A couple of weeks ago I attended the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Pittsburgh. It was my first conference and I was not disappointed. I felt like I was really part of a community of like-minded people, all gathered to share and learn. In addition to attending several panels led by editors and agents, one of my favorite parts of the day was meeting fellow members who have successfully published their work.

Several of these published authors brought their books to sell and as I walked by the tables, one book in particular caught my attention because the author had set out a binder of her research materials. As a history buff and historical fiction fan, I was drawn to this binder of newspaper clippings, transcripts, photos and other examples of investigation and discovery. The book is called Prisoner 88, based on the true story of 10-year old prisoner in Idaho during the 1880s. The author is Leah Pileggi.

Thank you to Leah for taking the time to share some of her insight into writing books, her road to getting published and advice for all of us on the journey.

Learn more about what Leah is up to on her website and on Twitter.

Where is your home base? 

I live in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, but I grew up in Kane, Pennsylvania, the “Ice Box” of Pennsylvania. It’s a tiny town in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, and it’s generally the coldest place in the state. And I thought everybody grew up watching logging competitions!

Tell us a little bit about your writing life.

I generally write in my study next to bookcases stuffed with children’s books and writing resources and story ideas. I write every day, but the amount varies. When I’m in the middle of a book project, I generally work on that first. I might also write a journal entry, a Facebook post, a letter to the editor. This morning, I wrote a dialogue between two of the characters in my novel just to see how they would talk about a certain subject. It might or might not become part of the book.

Prisoner88_Final_CVR_300 (2)What inspired you to write Prisoner 88? How long did it take you to research and write it?

Prisoner 88  was a story that was waiting for me to find it. I heard about a 10-year-old prisoner in the 1880s when I took a tour of the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise. Nobody had researched the boy, so I got to do all of the digging. I worked (from Pittsburgh) with the Idaho Historical Society and consulted lots of experts:  hog farmers, an Idaho judge/historian, an Old Pen historian, and descendants of the boy. I studied Mormon publications and histories of Chinese in the Old West. I read newspapers from that time and the trial transcripts. There was no record of how the boy survived his time in prison (for shooting a man in a saloon who had threatened to kill his father), so I wrote my version of how this boy might have survived. The whole project was probably five years from writing the first word until publication.

What was the publishing route for this book? Did you have success right away with your query being accepted?

I’ve never sent out a query. I think I had sent this manuscript out once and gotten it rejected. But I was sending out other manuscripts and getting loads of rejections. I almost gave up on children’s writing. I decided to send what I felt was my best manuscript (Prisoner 88) one more time, and then I would pursue journalism. I found that Emily Mitchell from Charlesbridge was accepting submissions (I read it in the SCBWI Bulletin in the publication column). It seemed like a fit, so I wrote a heart-felt letter, printed out the manuscript and sent it off.

Two weeks later, I got an email from her, and I thought, “Well, on to journalism.” Her email began, “Thank you very much for sending me your manuscript, Prisoner 88. Now relax – this is not a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email.” She went on to say that she loved it and they were putting together an official proposal for acquisition. I called my husband, and he thought I was having a stroke! I rode my bike around the neighborhood aimlessly. I probably cried. Prisoner 88  was plucked from the slush pile. It really can happen.

What advice do you have for other writers who are hoping to get published?

Read everything you can in the genre in which you’re writing. Know what’s out there. Don’t imitate but learn from authors that you love. Read carefully. Look at structure. Read their work out loud. Read your own work out loud. Even if the dog thinks you’re nuts. Get feedback from writers. Friends are great, but you need input from people who have studied writing, so find a critique group. If you’re stuck, start something new, just to refocus your brain. Then go back. Get perspective. Go to writing conferences (check carefully what is being offered – they are not universally worth the money). Focus your energies on the writing process.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on two books, both set in Pittsburgh. One is middle-grade nonfiction about the Fort Pitt Block House. The other is a contemporary novel—working title Looking for Louise—a story of an 11-year boy whose world is falling apart. It deals with divorce and friendship and with race relations today and in the 1950s. Pittsburgh icons Teenie Harris and Porky Chedwick both make appearances. Both books are close to being finished, but I haven’t sold either one yet. Fingers crossed.


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