Read Aloud Thursday: In Defense of the Series

Ruth and I just finished Beverly Cleary’s Ramona’s World, the last in the Ramona Quimby series. She was filled with excitement at finishing the series, not because she was glad it was over, but I think because she saw it as a celebration. We’ve had such a fun time sharing these books. I should add that even though I say Ruth and I read these together I should really say that all the kids listened to these. It was technically Ruth’s “special book” but the boys liked it just as much as she did.

The boys and I just finished Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and are starting the next in The Chronicles of Prydain series, The Black Cauldron. Somehow, I missed these as a kid but I’ve heard fantastic things about these fantasy novels and had them on my to be read list for years. We loved the story of Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his companions and are looking forward to the rest of the series.

In certain bookish and literary circles, the term “series” is almost a bad word. I’ve heard people bemoaning the fact that their kids will only read series books. The truth is that kids love series. And for good reason. A good series is comfortable, it’s like visiting the same friends over and over again. A really good series creates a new world for the reader and each new book in the series expands and defines that world a little more.

There is something to be said for reading books that are not part of a series and something to be said for reading books that are not comfortable. Kids need challenge, just like adults. And it’s true that not all series are created equal. However, both my boys really got pulled into reading through series (and not always all that high quality). And as a family, many of the most memorable read-alouds we’ve done have been part of a series. There is something wonderful about inhabiting another world all together for an extended period of time.

Great Series to Read-Aloud:

The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Moffats by Eleanor Estes
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley (We’re currently enjoying #4 as an audiobook in the car.)
The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker
Humphrey the Hamster books by Betty Birney
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (Yes, they are long but one of my best memories with John is reading these together.)
Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace

I’m a little late to the party, but it’s not to late for you to stop by Hope is the Word for Read-Aloud Thursday. Be sure to share what you are reading aloud with your family!

Scenes from Luray Caverns

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IMG_1632 IMG_1640 IMG_1709 IMG_1712It was homeschool week at Luray Caverns this week so we took advantage of the great rates and headed south for a field trip. It was a cold (and snowy!) first day of spring and part of me wanted to take advantage of the planned day off to just snuggle indoors and read and hibernate. Another part of me wanted to get stuff DONE. I have a list of cleaning and decluttering projects and blog topics and school planning that needs to be done and other projects to do and that part of me was very loudly telling me to stay home.

In the end, I listened to the third voice, the voice that said “Hey, didn’t you homeschool to take field trips and get out and have adventures with the kids?”. The same voice said “Haven’t you hibernated enough this winter?”

So we went. And it was tiring. But fun. The caverns are really beautiful, especially if you like rocks, which I do. And the garden maze we did at the end was surprisingly fun. The boys and Ruth and I separated into different teams. Let’s just say that the girls crushed the boys. Which may have had something to do with the fact that the boys’ approach was just to run up and down the various paths blindly while yelling “this way, no not this way, that way, no not that way, etc.”

 

Delicious Reads

Ruth and I just finished a unit on food for kindergarten. One of the favorite books we read was a new one by Emily Jenkins, A Fine Dessert. Jenkins follows four families over four hundred years making the same dessert: blackberry fool. Each family prepares the dessert following the same basic steps. The repetition in the text of the recipe and the similarities between the centuries (each child gets to lick the bowl) create continuity. However, the charm is in the differences. The first mother and daughter pair living in Lyme, England in 1710 use a whisk made out of twigs and cool their dessert in an ice pit in the hillside. The 2010 family (the only father and son pair in the book) live in San Diego and serve the dessert to a multicultural group of friends after preparing it with all the modern conveniences. Sophie Blackall’s delicately detailed illustrations draw the reader into each time period and further serve to tie the centuries together while also showing how clothing and housing and people have changed.

