The Mitten is shining today's Writer Spotlight on fellow Michigan writer, Kathy Higgs-Coulthard. Kathy is a Mitten native who’s lived on the Michigan/Indiana border her entire life. She grew up along the St. Joseph River, and some of her earliest writing memories are of disappearing for hours to climb her favorite tree, scoot out on a limb that hung over the water, and write. Kathy claims she still does her best writing when she can hear the rush of water and feel the warmth of the sun filtered through leaves. Kathy has a rich writing journey that’s sure to inspire. So, let’s dive right in. Welcome to the Mitten Kathy!
Mitten: When did you start writing for children or otherwise, and how did you know it was something you wanted to do?
Kathy: I have written for as long as I can remember, but because of a few negative voices (both in my head and in the real world), I didn’t share my work until a friend introduced me to the Hoosier Writing Project, which is a chapter of the National Writing Project. The NWP is a network of educators that supports and deepens the teaching of writing by supporting teachers AS writers. Through the support and friendship I received as part of the Hoosier Writing Project, I gained knowledge of the writing craft, which increased my confidence and allowed me to begin sharing my work.
Mitten: How did you find out about SCBWI and how long have you been a member?
Kathy: I found out about SCBWI through the National Writing Project. I’d been participating in NWP advanced institutes for a few years and joined a critique group with a few other teachers who were working on children’s books. They raved about SCBWI and let me tag along to a conference. I was hooked!
Mitten: What genres are you most interested in and why? Picture books, middle grade, YA, chapter books, poetry, nonfiction?
Kathy: I started off writing picture books and still love that genre, but really found my voice with middle grade and YA. I also have a few adult pieces that I have written, but those may end up being what Stephen King refers to as “trunk novels.” They’re very raw and represent my earliest attempts at learning the complexity of story and character development.
Mitten: Tell us about your publishing journey. Are you pre-published or published, and if so where?
Kathy: I am thrilled to count myself in the published category. My journey to publication was long—I, like most writers I know, have a family and a day job, so it hasn’t been a direct route. Several years ago, I met an editor from Jack & Jill Magazine at an SCBWI-MI event and pitched him a quirky idea that he loved. That was my first official sale. After that I wrote a lot of nonfiction, just trying to get my name out there—craft articles for Women on Writing Ezine (which is an EXCELLENT resource for writers, by the way!), chapters for projects with Facts on File, and even a memoir piece for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Reboot Your Life.
Throughout all of that I was sending out my middle grade novel and a few picture books. About ten years ago, I attended the SCBWI New York Conference and participated in the writers’ intensives. An editor that I have always admired (and who had recently rejected my novel) sat at that table. She remembered me and my story and told me to please send her whatever else I was working on. Although we have yet to hit on a piece that fits her needs, her words to me that day helped spur me on to keep submitting.
Later that year I had my first offer on that novel. It fell through, but opened a door I didn’t expect. My middle grade novel,Hanging with My Peeps, finally sold this spring to Astrea Press/CleanReads (if you’re keeping track, that’s after ten years of submitting). It isn’t the same novel I wrote all those years ago—it has changed as I gained more knowledge of craft and more insight into the industry. My big advice here is, talk to other writers! I found Astrea Press because I reached out to an SCBWI-MI author to ask why she switched publishers. That conversation led to me realizing my project might be a good fit with that company.
Mitten: Many of us have a job other than writing for children. Tell us something about what you do outside of writing.
First and foremost, I am a mother. My four kids bring joy to my world and make all things possible. Before having my own children I was a preschool and elementary school teacher. Currently I work with future teachers at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame and engage young writers through my work at Michiana Writers’ Center. MWC offers summer camps for children in grades 3-12 and a teen writing conference each fall. Information on those activities is available on our website.
Mitten: How does this occupation inform your writing?
Kathy: Writing for children requires a deep understanding of kids—today’s kids. We can’t write characters that today’s readers will engage with if we base our writing on how we were as children or even the books we loved to read as children. We need to know the audience we write for—what they laugh at, what they roll their eyes at, what they avoid at all costs. My work in local schools and with the Michiana Writers’ Center allows me to be around kids and I know that helps me create richer characters. MWC also allows me to talk with young writers about what they love to read, so I get a sense of stories that might work with that age group.
Mitten: Where do you get most of your writing ideas? Do you write them down, keep them in a computer file or just store them in your memory?
Kathy: I can’t even hold a grocery list in my memory, so I write everything down. Ralph Fletcher compares a writer’s notebook to a ditch—he says you never know what might wash up in there after a good rain. Notebooks are such an important part of my process that I have 23 of them and I lug them to every school visit to emphasize to kids that writers WRITE. My notebooks catch more dead frogs and tin cans than sparkly things, but I’ve learned that better stories come from the unexpected anyway.
My ideas come from the world around me—the sound of chicks peeping from behind a half-open door, the sight of a dragonfly lighting on my son’s shoulder, the worried, rolling motion of a man’s hands—I collect these images in my notebooks and if I’m lucky they’re still there when the water drains off and I have a story seed.
Mitten: We all have favorite writers that inspire us. Name two of yours and why you like them.
Kathy: I’ve always loved the secondary definition of “inspire” which is to “breathe in.” To think of inspiration that way makes me think not just about the works that have inspired me, but the heart and soul of the writers who I would like to emulate. Mary Ann Moore is tenacious and fiercely devoted to the craft of writing. She is skilled and committed and has told me at each rejection to put my helmet back on and get back on the field. Her work rings true because she puts a little of her own soul into each character. I hope I have half the strength and skill that she does.
Our own Ruth McNally Barshaw is my other favorite writer. Her Ellie McDoodle series is one I recommend to every young writer I meet because I feel that they will recognize themselves in Ellie’s quirky creativity and every member of Ellie’s family is so well developed I feel like I could run into them at the grocery store and recognize them. Ruth continually reaches out to support other writers by sharing her own struggles and triumphs. Every time I run into Ruth at SCBWI events I try to breathe a little more of her energy and spirit in. I’m going to cheat here and tell you I am blessed to be surrounded by so many inspirational writers—April Pulley Sayre, Barb Shoup, Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, Heidi Sheffield—these strong women, these amazing writers—if you know them, breathe them in!
Mitten: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer for children? Why?
Kathy: First—Someone, I wish I could remember who, once told me that the difference between writers and people who want to be writers, is that writers WRITE. That is by far the best advice I’ve ever gotten. You can’t get better at something unless you practice it. It doesn’t have to be every day, but it does have to be regularly or the muscles atrophy and it’ll be a struggle to keep going.
Second, I had the immense privilege of attending a whole novel workshop through Highlights a few years ago and working with Stephen Roxburgh. He guided me in looking at each scene of my story to note the emotional reaction I wanted that scene to evoke in the reader. We charted the emotional journey of the reader and rewrote scenes to prevent emotional whiplash. Now when I write, I consider not only how my characters are feeling, but how the reader should be feeling.
Mitten: Thanks so much for stopping by Kathy. I know our Mitten readers have enjoyed learning more about you. Be sure and visit Kathy at her website, www.writewithkathy.com/
Be on the lookout for our next Writer Spotlight! Who knows, it may be you!