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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | FAQs for Students

FAQs for Students

Frequently Asked Questions:

These are questions that I am often asked in interviews. Please feel free to use these answers for book reports and class projects. BUT – the former teacher in me feels compelled to remind you to always put things in your own words or use quotation marks when you’re quoting my exact words. Your teacher will appreciate you doing it right!

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Running JaxHow did you get the idea for The Eighth Day?

The inspiration for the story was a family joke between my husband and my daughters. Whenever they bugged him about wanting to do something – like go to an amusement park, the beach, or ice-skating – he teased them by saying they would do it on “Grunsday.” I started imagining what it would be like if there really was a Grunsday, but only certain people knew about it.  And then I wondered what it would be like for a person who existed only on that day and didn’t experience the other seven days of the week.

Learn more in this video:

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Where did the name Grunsday come from? Did your husband make it up?

No, he didn’t make it up. Grunsday is often used as a joke name for a day that doesn’t exist. As far as I can tell, it comes from an old Beetle Bailey comic strip. In one episode, Army private Beetle Bailey is on kitchen duty all week. In each frame, he eagerly crosses off days on his calendar. When he gets to Saturday, he says, “I’m glad there are no more days in this week!” Then he looks at the calendar, sees another day, and exclaims, “GRUNSDAY?!?!” I assume cartoonist Mort Walker is the person who made up the name.

CG 91711 Dianne AsenathAre there really two strange graves in Catawissa, Pennsylvania that inspired your book, The Caged Graves?

Yes, there are! I found out about them when I stumbled across a photograph of a caged grave on the internet while researching ghost stories of the Pocono Mountains. I was fascinated! With the help of my husband (and Google Earth), I pinpointed the location of the cemetery outside Catawissa. It was only an hour away from Jack Frost Mountain, where my family likes to ski, so the next time we went skiing, we drove the long way home by way of the cemetery. Not only did we find the caged grave from the photo, we discovered there were two of them. That’s when I knew I was going to write a book about those graves. One caged grave is weird. Two is a story.

As it turned out, nobody knew the real story behind the graves. The local historical society had a theory. But it’s just a theory. Even the descendants of the families don’t know the details. I’ve been in contact with the great-grandson of the real Ranslow Boone and the wife of the great-great-grand-nephew of Asenath Thomas, and they tell me that whatever happened in 1852, the family didn’t talk about it!

What made you decide to incorporate Arthurian legends into The Eighth Day?

Believe it or not, that was never part of my original plan. The idea developed while I was writing the first draft and researching legends about alternate timelines. I stumbled across stories about Merlin being imprisoned by his apprentice Niviane in an eternal forest (some of the stories said it was an eternal cave). Merlin was trapped in time and aged very slowly. Niviane, meanwhile, could come and go whenever she wanted, visiting him to learn more magic or just make sure he was still imprisoned. This legend had some eerie similarities to the things I was planning for my story.  Once the idea took hold, it wouldn’t let go, and the next thing I knew, all my characters were clamoring for famous ancestors from King Arthur’s Round Table!

Some people have asked if I got the idea from the Percy Jackson series, which includes Greek myths. The truth is – no. I was familiar with the Percy Jackson series because my students loved the books. But I never actually read any of those books until after I’d written The Eighth Day.

New film posterYour first book, We Hear the Dead, inspired a short film that premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Does the film do justice to the story you wrote? 

I’m actually impressed at how much of the premise the director and producer were able to convey in a 7 minute film – three sisters running a séance scam, although one of the girls has more paranormal talent than the other two realize. In my book, Maggie and Kate Fox are teenage girls, and the movie portrays them as young women in their twenties. But that was for practical reasons, to avoid hiring minors in the lead roles. Currently, The Spirit Game is being pitched as the premise for a possible television series, with the girls’ ages closer to the characters in my book. Meanwhile, the short film is available to watch for free on YouTube HERE.

You were a 4th & 5th grade teacher for 25 years. Did your students influence your writing? 

I’ve always shared my writing and publishing experience with my students. Even though my first two books were aimed at an older audience, my students got to hear all about them. When the original title for my first book (High Spirits) was rejected by the publisher, it was one of my fifth grade students who came up with the name We Hear the Dead.

After I wrote The Eighth Day, my first book for their age group – and it was purchased as a series by HarperCollins – my class threatened mutiny if I didn’t read it to them, even though it was only a manuscript at that point. So, I started reading it to them and was thrilled to discover how much they loved the story. They chimed in their own opinions as I worked on revisions for my editor, and I gave them the credit they deserved on the Acknowledgments page.

I’ve sometimes been asked if any of my characters are based on real students. The answer is not exactly … But when I think of Jax’s tousled hair, there is one student who comes to mind. When Billy overuses the word, “Dude!” I think of another student. Some of the snippy comments and sarcastic replies … I heard those when students talked among themselves. I sometimes get asked about a particular part of The Eighth Day, when Jax lies to Riley about something important. People want to know if that’s realistic. And I say, “Do you have any idea how many lies I’ve heard from students over 25 years of teaching? Yes, kids lie to get out of trouble. All the time!”

So lots and lots of students contributed to building the characters in my books, but no one character matches up exactly to any one student.

Who’s your favorite character from The Eighth Day?