Pat Brisson’s Before We Eat: From Farm to Table is another new book about food. This
one take a less personal approach and looks instead at all the people who are involved in getting the food we eat on our table. There are farmers and ranchers, yes. But also, truck drivers and  grocery clerks and home cooks. The woodcut illustrations by Mary Azarian (illustrator of the Caldecott winning Snowflake Bentley) are beautiful and complement the simple text.

 

We also enjoyed looking through What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. This one is chock full of information but it was a bit too much for five year old Ruth. However, the photos were fascinating. The main interest for us was a photospread for each country showing a typical family and all the food they eat in a month. It was really eye-opening for my kids to see how much less processed food most of the world eats and to see how little some people have to eat in a week.

Other food themed books we recommend: 

Minette’s Feast by Susanna Reich
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban
Cloudy with a Chance for Meatballs by Judi and Ronald Barrett
The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman
Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann
Time to Eat by Steve Jenkins

 

 

 

Socialization and Community

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As I’ve said before, I don’t think the “S” word is a non-issue for homeschoolers. (That’s socialization for all of the rest of you.) My kids aren’t in school all day which has it’s advantages and it’s disadvantages. One disadvantage is that they don’t get to be with friends and other kids on a regular basis. Social times can happen, but I have to be intentional about that rather than just relying on the fact that they will see their best friends at lunch every day.

Community is something everyone longs for; I am convinced. One thing I’ve noticed in the past few years is that many adults find a community based on their kids activities. I know baseball parents and swim parents and Scout parents. Some of the parents I’ve met who volunteer for swimming or Scouts no longer have kids in the activity. It’s just that they have found their community. Other adults bond over some kind of volunteer work or a particular interest (garden clubs, library volunteers, a group of runners). For us, church is  our main community. I think kids need community also. As a homeschooler, that can be harder to find and different from a friend who can come over to play. What I mean by community is a group of people with a similar interest and who are working together.

My kids have done a lot of activities: swimming, gymnastics, baseball, basketball, ballet, piano, Scouts, co-op, tennis, Tae-Kwan-Do, art lessons. (No, not all at once and not every kid has done all those.) I had high hopes early on that sports teams would be a great way for my kids to socialize and find friends. In reality, we haven’t found that to be the case. Even on sports teams where they practiced way too frequently (I’m looking at you, baseball.), the kids on the team didn’t really get to know each other very well. We’ve had teams with great coaches and where the kids enjoyed each other for that season but it never extended into any kind of friendship beyond the season. That’s ok, they have enjoyed sports for other reasons and they like being part of a team even if it’s not a means to developing true community. (The one exception is swim team, because it’s the same kids every summer. )

What I’ve observed is that the activities that really have led to community and friendships  are those where the kids are working on a project of some kind together. For us this has been Scouts and Odyssey of the Mind. I’ve also heard people say the same thing about drama and theater groups. I didn’t really know what Odyssey of the Mind was two years ago. I still find it hard to explain to people but I’m now a Odyssey fangirl. Last year, John was on a team with 6 other 5th grade boys. They ended up winning our local regional tournament and going to the State tournament. This year, John and David were on the same team with most of the same boys. They had to move up a Division due to age but still managed to come together to win third place in our local tournament. Odyssey has taught them many things: creativity, teamwork, problem-solving, stage presence, confidence. But I think the most important thing it’s given them is a community. If you have a local team (or Destination Imagination which I believe is very similar) I would highly recommend giving it a try.

If nothing else, I can almost guarantee it will be fun. (Crazy hats optional but highly recommended.)

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Snow Day Musings

IMG_7330Do you do school on snow days? That seems to be the question of the season in homeschooling circles. As we dig our way out from a snowfall of about 7 inches today (if you’re in Boston and reading this, you can stop laughing now), we had another day to consider this question. My approach is to really have no set approach. I carefully consider all the factors: time of year, amount of snow, how much other free time they have had lately, how much work needs to be done that week, how much I really want to just curl up on the couch with my own book. Just kidding on that last one. Sort of.

