Chapter ’14: The Return
By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Anne Blankman remembers what it’s like to sit in a Niskayuna classroom and become inspired.
She was in eighth grade at Van Antwerp Middle School when she wrote her first historical story about World War II.
On Nov. 17, while four of Blankman’s former teachers from the school district watched, she passed on that same spark of inspiration to a room full of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
She told the gathered students about the steps she took to become an author: quitting an unfulfilling job to focus on writing, researching and creating a story, getting an agent, selling a book and writing a sequel.
“A couple of years ago, I realized I just wasn’t happy unless I was writing,” said Blankman, who left her job as a librarian to become a writer of young adult novels.
Her first book, “Prisoner of Night and Fog,” is a detailed historical fiction novel with a murder mystery woven in. The main character, Gretchen, is the 17-year-old niece of Adolf Hitler. She must choose between loyalty to the National Socialist Party, in which she was raised, and her desire to know how her father died.
Her second novel, “Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke,” is a sequel to the first. It continues to follow Gretchen through a different setting in the same time period, and will go on sale in April.
Blankman said researching and writing just the first book took two years. The students thought that sounded like an awfully long time.
“Don’t be discouraged. I had just had a baby,” she said jokingly.
Her daughter, Kirsten, is 5 now. Blankman and her family live in Yorktown, Virginia, but she traveled to Niskayuna for a special two-day residency. During her visit, she presented to students at both middle schools and the high school.
It was especially meaningful to her because she was a member of the very first class to attend Van Antwerp when it opened. She spent her sixth- and seventh-grade years at Iroquois Middle School.
During her presentation, Blankman taught students about the publishing process. She said the time it took to publish her first book — about four years from research to commercial shelves — is actually lightning-fast by the standards of the publishing industry. She was able to secure an agent shortly after finishing the first draft of the first book.
Three weeks later, HarperCollins bought it, plus two more. Blankman signed a contract to write the sequel to “Prisoner of Night and Fog,” plus one more novel about a completely different topic. She hasn’t revealed yet what that topic is, but she’s excited about it. She completed the manuscript the Saturday before visiting Niskayuna.
Even though Blankman couldn’t tell the students what her newest book will be about, she shared lots of other industry secrets with them. For example, she told them, new books in the United States always come out on Tuesdays, and only about 10 percent of them are printed with their original titles.
She shared some tips about her writing process, too.
“You always need to know more than you’re telling your reader,” Blankman said. She encouraged the students to do lots of research before they started working, and to create outlines for their plots before drafting. She said outlining is especially important for the mystery genre, which includes her first two books.
Finally, she counseled the middle schoolers to expect rejection but to persevere. She also told them to practice.
“Writing is like a muscle,” Blankman said. “You need to exercise it every day.”
The students asked so many questions, they nearly missed their buses. One eighth-grade English teacher suggested her students might’ve been especially curious because they had just written stories of their own. One had even written about the World War II era, the same time frame that so fascinates Blankman.
The parallels were not lost on the visiting author.
“It felt really special to be back here at this school that was such a wonderful place for me,” Blankman said. “It’s 20 years after I went to middle school and these teachers still remember me.”
Not only did they remember her, they lined up for pictures and asked her to autograph their books.
In the midst of so many students filling the auditorium, it was easy to wonder whether a future author might be among the rows, thinking about the story that would spark a career.
Sixth-grader Enana Jacob took careful notes while Blankman gave her presentation. She was fixated, especially during the question-and-answer segment.
Blankman told the students to write what they love.
“Write the story that sets you on fire, that you can’t stop thinking about,” she told the group.
When she said that, Jacob was thinking about her own idea book, which holds the beginning of a story about Pompeii.
She said Blankman gave her a few tips about writing historical fiction, and writing in general, that she won’t forget.
“You have to research before you write,” Jacob said.
“Even if you don’t feel like writing, you should still write,” she added.