This Tree Has a Story

Tree #9 This Three Has a Story Photo by Sandy Malcolm

Tree #9, This Three Has a Story
Photo by Sandy Malcolm

When my friend, Karen Saltmarsh, told me that she wanted to write a book of creative writing prompts for kids, I said, “Let’s do it!” (You know that I can’t turn down a good book project.)

Karen has been an educator for 28 years, and she was one of my son Peter’s kindergarten teachers. Karen’s dream was to inspire children to tell creative stories, just as she taught her own children.

Amelia Island Plantation is where it started. First with her son and then two daughters, Karen immersed them in the wonder of nature on a daily basis. Any time they came across an unusual-looking tree, Karen prompted them to tell a story for how the tree came to be like that. “This tree has a story,” she would say.

This Tree Has a Story Cover Photo by Sandy Malcolm

This Tree Has a Story Cover
Photo by Sandy Malcolm

During her 28 years as a teacher, Karen has seen a number of changes, some welcome, others not as much. Twenty-eight  years ago, there wasn’t a TV in every classroom, much less a computer. And while technology has brought so many conveniences, so many benefits, there’s an enormous downside. Twenty-eight years ago, kids didn’t spend all afternoon sitting in front of their TVs playing video games. How many times have you heard someone reminisce (or reminisced, yourself) about the days when they came home from school and went right outside to play, only coming in reluctantly at suppertime?

A number of factors have contributed to this change, and while there still are many kids who do get to enjoy the outdoors, 21st century children are wired differently. As infants, they learn how to operate touch-screens. They understand texting and Facebook updates, even if they don’t have their own accounts. But here’s the thing: kids are still wired to love the simple act of playing. I’m talking about going outside and kicking a ball around. Or climbing a tree. Or looking for lizards. (Can you tell I’m a mom of boys?) When I was a kid, I pretended that azalea leaves were money. I learned how to suck the nectar from a honeysuckle. I ran laps around the backyard. I dug for roly polies. And even when I was bored, I went outside and whispered stories to myself.

There’s not enough of that going on anymore, and as a teacher, Karen has seen the negative results of this firsthand. In a time when brevity and instant gratification prevail, it seems that creativity and imagination are often shoved to the side. But when children have the opportunity to explore and create, amazing things happen.

When Karen first shared with me the dream that she’d been harboring for 25 years, she explained it as a book of writing prompts. But not just any prompts. She wanted to inspire children – children who are babysat by Nickelodeon or mom’s iPad, kids who live on the Xbox – to learn the art of storytelling in the same way that she taught her own children.

Our first step was to find interesting trees. At first, we collected photos from all over the country, but as we developed the book, the focus shifted from interesting or odd or unique trees in general to the trees of Amelia Island. It was the place where Karen received her original inspiration, so it seemed appropriate to start there. (But never fear, there is a short section with photos from other regions, too.)

We narrowed it down to 12 Amelia Island trees. As you can see from the cover photo, we included some really interesting ones. Karen chose one of these photos (the one at the top of this post, in fact) and decided to test her theory on kids in her own kindergarten class.

When I saw Karen that afternoon, she was practically bursting. “It works!” I think it was overwhelming for her to imagine her dream coming to fruition, but then to see it at work – it went beyond her expectations.

When Karen sat down with her kindergarteners, she simply showed them a photo and asked if they could tell a story about that particular tree. I did the same at home with Peter, who is a year older. Peter’s story, plus two from Karen’s students, are included in the introduction of our book.

Karen’s original vision was for the target age group to be from kindergarten to second grade, the years when students are really learning how to spell and write and structure. But after receiving some professional guidance from a child psychologist, we broadened the spectrum to K through 12 – and, of course, it doesn’t have to stop there.

If only we stop to look around, we can find a story in almost anything, and trees are a great place to start. There’s been quite a learning curve in structuring and formatting this book. We’ve searched, and as far as we can tell, there’s not another creative writing book like this on the market. This is wonderful and scary at the same time. Wonderful because we can do anything we want and not be expected to confine ourselves to some pre-existing convention. Scary because it was a challenge to figure out exactly what we wanted to do.

