Writing what she knows

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April 23, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Mary Casanova has written 19 books for young adults and children. Today and Saturday, she joins illustrator Betsy Lewin in meeting with Allen County youth as part of the Allen County Young Authors celebration.
Casanova decided in high school to be a writer. As one of 10 siblings, she felt the written word gave her voice in a world where she was otherwise outnumbered. Encouragement by college professors kept her on the writing track, she said.
The 53 year old Casanova draws on her personal experience for books like her “Dog Watch” series and “One Dog Canoe.”
“Where I live, the dogs are allowed to roam free,” Casanova said, although they must be registered at city hall.
Many characters in the “Dog Watch” series are based on dogs in her home town.
“Kito — he’s one of our dogs,” she said. As is “Chester the beagle. Chester takes himself very seriously. He’s sort of a dorky side-kick character. And Tundra,” — a main character in the books — “is a a composite of many dogs.”
Plus, Casanova said, “There’s always a little bit of me in every character.”
“Probably the most autobiographical book” she’s written “is ‘One Dog Canoe,’” Casanova said.
She lives on Rainy Lake in Minnesota with her husband, three dogs and two horses. Her son and daughter are grown. Each day, she said, she either rides her horses, canoes, or goes on an outdoor trek.
Out for a paddle one day, Casanova and her husband were followed in the water by a town dog.
“We dragged him in,” Casanova said. At the next dock, “there was another dog watching us,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, no, this is a one dog canoe.’”

CASANOVA pursued English and history in college and first set out to write novels for adults.
“I never even pictured children’s books,” she said. “I started a master’s degree, thinking I would teach.”
But instead, “I stumbled across a course in writing for children by Marion Dane Bauer,” Casanova said. The week-long workshop “was life changing for me.”
After publishing the historical young adult novel “Curse of the Winter Moon,” set in 16th century France, Casanova was contacted by American Girl.
One of their editors had seen her book and liked her writing style. “I couldn’t have planned it,” Casanova said.
She now writes regularly for them.
The company gives Casanova “a loose framework” to write from, she said, “like a girl goes on an archaeological dig with her parents.”
Then, “I have quite a bit of freedom” in crafting the stories, she said.
However, she noted, American Girl is a business with a timeline. Whereas a novel of her own can be approached leisurely — “Klipfish Code took five years,” she said — with the American Girl books Casanova submits an outline then the finished product all within a matter of months.
“I probably have another six months to tinker and revise,” she said. “It’s very fast and exciting.”
Her most recent books for American Girl were “Chrissa and “Chrissa Stands Strong.”
The books were part of a special package, Casanova said. As soon as they were written, they were turned into a cable TV movie.
Now, she said, “Dogwatch” is being shopped around for possible filming, too.
Casanova is also finishing three more picture books.
“The Day Dirk Yeller Came to Town,” will be out first. “It’s about a cowboy with Attention Deficit Disorder who learns to read,” Casanova said. The others are sequels to “Some Cat” and “Utterly Otterly Day.”
The books will again be illustrated by Ard Hoyt.
Usually, authors don’t choose their illustrators, she said, but Hoyt “understands the story I’m trying to tell and puts perfect pictures to it.”
Though shorter, picture books actually take longer to produce than young adult novels, Casanova said.
“‘One Dog Canoe’ took seven years to come out,” she said.
One reason is the artwork — “you are waiting for the illustrator,” she said.
But she doesn’t begrudge the artists their time.
“Artwork is a complete mystery to me,” she said.
Another delay is from is revisions.
“‘One Dog Canoe’ took 32 drafts. A story may start out at 750 words and drop to 350 words after revision,” Casanova said.
Casanova believes in the process. She tells aspiring writers to “revise recklessly and endlessly. Don’t hang on to early drafts. Get feedback, then revise again and make the story stronger.”
Casanova lives by the adage, “write what you know.”
“Everyone’s been a child,” she said. “You can tap into that to get ideas.”
“I can’t comfortably write about a character if I can’t place them in a setting,” she said.
Casanova travels to research her books. She has been to Norway, France and Belize.
“It stretches me,” she said. “You’re held to this high accountability with historical fiction.”
Traveling lets an author capture “the look and the lay of the land” and other “sensory material,” Casanova said.
Such details help keep a reader’s attention, she noted.
Ultimately, she said, “My goal is to write books that matter, books that kids can’t put down. Something that has lasting value. Something that kids want to read.”

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