke with a thick German accent, and when angry, his words tumbled together in German, Italian, and English. He never married or had children, but he had a big heart and readily assisted the needy and destitute, especially children. It’s been said that no other composer contributed so much to the relief of human suffering.
He often helped charities by donating all proceeds from a concert. In 1749 when he learned that the Foundling did not have funds for its proposed chapel, he offered a concert to introduce his newest composition, Messiah. The packed audience was enthralled. A second concert quickly sold out, and the chapel was completed.
Handel became a member of the Foundling’s Board of Governors and continued his financial assistance by personally directing Messiah in the chapel at least once a year, always to overflow crowds. When the king attended a performance, he stood for the “Hallelujah Chorus”--and audiences have been standing ever since. Because Handel knew people would pay to see it, he willed the Foundling an original copy of Messiah.
I listen to Handel’s compositions differently now. It’s no longer mere music from the past; instead, it feels alive, created by a fascinating man with a charitable heart who helped provide for orphans. I attend Messiah whenever I can, and when we all stand for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” I smile to myself, feeling a strong connection to history, for I know exactly why we are doing it.
As much as Andrea Warren loves writing, she also loves research. Getting distracted can pay off, because she's now writing a book on a subject she discovered while researching another book. To learn more about Handel and how he not only helped the poor but also inspired Charles Dickens, take a look at Warren's book "Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London." You'll learn more about it and about her other books at www.AndreaWarren.com .
Andrea is also a member of Authors on Call. Bring her into your classroom via interactive video conferencing. Here’s where you can learn more about her and her programs.
Giving Voice to Children in History
In the late 1800's when homesteaders first located their new claims in the Midwest, some saw nothing in any direction but tall prairie grass. On 160 acres of windswept land, there might not be a single tree. But these settlers were resourceful. They set to work building homes and barns from the one thing they had in abundance: the sod beneath their feet.
Because the soil had never been tilled, roots were tightly packed, and sod could be cut from the earth in three-foot- thick blocks. The sod houses that settlers built stood up well to harsh Midwest weather. Sod was a natural insulator, keeping out cold in winter, and heat in summer, while wood houses, which usually had no insulation, were just the opposite: always too hot or too cold. Another advantage of a soddy was that it offered protection from fire, wind, and tornadoes.
But a soddy also had drawbacks. Dirt constantly sifted down from the ceiling, making it almost impossible to keep clean. Rain or melting snow caused water to work its way through the roof and walls and run in trails along the floor, turning it to mud. Settlers actually used umbrellas or wore jackets—not to mention boots--to keep dry. Heavy rains and snow put the roof at risk of collapsing under the extra weight. If the soddy was built into a hillside and the family cow decided to graze on the roof, the cow could come crashing through the ceiling, especially if it had rained or snowed recently.
The worst drawback was insects and critters. Blocks of sod were home to fleas, ticks, mice, worms, and even snakes. One settler reported a snake dropping down from the rafters right onto the table at dinnertime. And a young mother never got over finding a snake curled up with her baby. Before getting up in the morning, folks learned to look under the bed first--because you just never knew.
In spite of this, lots of settlers loved their soddies and stuck with them even after they could afford to have wood shipped in to build what most people considered to be a proper house. They added on rooms, plastered all the walls, and installed wood floors and ceilings to keep the critters out. With that done, living in a soddy suited them just fine. And when the soddy needed repairs, they merely stepped outside, looked down—and there was their building material.
You can learn more about what it was like to live in a sod house in Andrea Warren's nonfiction book for young readers,Pioneer Girl: A True Story of Growing Up on the Prairie.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Snakes on the Dinner Table! Life in a Sod House." Nonfiction
Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Incoming shell! Whenever ten-year-old Lucy McRae heard that distinctive sound, she froze, allowing the explosive to fly on over her. Then she hurried into the safety of the family’s cave.
It was 1863 and Vicksburg, Mississippi, was being bombarded by Union artillery. It was located strategically on the Mississippi River. All along the waterfront, Confederate cannon prevented Union ships from taking control of the river and using it to invade the South. President Lincoln said that for the North to win the war, those cannons must be silenced. He selected General Ulysses Grant to force Vicksburg to surrender.
Grant’s army sieged the city of 5,000, cutting off food supplies and fresh water. Then he rained shells day and night on the Confederate troops defending Vicksburg and on its terrified civilians. But townspeople had no intention of giving up. Most of their men were off fighting, but those remaining were stalwart: there would be no surrender.
Instead, they dug more than 500 caves into the sides of Vicksburg’s many hills, where they took refuge. Everyone lived side by side, rich and poor, masters and slaves. Cooking tents were set up outside the entrances, and during lulls in shelling, residents hastily prepared whatever food they had. Lucy always stayed outside until the moment shelling started again.
The caves were hot, dark, dank, and crowded, and were home to spiders, scorpions, lizards, mosquitoes, and snakes. “It was living like tree roots,” one woman said. People brought in rugs, bedding, books and favorite artwork to make their surroundings more tolerable. Sometimes there were close calls when a shell hit a cave. Once Lucy was buried under a mound of sliding dirt for several minutes. When her frantic mother pulled her out, she gasped for air, her mouth and nose full of dirt.
Although the town was severely damaged by the shelling, because of the caves only a dozen people died in the forty-seven-day siege. Townspeople wanted to hold out, but daily rations of water and food were almost gone, forcing the city’ surrender on July 4, 1863.
The South’s loss of Vicksburg helped the North win the war. But the bravery of townspeople like Lucy, who held fast in the face of overwhelming odds, was never in dispute.
Howard Pyle painting of terrorized people spotting a rocket shell.
Photo of a cave entrance after the siege., Note the unexploded shells.
If you’d like to know more about the Siege of Vicksburg, Andrea Warren tells the whole story of Lucy and other children caught up in that dramatic event in her award-winning book Under Siege! Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg. For more on her books, visit her website at AndreaWarren.com.
Andrea Warren is a member of Authors on Call. Here's a link to her interactive video conference: What Children Experienced in the Civil War: Three Young People at the Siege of Vicksburg. (Note to teachers: you may have to register at CILC to reach this website. It's free and it's a GREAT resource).
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Living in Caves to Survive the Siege of Vicksburg." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 3 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Living-in-Caves-to-Survive-the-Siege-of-Vicksburg.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
that 30 People Who Changed the World has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) & the Children’s Book Council