In all seriousness, it’s fairly situation dependent.

First snowfall of the winter? Probably mostly off for the day.
Just went on a field trip earlier in the week? Need to do work.
Great packing snow? Have fun kids.
Icy and not that much fun to play in? We’ll get more done because everything else is canceled!

What usually happens is that at least the basics get done. That’s math, some kind of reading depending on the kid and age level, piano and ideally Latin. Usually some kind of other learning happens too: videos, read-alouds. Often we do actually have more time because other things are canceled so we can get our normal amount of school done and still have plenty of time for play in the snow. The last two weeks we’ve had snow days on our normal co-op day, when we typically don’t do school. I plan by the week so they all know what they have to do for the week. I said we wouldn’t do extra school but gave them the option of working more one day and having a completely free day or spreading it out and having two lightish days.

The public schools here have had a lot of snow days recently, 10 since the beginning of January. Some of those have been days where it was icy and not really fun to be outside or where school was canceled for “extreme cold” (Go ahead and chuckle, Boston.) Those were certainly normal days of school for us. This time of year is one where I’m always extremely glad to be homeschooling. I like that snow doesn’t really have the power to disrupt our lives as much as if we went to school elsewhere. I like that we have the flexibility to take off if we want to (and we can take off for “extreme pretty weather” in April or October if we want) but also the ability to keep going if we want.

I recently had someone comment to me about how she would never be able to get her kids to focus on schoolwork if they were home. I tried to explain that for us, school is just part of life. I think that’s never more apparent than on snow days or sick days.

January/February Reading

Fiction Read in January and February 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout (audiobook)
I loved this book. I loved how vulnerable and sympathetic Elizabeth Stout makes grumpy, unlikeable Olive Kitteridge.

Sing for Me by  Karen Halvoresen Schreck
Eh. Read for my book club. 1920’s girl defies super-strict religious Dutch family by singing in a jazz club and falling in love with a black man. Was just a little too much like one the cheesy Christian romances I read as a teen for my taste.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
Weirdly creepy and slightly sinister (and I mean that in the best way possible) beautifully word-crafted stories.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
One of the most fresh and new-feeling books I’ve read in a long time. Post-apocolyptic world after a flu pandemic seen through multiple characters, centering on Kirsten, a young actress with a traveling Shakespearean troupe.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The third book in Robinson’s triptych about the town of Gilead and pastor John Ames. This one tells the story of his much younger wife Lila who comes from a much different world than that of her husband. Lila is born into a horribly neglectful family and is stolen away (or rescued) one day by Doll, a wanderer. Doll and a group of migrant workers become Lila’s family as a child and teenager. Tragedy eventually leaves her on her own again until she arrives in Gilead. Like Robinson’s other books, deep essential religious questions are woven into the text. Lila decides to be baptized but isn’t entirely sure she wants to accept religion. Part of the issue for her is what religion says will happen to the people who were her family but certainly didn’t live any kind of “good” life. Lila is just as rich as Robinson’s previous works, Gilead and Home, which I count among my all-time favorite books.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
What can I say about this one that hasn’t been said already by someone else. Having a deadline to read this for my book club, I had to buy it because I was something like 922 on the hold list at the library. I’ll just say the hype is not just hype. It is an amazing book. Read it. Even if you have to buy it yourself.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah
A new Hercule Poirot mystery, authorized by the Agatha Christie estate. It’s clever and fun to read a new story starring the great detective. Not super memorable but a nice read.

The Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (audiobook)
The Curse of the Pharoahs by Elizabeth Peters (audiobook)
I decided to listen to the Amelia Peabody mystery series as my next audiobook (I read a bunch of them years ago) when I heard that the narrator was excellent. She (Susan O’Malley) is and the mysteries themselves are just as much a hoot as the first time around.

