What a treat it is to host Lori Mortensen today, in celebration of her latest picture book, Away with Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (Peachtree). I learn so much when authors like Lori are generous enough to share honestly about their writing process and journey; her story really hit home with me. I took her lessons –about not giving up, and about being willing to look with fresh eyes at a familiar manuscript — to heart and they inspired a small but important shift in my own current work-in-progress.
Kirby, thanks for inviting me to Friend Friday. It’s a treat to stop by and share the story behind my latest release, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree Publishing Company), a picture book biography about a Victorian traveler.
So where did this idea come from? Like many people, I’d never heard of Isabella Bird before. However, one day when I was at my computer looking for a new project, I decided to research women’s firsts online—first woman doctor, first woman astronaut, first woman lawyer, etc. When I discovered Isabella Bird was the first woman member of the Royal Geographical Society, I was instantly intrigued. After all, how many women explorers did I know? Practically none. Once I delved into some research, I knew I wanted to tell Isabella’s exciting story.
Much like Isabella’s adventures, writing a picture book about her turned into its own journey with a lot of twists and turns. One of the first challenges was simply figuring out how I wanted to tell her story. Her life was a fascinating mix of chronic ailments, breaking the boundaries set for women in the Victorian Age, and her fierce determination to conquer whatever obstacles stood in her way as she trekked across five continents. Up treacherous mountains and fiery volcanoes. Across freezing deserts and raging rivers. Hanging by her frock caught on a rock on Longs Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain in the Rockies. “No man now ever says of any difficult thing that I could not do it,” she wrote.
Who could not love Isabella?
And since Isabella wrote 10 bestselling books about her explorations during the 19th century, there was a lot of exciting journeys to consider. At the same time, this was going to be picture book. That meant honing in on the essence of her story and sticking to under 1000 words. A tall order. After many revisions, I sent it to my agent who requested more revisions. But no matter how many times I revised, it was never quite right. In time, my agent and I parted ways and I put the manuscript away. A major disappointment. After all that work—nothing.
Months later, however, I got the manuscript out again. I wasn’t ready to give up on Isabella yet. I loved her unlikely story and when I began another round of revisions, a metaphor sprang to mind that became the heart of the story.
“Isabella was like a wild vine
stuck in a too small pot.
She needed more room.
She had to get out.
She had to explore.”
This comparison captured Isabella’s story and brought it to life in a way that other versions hadn’t. I knew I had something this time. Along the way to publication there was a new agent, more submissions, more editors, a long-awaited offer, and finally the search for the perfect illustrator. Who knew that 10 years would pass between the first draft and publication? But after writing about Isabella’s daring life, it seemed fitting that a manuscript about her would have its share of bumps and detours along the way.
Now, more than 100 years after Isabella’s last journey astride a spirited black stallion across the Atlas Mountains, I’m delighted she’s off on a new journey—this time, her own picture book biography—as young readers discover her exciting story for the first time.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Recent picture book releases include Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree), If Wendell Had a Walrus (Henry Holt), Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. Lori lives in Northern California. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, events, upcoming releases, critique service, and more, visit her website.