Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Elizabeth MacLeod

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Elizabeth MacLeod is one nosy author, which is why she loves writing non-fiction. She’s very curious about why people do what they do, and likes sharing with kids the amazing facts and secrets that she uncovers.

As a kid in Thornhill, Ontario, the idea of being a writer never crossed Elizabeth’s mind — she figured most authors were already dead and they definitely weren’t Canadian. Besides, it was science that interested Elizabeth.

But writing was already part of Elizabeth’s life. After dinner on school nights, Elizabeth and her two brothers would trudge up to their rooms, close their doors and start to do their homework — or so their parents thought. A few minutes later, a piece of paper would come sliding under Elizabeth’s door. One of her brothers had drawn a picture, usually of some weird creature.

Elizabeth really couldn’t draw (still can’t!), so the only way she could respond was to write a short story, often about a mad scientist or space alien. She would slip the story under her brother’s door and — well, not a lot of homework got done.

At university, Elizabeth studied sciences — there was hardly any writing involved at all. But after university, she was hired as an editor at OWL magazine, where she could combine writing and her love of science. But it wasn’t long before Elizabeth had a goal: to write a book. Her first one was about lions and since then she’s written more than 50 others. Her next book, Secrets Underground, will be published by Annick Press in 2014.

Elizabeth lives in Toronto with her husband, Paul and their cat Cosimo. While she writes, he is usually sprawled across her desk — often right on the book she needs for research!

Send your questions and comments for Elizabeth to

The Proust Questionnaire, with Elizabeth MacLeod

Elizabeth MacLeod is Open Book: Toronto's December 2013 Writer in Residence. In her answer to the Proust Questionnaire, Elizabeth tells us her greatest extravagance, her favourite heroes in fiction, the Clan MacLeod motto and more.

What is your dream of happiness? Time alone with a great book, a purring cat — and no telephones!

What is your idea of misery? Being surrounded by lots of people who all have many ideas about what I should be doing for them. While I’m suffering from a migraine.

Where would you like to live? In a fabulous condo near the main theatre district in London, England.

What qualities do you admire most in a man? Love of cats! Oh, and generosity, open mindedness and an ability to listen.

What qualities do you admire most in a woman? Kindness, patience and generosity.

What is your chief characteristic? I tend to end up organizing people and things, whether I want to or not.

What is your principal fault? Impatience.

What is your greatest extravagance? I can always make time for reading, no matter what I should really be doing.

What faults in others are you most tolerant of? Fear and similar weaknesses.

What do you value most about your friends? Their generosity, energy, intelligence and sense of fun.

What characteristic do you dislike most in others? Cruelty in any form.

What characteristic do you dislike most in yourself? Procrastinating and wasting time.

What is your favourite virtue? Gratitude.

What is your favourite occupation? Laughing with old friends.

What would you like to be? A jazz singer.

What is your favourite colour? Blue.

What is your favourite flower? Purple iris.

What is your favourite bird? Hummingbirds — I once saw them described in a bird-watching book as “pugnacious little flyers.”

What historical figure do you admire the most? After Jesus Christ, also Eleanor Roosevelt and Sir Isaac Newton.

What character in history do you most dislike? Hitler is the obvious answer here but any dictator. I dislike them, but mostly I don’t understand them.

Bones Never Lie: How Forensics Helps Solve History’s Mysteries

By Elizabeth MacLeod

From the publisher's website:

How did King Tut really die?

The mystery of the young pharaoh’s death is only one of the puzzles that modern science has helped solve. Thanks to forensics — the science of examining physical evidence — we now know that King Tut died of malaria. We also know that stomach cancer, and not arsenic as suspected, killed Napoleon.

Seven intriguing stories about historical royal figures whose demise was suspicious, and hard scientific facts about crime-solving techniques make each event seem like an episode of CSI rather than a history lesson.

Kids will be fascinated to find out how scientists use autopsy results, DNA testing, bone fragments, and even insects to determine the cause of death.

Recent Writer In Residence Posts

Happy Hogmanay

And Another Thing …
If cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden were still alive, she would be 135 years old today — and probably still looking fabulous. When I wrote about her in The Kids Book of Great Canadian Woman (did you know she was Canadian, born in Woodbridge, Ontario?), I was amazed to discover her parents had actually named her Florence Nightingale Graham. Guess what they wanted her to grow up to be?

But nursing wasn’t for the future business woman — she was too squeamish. Elizabeth much preferred creating beauty creams. She also took makeup from the theatre stage and made it available to all women.