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny
Next edition in the Armand Gamache series. I mostly like these but Penny’s wordy and overly serious style grates on my nerves at times.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
I found this young-adult fantasy immensely readable and enjoyable. Emotionally-fragile teens able to access an alternative world where they can live their lives before the trauma that they have experienced. The book celebrates the power of words and writing and ultimately argues for the importance of facing your problems and moving forward in life. There is a twist in the end that took away some of my enjoyment, I found it somewhat unbelievable but it’s also been a long time since I’ve been a teenager so I might just be forgetting what it feels like.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
Based on the author’s own life, this bittersweet middle age novel looks at a single year in the life of Maggie, an 11 year old future President of the United States, writer, and all-around lovable geek. Maggie’s father also happens to have Multiple Sclerosis that is fairly severe and the novel chronicles the effects of his worsening illness on Maggie and her family. Probably because it’s based on a true story, it reads very true and never feels like a dreaded “issue” book. I liked it as much for the quirkiness of Maggie as for the way it addresses chronic illness.

Non-Fiction Read in January and February

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
I really meant to review this one fully when I read it but I think I never really felt worthy. I would probably read instructions for how to program the DVR written by Gawande. He would find a way to make them interesting. In this book he goes beyond interesting and looks at the more uncomfortable and personal topic of end-of-life living and decision making. As a pediatrician, this isn’t something I have to deal with a lot in my work but I still found much to challenge me professionally and hopefully make me better at caring for patients. Really, really excellent.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen
I hope to review this one more fully in the next few days. It’s fun and wonderful and I’m going to go and cry because it was written by a 15 year old. Actually, I think she’s 15 now so she was even younger when she wrote it. And did I mention it won the ALA award for best Young Adult Non-Fiction. And Dreamworks has optioned it to make a movie.

Newbery books read: 
I’m participating in Amy’s Newbery Through the Decades challenge
January:
The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly- Definitely felt dated, but it was published in 1929. I read this one aloud to the boys and they mostly enjoyed this adventure story set in medieval Poland and involving alchemy and a mystical crystal. I think their favorite part was actually a character named Peter the Button Face who was supposed to be the chief bad guy. However, they found his name so ridiculous that they would laugh hysterically every time I said it. Like falling off the bed (literally) hysterically.

February:
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink- I have no memory of ever having read this as a girl although I vaguely remember trying it and not liking it. I’m not sure why as Caddie seems like a perfect mix of Laura Ingalls and Anne of Green Gables with maybe a sprinkle of Ramona thrown in. In full disclosure, I haven’t actually finished this one yet.

Read with the Kids:
Ruth and I are still working our way through the Ramona books. We’re up to the last one, Ramona’s World. Ruth is both excited and sad. Sad that they are almost over but excited because I said she could watch the movie when we had read them all. The boys and I are reading The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, another one I can’t believe I missed in childhood. In the car we’ve been listening to the Sisters Grimm books which all three kids are loving.

Busy, busy, busy (again)

I went into Brigid Schulte’s Overhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time with something of a pre-formed opinion. I had read the original article back in 2010 in the Washington Post that inspired her to look more deeply into the subject of leisure time (or lack of it) and even blogged about it here. At the time I came away slightly disappointed that Schulte didn’t more deeply examine our attitudes about work and busyness. I was interested in reading the book to see the idea fleshed out more and because she’s an excellent writer.

Schulte does explore society’s attitudes and norms regarding work, love and play in more depth in the book. She looks at the culture of  the “ideal worker”. A quote from Ben Hunnicutt (a leisure researcher) that stuck out to me this time was also one that I quoted in my previous blog post:

Work has become central in our lives, answering the religious questions of “Who are you” and “How do you find meaning and purpose in your life?”

As I said here and here, I think a lot of people like being busy. Or at least like the feeling that being busy makes them valuable. Schulte interviews a researcher named Ann Burnett who has been examining Christmas letters for years and has noticed that over the years

…people are competing about being busy. It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life. There’s a real “busier than thou” attitude, that if you’re not as busy as the Joneses, you’d better get cracking.

