Interview with the Author of the Colton Cousin Series: Elaine L. Schulte
Elaine Schulte is the author of 36 children’s book, four published by JourneyForth Books. She often speaks to students in schools and libraries around the country. Her is her perspectives on teaching writing and on becoming a writer.
Nancy Bopp: How important is reading in making a writer?
Elaine Schulte: Reading is vital to the making of a writer, preceded only by mastering the craft of writing. Teachers might be able to recognize some potential writers by the outcome of reading placement tests. I wish that someone had recognized the possibilities for me when my third-grade reading test showed me reading third-grade books as well as a twelfth grader would.
NB:When did you first realize you had writing ability?
ES:I had always received A’s on my writing, but in the 1950s women became nurses, teachers, librarians, or secretaries. I wasn’t inclined to any of those professions and graduated from Purdue with a B.S. in the Area of Creative Writing—a degree created for me.
When I was 39, I attended an Advanced Fiction Writing class at a trade school, and there the teacher, who had 55 novels published, said, "You have the talent. Let’s see now if you can take constructive criticism." When I did, my writing began to sell immediately.
I also attended a nonfiction writing class taught by a successful nonfiction writer and immediately began to sell articles too.
NB:Where does inspiration end and discipline begin?
ES:Discipline may be more important than inspiration. It’s important to make a habit of sitting down to write every day. Ideas come to creative people, but if they’re not written down, even the best ideas float away.Students can probably best accomplish writing and discipline by keeping a daily journal. I wish that I had.
NB:Do you keep a diary?
ES:No, I keep a file of ideas and a "character file" of pictures from magazines and other sources. When I decide on a story, I go through the "character file" to find the perfect pictures for my characters. I name the characters with the help of a "name your baby" book, choosing names that suit the era and the story’s setting.
For example, I chose Suzannah and Daniel for my lead characters in the Colton Cousins series. Their names were common in the mid-1800s; "Oh Suzannah!" was a popular song then, and biblical names, such as Daniel, were prevalent. I middle-named Daniel and his father "Meriwether" after Meriwether Lewis, the explorer, to establish their adventurous spirits.
NB:How would you encourage a talented student in pursuing writing?
ES:It depends on the student’s age and maturity. Beyond writing for the school newspaper and the like, I might ask advanced students to analyze magazines for their age groups and try to sell appropriate materials to them.
Our small town newspaper has a high school student reporter during the school year. Some magazines and newspapers hire summer help. A friend worked as a summer newspaper photographer and is savvy about writing to this day.
There are also national writing contests for middle grades and up. Advanced writers in the class could submit appropriate work to them. (My son won a national short-story-writing contest for middle schoolers.)
Public libraries usually have magazines and books about writing for publication. Aspiring writers—and teachers—can learn a great deal from them.
NB:How important is it for a person to "find his voice" early? What role do teachers play?
ES:A person’s voice changes as he or she matures. It might be useful for a student to try to find his or her "voice" now and be told that it might eventually change. My "voice" changed after I became a Christian; I think it became more confident. In the Colton Cousin series, in addition to confident, I’d guess that my voice came across as lively and adventurous.
Teachers have to define "voice" for students. Basically, I think it comes from the writer’s character and ability to tell the story. There is so much talk about "voice" that it can intimidate would-be writers and even published writers. It seems better to me for a teacher to concentrate on other areas of writing.
NB:Is there a good way to interest students in writing?
ES:Perhaps you can find a Christian writer in your area who will let a class discuss the writing [he has] in progress.
This happened to me when I was writing the Colton Cousins series. A third-grade teacher at Santa Fe Christian in Solana Beach, California, read my manuscripts one chapter at a time after lunch and then asked the students to critique them.
After each reading, they told what they liked best: "The bear chase!" "No, the French trapper!" And what, if anything, was boring. I had a villain named Bart, and the kids all laughed because they thought about Bart Simpson. I changed the name to Garth and used many of their other suggestions.
Such a discussion helps students to become more analytical and aware of the actual writing.
If there is not a Christian writer in your area who writes for your students’ age group, the same idea could be achieved by having the students critique a book in print, with the goal of improving the story and the writing.
NB:How did your confidence grow from writing for yourself to writing for others?
ES:I never wrote for myself, only for classes, and how I wish I had saved all of that early work. It’s important to encourage aspiring writers. They are often the bright but shy ones who are eager to find their place in the world.
Published in Teacher to Teacher, October 2003