But we finally took This Tree Has a Story to print, and it’s now available. In addition to the trees, our photographer, Sandy Malcolm, took some wonderful photos of wildlife in the trees. These were too good to pass up, so there’s going to be a sequel. But first…

We’re going to conduct a pilot study, and we’re going to do it over the entire spectrum. We were wowed by the stories from the kindergarteners. I can only imagine what we might get from older kids. Kids who are going through adolescent trials. Kids who may never have tried to create a story before. Kids who don’t realize what kind of potential they harbor, that’s just waiting to be stimulated by, I don’t know, an interesting tree.

Karen and I are so excited, and we have lots of plans for our new book, not the least of which is that a portion of our proceeds will go to help preserve or plant trees in areas that have suffered from erosion and natural disasters.

I’m giving away 30 advanced reader copies, so you can conduct your own creative writing study with your students or children. If you’d like to throw your name into the hat, or if you have any other questions, please contact us via the contact form below.

The Proud Authors! Sarah Cotchaleovitch and Karen Saltmarsh

The Proud Authors!
Sarah Cotchaleovitch and Karen Saltmarsh

So You Want to Write a Book – Well, Now What?

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Has this ever happened to you? You’re with a group of people – let’s say a moms’ group, with everyone exchanging tips and anecdotes – and someone says, “We could write a book.”

“We really could!” someone else chimes in.

Another mom even throws in a title: “Temper Tantrum on Aisle Four – How to Survive the Toddler Years!”

Everyone laughs, and they go about their lives and forget about it. But you linger on the thought that maybe you could write a book. Then again, the idea that you don’t know how to start – and what would make your book any more special than any other, any more worthy of the New York Times Bestseller List? – is intimidating, so your idea stays an idea and no more.

On the one hand, you might be right. Everyone does have a story (or three), and some of them aren’t worth telling (and those are the ones that seem to be repeated the most). But any time you impart a nugget of knowledge to someone else who seems to get something out of it, you feel that I-should-really-write-this tug.

Nowadays, blogs (much like this one) pick up the slack. A mom blogs about potty-training her strong-willed toddler, and other moms unite behind her or take comfort that they aren’t alone in the struggle. A man loses his job but figures out how to make a living from home – and writes a great how-to post. Someone with an incredible weight-loss story posts a menu and workout routine online to help others in the same situation. Blogs are great resources, and the topics they cover are endless.

But still, there are those for whom blogging and swapping stories around the water cooler aren’t enough. The problem is that they aren’t necessarily writers and don’t know what to do. The idea persists, won’t let them go.

Sometimes for decades.

I get all kinds of mixed reactions when people find out that I’m a writer. They want to know what I write. (“Novels? How can you write so much?”) They want to know how much freelance work I can handle. (“How do you manage it with two kids?”) They marvel that I’ve actually made an occupation out of this – you know, it’s not just a cute hobby. (“You mean you edit and write for a living?”)

And sometimes they ask me, kind of sheepishly, if I can help them with something they’ve been wanting to do for years.

One such person is a client of my parents’ business and happened to mention to my mom that she had a writing project. My mother said that I’m a writer, and the next time the woman came in, I was there. I gave her my business card and promptly forgot about it. I talk to a lot of people about my services, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to hire me.

A few weeks later, to my surprise, she called. She went into great detail about this project, one that she started over ten years ago. Her kids have been encouraging her to write a memoir because she’s led such an interesting life, but she doesn’t use computers, and the woman who helped her start it has been too busy to continue.

As I talked to this woman and learned her story, I realized that there are so many people who lead amazing lives, but some of the best details will die with them. They may not have a great command of the English language, but they have stories worth passing on. It would be a shame for this woman to never see her dream fulfilled just because she’s not a “writer.” I feel privileged to help her share her bit of history with her family.