Schulte spends a lot time looking at ways that companies can cut down on work stress. Later in the book she spends a lot of time examining ways that couples can individually look at gender roles in their relationship and how society could find ways to be more supportive of working women and fathers who want to stay home. She had a lot that was interesting to say but at the end of her book I came away feeling slightly disappointed, as I did with the article.

Part of the reason was that I felt like she never really addressed the root cause of the overwhelm. What is it in us that causes us to make choices that make us busier and busier? Why do we need to sign up our kids for every activity under the sun? Why do we need to buy the bigger house which means we have to work more at a more demanding job? Why do we feel like being productive makes us somehow more worthy than having a lot of free time? Why do we equate self-worth to how much is on our to-do list? All of those are interesting questions and perhaps not answerable but no number of social programs or incentives by companies or flex-time or marriage counseling is really going to help us if we don’t somehow address them.

Another disappointment to me was the final section on play. In it, Schulte is a strong proponent for the idea of whimsical play. She spends time with a group of women who organize formal playdates (a word I cringe at using for my kids and can’t even begin to want to use for myself) where they do things like take trapeze classes or go rock climbing. Another play consultant is admired for her collection of goofy toys and her habit of blowing bubbles in the car. Schulte makes the case that for many years leisure time activities for women have actually been work: quilting, knitting, canning, baking. She is quite dismissive of quilting in particular, bringing it up as a poor example of play multiple times. I don’t quilt but I have always loved quilts. One of the things about them I love is that women didn’t have to make them artistic or creative but they chose to. It would have been quicker and just as warm to slap together some fabric and make and ugly blanket. But quilting became an art form over the years. It’s an example in my mind of women turning their work into something joyful and creative and, yes, playful.

I’m not advocating at all that all of leisure time has to be productive. And I’m not anti-bubble blowing. But there was something a bit too contrived about this kind of play in my mind. And again I think Schulte misses a chance to look at the deeper attitudes at play here (pun totally intended). Instead of seeking out new ways to play, it seems to me that we should first look to make the life we have playful. Or maybe to put it better, we should first examine our attitudes about the things that we have to do.

We got a dog last summer and she has to be walked daily. This is sometimes a dreaded chore (especially lately with single degree digit weather.) I find that when I look at it as a chore it feels like a chore. Last week, at the end of a long day with the kidsI took her out for a walk alone because I wanted to walk alone. It was a beautiful night with snow drifting down in soft white flakes. The dog loves the snow and she was so excited. There was no one else out even though it was relatively early. As I walked along in the dark, looking in lighted windows, and breathing in the cool crisp air, I was completely happy. It felt like play.  Same chore, but new attitude.

 

This and That

So…it’s been awhile. I always feel weirdly awkward about posting after time away, like I need to explain what’s kept me silent. I feel like my first post after a protracted time away needs to be somehow worthy, like where I explain that we’ve been busy building a nuclear reactor in the garage or milking the new flock of goats we acquired or that I was trapped under a teetering stack of books that I’ve read but never got around to reviewing. (The last one is the only one close to the truth.)

In reality, all that has been going on is a little of this and a little of that. School. Work. Way too many activities and obligations. Some fun field trips. Birthday celebrations. And a bout of what I’m pretty sure was the flu for me. Nothing terrible exciting and yet at the same time all of it is what makes our lives full and rich. A few highlights:

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*We’ve been on several adventures. We attended Homeschool Days at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore where the boys both took a class on Geology in Space and we all watched an Imax on Forces of Nature. We also went on a co-op sponsored field trip to Dulles Air and Space where all three kids got to take classes about flight and space. IMG_1524*I went away for my now annual birthday “retreat” weekend. I stay in a hotel downtown, go to some museums, read a lot of books, take a bath (or two) and generally enjoy some lovely long hours of solitude. This year I went to the Piero di Cosimo show at the National Gallery and spent some time slowly wandering through the excellent sculpture gallery at the National Gallery. On a whim I also went to the Postal Museum (it was near the hotel) which was really interesting. I plan to go back with the kids, I’m sure they would love it. While I was downtown, H. and the kids also ventured into the city to see an exhibition on bird-themed art, The Singing and the Silence, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum which they said was fabulous but has now closed. I planned to go to it on Sunday but by that point I was feeling pretty lousy with what I believe was the flu.

