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Plymouth Whitemarsh High School

Colonial Middle School students get a peek at what it's like to write a best-selling book

Colonial Middle School students get a peek at what it's like to write a best-selling book

Colonial Middle School students with an interest in creative writing had the chance to ask New York Times best-selling author Jennifer A. Nielsen questions about how she develops characters, how she picks character names, and about the constraints of writing historical fiction (among other things) during her visit to the school on April 11.

Ms. Nielsen is the author of young adult fiction books that include “The False Prince” (of the Ascendance Series), as well as historical fiction books that include “A Night Divided” (set during the time period when East and West Germany were divided by the Berlin Wall), and “Resistance” (set during the Holocaust). She spoke to sixth-graders during an assembly, and then met with smaller groups of seventh- and eighth-graders for writers’ workshops.

During one workshop, students had a variety of perceptive questions to ask Ms. Nielsen. The author, who is from Utah, was candid in her responses and made numerous references to popular characters such as Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen (from “The Hunger Games”), and even George Heffley (from “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) to help the students understand her points.

One student asked her if it is harder to write historical fiction because a writer might be constrained by having to stick to facts. Ms. Nielsen said not necessarily, because sometimes the constraints spur creativity. But historical novels do require attention to detail and a lot of research, she said, noting that she once researched sewer maps in Germany for one of her books so that its accuracy could not be questioned. 

Another student asked her about an efficient way to describe a character, and Ms. Nielsen had a quick answer: Put the character in trouble. She said when a character faces adversity, it becomes easy to show (rather than describe with a long list of adjectives) who the character is. 

Ms. Nielsen shared that her favorite author is S.E. Hinton, who wrote “The Outsiders.” She recalled being amazed when she learned that the author was both female and a teenager. Another student asked her how she picks names for her characters, and she noted that she often relies upon baby name books for ideas. 

Ms. Nielsen said she usually takes four to five months to write a novel but that other authors take much longer. If students are interested in becoming authors, she encouraged them not to put time constraints on their efforts. 

“Just write a little bit every day until you type, ‘the end,’” she said.

Library/Media Specialist Brooke Carpenter said while Ms. Nielsen’s books are not part of the English/Language Arts curriculum, they are available in the library and are very popular with students. Several students had her books on their desks as they listened to her speak.


Ms. Nielsen speaks to students
Students laugh as they work through a scenario in the writers' workshop.
Ms. Nielsen describes how she might use a picture to help her write a scene.
Ms. Nielsen writes on the board