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.
by Andrea Warren-Giving Voice to Children in History
St. Paul's Cathedral during the blitz of World War II.
When I interview people in my work as a writer, I soak up the stories they share about their lives. This is what brings history alive. I’ve always wished for a way to interview historic buildings, because they could tell stories from such a different perspective, having seen it all and heard it all. My dream interview would be St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a place rich with history—and therefore, with stories.
I have learned that those with the most to say can be wary of interviewers. Sometimes employing a little charm can help them warm up. So I would begin by complimenting St. Paul’s on how wonderful it looks for a building that opened in 1708. I would reference its great architect, Christopher Wren, who was also an astronomer and mathematician, as is evidenced in many of its design elements. I’d mention its magnificent dome and its massive booming bells that can be heard for miles.
“You’re the prize jewel in a city rich in architectural beauty,” I’d say. “No wonder so many notables have been baptized, married, and had their funerals here.”
Flattered but still reserved, St. Paul’s might ask me what I like best about it. “I have two favorites,” I would reply earnestly, mentioning first the Crypt, where many of England’s war heroes are buried, along with famous painters and poets. (Writers and composers are at nearby Westminster Abbey). Other notables, like Florence Nightingale and Lawrence of Arabia, are here, too. It’s altogether quite a congenial place.
Starting to thaw a bit, St. Paul’s might wonder aloud about my second favorite, and I would single out the American Memorial Chapel, located behind the High Altar and dedicated to the memory of the 28,000 Americans who died defending England in World War II.
“And speaking of that war,” I would tell St. Paul’s, “I am awed by Londoners’ resolve that you, their national treasure, would not be destroyed during the Blitz when so much of the city burned. Volunteer firefighters, both men and women, were stationed at all times on your roof. When bombs exploded, starting fires, they were right there to put them out, a number of them sacrificing their lives.”
St. Paul’s would nod, remembering.
“The British love you very much,” I would say.
St. Paul’s would pause, clear its throat, and then reply, “Let me tell you some of my stories.”
© Andrea Warren, 2014
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "How to Interview a Historic Building." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 13 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/category/warren-andrea.
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.”
Buffalo Bill was the ultimate showman, the superstar of the fabled Wild West show that toured America, Europe, and Russia for forty years. He was so famous that he performed for the queen of England and was friends with several American presidents.
But who was the person behind that celebrated name?
He was born William Frederick Cody in 1846 and called Billy. When he was eight, his family moved to Kansas Territory to become homesteaders. Kansas was in turmoil over the issue of joining the Union as a free or a slave state. Billy’s father, who opposed slavery, was stabbed by a pro-slaver. He died three years later from his injury, leaving eleven-year-old Billy, the eldest son, to support his mother and six siblings. Jobs were scarce, but Billy was already an expert horseman and a hard worker. A freight company paid him a man’s wages to work on supply wagons headed west. When he was just fourteen, he rode the Pony Express. He learned to be a trapper, trail guide, scout, and fine marksman. These dangerous jobs allowed him to care for his family while doing work he loved.
When the Civil War started in 1861, seventeen-year-old Billy enlisted, becoming a Union soldier, scout, and spy. After the war he worked as a civilian guide for the army, fought in the Indian Wars, and earned the nickname Buffalo Bill from Kansas railroad workers amazed by his skill in downing buffalo to provide meat for them. He used that name when he created a show about the Old West that he loved so much—and which was fast disappearing.
His show debuted in 1883 and was immediately successful. It featured sharpshooter Annie Oakley, hundreds of Native Americans, trick riders, cowboys and cowgirls, a runaway stagecoach, buffalo, and horses galore. People loved it, and Bill grew famous.
So who was he? A showman, yes, but also a generous philanthropist, a conservationist of western lands, and a supporter of women’s rights. When necessary, he fought Native Americans, but also befriended them. He paid them fairly and brought them recognition and dignity by featuring them in his show.
Above all, he was always Billy Cody, a brave boy who cared for his family and fought for his country, a boy who loved the West and brought it to life for millions of enthralled viewers around the world. He was truly an American icon.
To learn more about Buffalo Bill’s childhood, you’ll want to read Andrea Warren’s newest book, The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas. Learn more about all her books at AndreaWarren.com.
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.
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.
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