Of course, I’m very fond of Jax. He’s like a son to me! Evangeline has a special place in my heart, and the Donovan twins were really fun to write about. But I have to admit, my favorite character is Riley. At the beginning of the book, Jax hates Riley, believing him to be a no-good slacker. But when Jax learns about Riley’s past, finds out who he is and how far he’ll go to keep the people under his protection safe, everything changes. Developing their brotherly relationship was one of my favorite parts of writing the series.

Furthermore, Riley invented himself. When I started the first draft of The Eighth Day, I had different plans for this character. But he took control of himself from page one. This is who I am, he told me. Oh, and I need tattoos and a motorcycle, thanks. I know most people think that authors control their characters. Well, sometimes characters control themselves, and a wise author listens to them!

Why did you switch from alternating Evangeline’s perspective with Jax’s in The Eighth Day to alternating Dorian’s perspective with Jax’s in The Inquisitor’s Mark? Will it be a different character’s perspective alternating with Jax in the third book?

In each case, the alternate POV (Point of View) has to be someone who can provide the reader with information Jax doesn’t know – otherwise, there’s no reason to give them POV.  In The Eighth Day, Evangeline gives the reader a glimpse of what life is like trapped in the eighth day. She shares the history of her family and her race, the Kin. Evangeline is the major focus in that book because everything Riley and Jax do revolves around her.

In The Inquisitor’s Mark, Evangeline is still important, but her perspective doesn’t add anything to the story that Jax doesn’t already know. On the other hand, Dorian Ambrose, as a member of Jax’s long-lost family and the Dulac clan, is full of information Jax doesn’t have but the reader needs. And yes, in the third book, The Morrigan’s Curse, Jax will share POV with Addie Emrys, Evangeline’s younger sister, because she is the only character who can tell the parts of the story that Jax doesn’t know about.

4 Steep and NarrowDo you do a lot of research for your historical fiction books? How do you do your research?

Yes, tons of research! I read biographies, non-fiction accounts, and even historical fiction set in the same time period as mine, just to get a feel for the details. In We Hear the Dead, historical letters from the real Maggie and Kate Fox (and Maggie’s suitor Elisha Kent Kane) helped me pin down the voice of my characters. While working on The Caged Graves, my editor challenged me on a cupcake reference, and I had to search online to prove cupcakes were popular in the 1860s. Even though The Eighth Day is a fantasy, I still researched Arthurian legends and traveled to Mexico to climb the Pyramid of the Sun so I could plot out the climactic scene where the bad guy tries to destroy the regular seven days of the week. And for The Inquisitor’s Mark, I visited the Central Park Zoo in New York City to figure out how someone could break into the snow leopard’s cage to hide. (I didn’t really break in, of course! I just looked!)

fox_sistersBecause life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind people’s actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. When writing historical fiction, what sorts of decisions have you had to make about historical figures or events in order for your book to work?

This definitely came up a number of times when I was writing the story of the Fox sisters in We Hear the Dead. They did what the historical record says they did, and I had to work with that. I had to provide the motivation behind their actions, even when those actions didn’t make sense. I believed the girls were frauds, but I had to work with witness accounts of their eerily accurate séances. Elisha Kane broke up with Maggie Fox repeatedly, but she always took him back. Why?

In the end, I had to remember that people in the past were not very different than people today. Witnesses lie. Girls believe their boyfriends will change. When faced with something in history that didn’t make sense, I almost always found that human nature provided the solution for me. Because people aren’t logical or perfect.

Why is historical fiction important to read?

For exactly the reasons I stated above! People in the past were the same as people today. It’s important for us to understand that there’s nothing new under the sun – even if we think there is! Long-distance romance? Not new. Boyfriends who won’t commit and businesses that defraud the customers? Not new.

We need historical fiction in order to be less self-centered, to remind ourselves that people who came before us led lives as rich and interesting as our own – as will the people who come after us.

What were your favorite books when you were a teenager?

I loved fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. (Still do.) I read the novelized version of Star Wars a thousand times. (I was in middle school in 1977 when the first Star Wars came out.) I also loved mysteries written by Mary Stewart and Agatha Christie. Roger Zelazny, CJ Cherryh, and Douglas Adams were my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors.

Therefore, I find myself wanting to write the kinds of books that intrigued me as a teen — ones with twisted, hard-to-solve mysteries, spooky settings, heroes who don’t look like heroes and maybe don’t even want to be heroes, but come through in the end. (Like that moment in Star Wars when Han Solo comes back to save the day, even after he said he wouldn’t.)

What advice would you give to teens who like to write?

Read, write, get feedback, and repeat! The only way to get better at something is to practice it – whether it’s playing a musical instrument, a sport, singing, drawing, or writing. Don’t be frustrated when your writing doesn’t turn out the way you envisioned it in your head. You can always revise – and I highly recommend revising your stories because you learn a lot when you change things. But you also have to read what you love. Books are your best writing teachers. While reading books you will learn how to develop characters and plot twists and settings.

When and where were you born?

Ack! The birthday question!

I get a lot of emails asking me this question from students who are trying to complete a school assignment. I wonder why all these teachers want to know my birthday. 😛

Anyway, since a lot of students need this information for their reports, here it is. I was born February 3, 1965 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

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Do you have a question that didn’t get answered? Ask me! Send me an email from my Contact page, and I’ll get back to you. Just remember, if you have a blocked email account, my reply might not reach you. In that case, you can contact me through my Facebook author page or Goodreads.