Another opportunity arose in late May. I had just published my children’s book Hero (shameless plug – buy it here!), and Peter shared it with his kindergarten class. Afterward, one of his teachers mentioned that she has always wanted to write a book but needs help.

“Sure, let’s do it,” I said before I even knew what she wanted. Hey, I had just illustrated and published my first children’s book – I was flying high and felt like I could do anything.

Her face lit up as she described her 20-year dream. She used to take her children for bike rides around Amelia Island. They would stop at interesting trees, and she would make them create stories about how those trees came to look like that. Combining her love of nature with her interest in developing writing skills in children, she wants to create a book with photos of interesting trees and writing prompts. As with her own children, kids will “Look at this tree” and be encouraged to write a story about it.

It’s right up my alley. Although I’ve never created a book like this, I must admit that I love writing prompts. I love anything that starts with a tiny seed and blossoms into a beautiful story.

I really feel that I could give her a push – much like with a child on a bike with the training wheels removed for the first time – and watch her go, but I also understand that I’ve been in the publishing world for a while now, and it’s no longer mysterious to me. If you’re not right in the middle of it, though, you might think writing a book is unattainable.

I was there once. I’ve talked about my college fiction workshop before, and the second time I signed up, our instructor Ari pulled a group of us together (the ones who were serious about getting published) and gave us the low-down on publishing. 1) It’s a competitive market that’s difficult to break into, and 2) it’s still not guaranteed to be everything you hoped and dreamed even if you do get published. What Ari suggested was that we pull our best stories together and create our own publication. And so Fiction Fix was born. With his direction, we figured out what we were supposed to do, and more than 11 years later, Fiction Fix is going strong as an online fiction journal. We’ve grown quite a bit from that group of desperate writers who just wanted to see our stories in print; now we receive submissions from all over the world.

We were lucky in that we had someone who saw our desire to write and be read and who knew just when to push us. But for those out there with the desire but no direction, no help, no idea except THE IDEA for a story or book, the task can seem daunting. But here’s the thing: if you have a book that you want to write, the only thing in your way is your own indecision. Instead of dreaming or joking about maybe writing a book some day, you need to take action.

Indie (self-published) authors are more prevalent than ever. The internet has done many wonderful things for writers, on-demand and e-publishing being two of them. And even if you don’t write, these tools and their practitioners have made publishing a much more attainable reality than it used to be.

An internet search can give you everything you need, from writers’ support groups and social networks to online book publishing to lists of freelance editors (like me!). Don’t ever assume that the person you’ve just looked up is the real deal until you’ve done some research. (I learned this the hard way, regarding literary agents – read my story here.) Also don’t assume that the big companies are your only choice. Everywhere you look, you will find writers and editors with different levels of expertise. You’ll even find local printing companies, graphic designers, and illustrators who can all help bring your book to life. These are real people with whom you can share a cup of coffee – and your dream.

But if you’d like some resources, here are some websites to check out:

  • Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace (Amazon.com’s answers to e-publishing and on demand publishing)
  • Smashwords.com (distributor of eBooks to every conceivable e-format)
  • Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market (tips for writing and publishing)
  • LinkedIn (where professionals go to network – Facebook and Twitter are great, but if you want to connect with writers who can help you get started, I can’t think of a better place)
  • NaNoWriMo.org (Ever wonder if you could write a novel in a month? If you’re serious about this, I promise that you will have the writing experience of a lifetime.

So… do you have a story to tell?

Want to help with the writing prompt book?

Look at This Tree

Look at This Tree

The writing prompt book I mentioned is the brain-child of my friend Karen Saltmarsh. We’re going to title it Look at This Tree, and we’re looking for high-quality photos of interesting trees that could tell a story. To the left is an example from a park that I visited in Washington State. (Don’t you think there could be a secret hideout for some mythical, woodland creature under the roots?) If you have something you’d like to submit, please fill out the contact form on my Writing Services page, and Karen and I will consider your photo for her book.