Frequently Asked Questions

Barb at a signing

Where do you get your ideas?

I often find good ideas in “my own backyard.” I try to pay attention to what’s happening in my neighborhood, community, and state, and I listen closely to stories people tell about past events. When I heard about a home in my county that had served as an Underground Railroad station, I spoke with the owner and toured the home. I then began trying to learn all I could about runaway slaves and their travels through Indiana. The result was my book A Good Night for Freedom, set in the home of the famed Hoosier abolitionists Levi and Catharine Coffin. In the book, I introduce two real-life runaways, whose names I found in 19th-century court records in Randolph County, IN. As I like to tell students, I didn’t have to travel across continents to find this story. It was waiting to be uncovered close to my home.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Unlike some writers, who organize their thoughts and write quickly, I am slow. I spend a lot of time researching my subject, and when I finally start writing, I constantly revise – even before I finish a manuscript. I spent about six months writing and revising Mr. Mosquito Put on His Tuxedo. I spent more than a year researching, writing and revising Nature’s Storyteller: The Life of Gene Stratton-Porter, and even longer working on A Good Night for Freedom and From Ben-Hur to Sister Carrie.

What do you like best about being a writer?

That’s a hard question because I can’t narrow the response to just one “best.” I love the pre-writing phase – the gathering of information. I love interviewing people, reading dozens and dozens of books and articles (no kidding!), tracking down information via the Internet, and visiting museums and historic sites. Being a researcher is like being a detective – the trail gets more interesting the farther I travel and the deeper I dig.

I also love the process of writing – of physically sitting at my computer and letting stories spring from my brain to my fingers as I tap out words and sentences. Like all writers, I love language. I see beauty and hear music in words gracefully and skillfully strung together.

Strange as this may seem, I also like revising my writing. I like the challenge of delving into my work again and trying to improve upon it. I like to share my work with other people and ask them for constructive criticism.

What don’t you like about being a writer?

Getting stuck. Often, I know there is a problem with my manuscript, but I’m not sure how to fix it and I grow frustrated. Experience has taught me to set the manuscript aside, sometimes for several months, and then return to it with fresh eyes. In addition, I turn to friends – writers, librarians, and teachers whose opinions I value – and seek their advice. I also find it helpful to research my subject more. I look for new information to help me get out of my “rut.”

For your picture books, do you choose the illustrator and instruct him/her what to draw?

No. Editors at publishing houses choose the illustrators for children’s picture books. As an author, my job is to write the best story I can and trust the editor to find the best artist to draw the pictures. I’ve been very fortunate. Two top-notch artists, Ponder Goembel and Leonard Jenkins, have illustrated my books. I don’t have any contact with the illustrators while they are working on my book. The editor serves as the go-between, talking to both writer and illustrator.

Do you still get rejection letters? How do you react to them?

Yes, I still “strike out.” Not all my manuscripts are accepted, and rejection letters still make me feel glum. But I keep writing. I create new stories and revise old ones. I’ve learned what all published authors know: Persevere. Never give up.

What advice do you give young writers?

Barb reading to children
  1. Read, read, read, read, read.
  2. Be curious. Pay attention. Look for story ideas everywhere, especially in your own backyard.
  3. Always asks lots of questions. Ask your parents, grandparents, or neighbors to tell you a story about their childhood, or about a big event in their life, or about something that scared them or made them laugh. Their stories can spark you to ask more questions and lead you to think of a story worth telling.
  4. Write something every day – a story, a poem, a letter, a paragraph in your diary.
  5. Use specific rather than general language. For example, if you're writing about a girl who hates to eat certain vegetables, try writing this: Melanie refused to eat broccoli, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts, but she liked to munch on carrots.
  6. Reread what you wrote. Turn down the noise around you. Treat yourself to quiet so you can think about ways to make your poem, story, or letter better.
  7. Be willing to rewrite. Revise entire paragraphs!
  8. Be willing to edit. Check for proper spelling, grammar, punctuation.
  9. Keep reading.
  10. Have fun!!!!

When you’re not writing, what do you do?

My husband and I like to travel, and we especially enjoy visiting our grown sons. At home, I walk or run every day, sing in my church choir, and try to be a good citizen and help with worthy projects in my small town, Of course, I love to read – and when I’m jogging, I listen to lots of books on tape!

About Barb
Barbara Olenyik Morrow is a children's book author whose work has garnered praise from reviewers. Her spirited read-aloud Mr. Mosquito Put on His Tuxedo was honored in 2010 by the Friends of American Writers, which recognizes the work of emerging Midwestern authors of juvenile and adult literature.
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