*When you are a reader, you remember experiences often by books that you were reading at the time. During my birthday weekend, I was reading Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s amazing post-apocolyptic novel. The novel takes place after a global flu pandemic and interweaves multiple stories through flashbacks before the pandemic, during the initial days of the crisis and years later through the eyes of survivors. It is without a doubt the freshest, most new-feeling novel I have read in a long time. It was one of those books that you are sad to finish because you know you’ll never be able to inhabit that world again in the same way. The experience of reading it was made even more memorable for me by the fact that as I read about a character trapped in a hotel room with the beginnings of the flu, I realized that I had a fever and an achiness in my bones and the beginnings of a cough.

DSCN7485*We’ve all been reading. I’m in the midst of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte. The boys participated in out library’s new Boy’s Book Club (there were only three boys and I think the librarian was thrilled to have them all there). As a family we’ve begun listening to The Sisters Grimm series in the car which so far is a worthy follow-up to our months of enjoyment with Gregor the Overlander. For read-alouds, Ruth and I are still working our way through the Ramona books and the boys and I just began Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (a fantasy series that I somehow missed as a child).
IMG_0798*Life sometimes feels like this, a whirling crazy dance but it’s mostly good. Today I sit in our nice warm house while the boys build me a fire and there is a nice amount of snow outside. Enough to have canceled all our daily obligations and give us a day of rest and play. But not so much to be too troublesome.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work offers delightful glances into the habits of a widely diverse group of artists, scientists, musicians, philosophers and writers. The book grew out of Currey’s blog, Daily Routines, that he started as a way to catalog these short descriptions of artist’s habits. The blog gives brief descriptions, often from an interview or article. The book goes a little deeper into the background of each subject to give the daily ritual some context. However, the strength of the book is that Currey uses the artist’s own words as much as possible. When that’s not available, he often uses a description written by a friend, family member or biographer who knew the subject well.

There’s something for everyone here. Did you know P. G. Wodehouse was a dedicated fan of The Edge of the Night soap opera, never missing an episode? Or Truman Capote preferred to only write lying down? Or Freud’s wife (that phrase right there gave me lots to ponder on….Freud’s wife) did everything for him freeing him up to work? Everything included putting toothpaste on his toothbrush, a task apparently to taxing for the great man.

The most interesting thing to me about the book was that there is really no one right way to be an artist. There are the “sit down and write (or paint, or compose) for x number of hours a day” people. Stephen King falls into this group. Highly disciplined, he views writing as his work and sits down daily to write 2000 words a day.  On the other end of the spectrum is Marilynne Robinson who says that she can’t write if she doesn’t feel inspired about what she is writing. Some are morning people, some are night owls. Some are solitary, some manage to schedule in their writing or art around a family life or day job. As different as the lives of these highly varied individuals are, there are also patterns of similarities that emerged as I read the book. For example, it was amazing to me how many spoke of taking some kind of scheduled walk every day, either as a way of starting the day or as a needed break in the middle of work.

I’ll end with three of my favorite quotes from the book:

Joseph Heller: ” I spent two or three nights on it for eight years. I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drew me back to Catch-22. I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels. ”

 

Friedrich Schiller:  “We have failed to recognize our great asset: time. A conscientious use of it could make us into something quite amazing.”

 

Bernard Malmud: ” There’s no one way- there’s too much drivel on the subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place- you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time- not steal it- and produce the fiction. If the stories come, you get them written, you’re on the right track. Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you. “