Extreme-ly Canada

Woo hoo! We got our power back late Saturday afternoon and were able to move home shortly after that. Our very chilly house warmed up quickly and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be in our house. I have a new respect for our pioneer ancestors. Thanks again to Dr. McE (and Alix) for all of your help. I’m thinking of you both today.

Ever since I mentioned in my blog post of December 11 that I was writing a third book with Frieda Wishinsky, I bet many people have been unable to sleep at night wondering what that book is about.

Anyone? Anyone? (Bueller?)

A Promise Kept

Still no power at home, so, yet again, please excuse any typos!

Back on December 10 I posted about the Slush Pile (the what?? — please check out that earlier post) and promised that I would also write about the query letter. This is a brief but detailed letter written to interest an editor in your manuscript. It’s like the cover letter you send with a resume.

Before you prepare your query letter, be sure to read the writers’ guidelines on the publisher’s Web site. Then follow my handy-dandy lists of what to do and what not to do to write query letters that sell:

1. Open with a strong statement or paragraph to grab the editor’s interest. Make your query stand out.

2. Present a fresh, well-focused idea that a publisher can’t help but want to publish.

When Do Bones Lie?

Still no power at our house, but thanks to the great kindness of friends, we are safe and warm (THANK YOU so much, Dr. McE and Alix!). I can’t blog from my regular computer, so please excuse any typos, etc.

When do bones lie?? Never! At least not according to my book Bones Never Lie! The subtitle is “How Forensics Helps Solve History’s Mysteries” and my editor Kathy Lowinger helped me match up forensic techniques with famous mysteries involving royals (I explored a similar topic in my book Royal Murder.)

Here are some of the stories I wrote about in Bones Never Lie and because I love amazing triva, I’ve followed the name of each tale with one fantastic fact that I included in that chapter:

Quote Unquote

Because of the weather situation here in Toronto, I'm posting my blog for the 24th today on the 23rd. Please read both and please excuse any typos, etc.

Oddly enough, writers have written a lot about writing. Here are ten of my favourite quotes — I hope you enjoy them too!

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” — Douglas Adams

“If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.” ― Kingsley Amis

“I never sit down to my desk without revulsion, and I never rise from it but with relief.” — Robert Browning

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” ― Winston Churchill

“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” ― Charles Dickens

A Foggy Day in Vancouver Town

Hi — I wrote this post before the incredible ice storm that hit southern Ontario. Please excuse any typos, etc., since my editing and e-mail facilities are a little rudimentary right now. Thanks!

Two months ago today I was on Granville Island, giving my first-ever Power Point presentation. Wow, was I nervous! It was part of the Vancouver Writers Festival and I had a great time. If you’re a writer and you’re invited to take part in this event, don’t hesitate for a second — just say yes!

Secrets Underground

Annick Press came to me with the idea for my book Secrets Underground: North America's Buried Past and I have to admit, I didn’t really understand the concept at first. But then I began my research and I became more and more excited about the stories I uncovered.

Writing a Life — or Two or Three

I’ve written many biographies, ranging from books about a single person to volumes filled with more than 100 short biographies. I love writing them — as I say on my author page on this site, I’m nosy and curious about why people do what they do. And once I find out, I enjoy sharing it with kids and adults.

Biographies are fun. John F. Kennedy said, “All history is gossip,” and almost everyone likes a little gossip! Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works says, “Gossip is a favorite pastime in all human societies because knowledge is power.” (Will Rogers said, “The only time people dislike gossip is when you gossip about them.”)

Creativity II: Sometimes a Cookie is More than a Cookie

I wrote about creativity on December 3, but it’s such a large and important topic, that I want to revisit it.

A painter friend of mine once said that if you’re going to output good creative work, then you need to take in some creative experiences that enrich you. So artists of words, images and more need to take time to figure out what feeds their creativity, then try to provide that nourishment for their brain.

The Wright Way

The Wright Way

Exactly 110 years ago today, the world took flight. It was on this date in 1903 that Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first-ever controlled, powered flight. Think for a moment what it was like for them on a windy North Carolina beach in the middle of December. Yikes!

I’ve written two books about the brothers — The Wright Brothers: A Flying Start and The Wright Brothers — and I loved discovering their life stories and how they felt about their experimenting and great achievement. Here are five of my favourite Wright Facts:

* The Wrights were sometimes discouraged by their lack of progress towards flight. At one point Wilbur even said, “I made the prediction that man would sometimes fly, but that it would not be in our lifetime.”

History and its Ripples

Who in their right mind would suggest to a publisher that they wanted to write a book called A History of Just About Everything?? Not me or Frieda Wishinsky, my co-author for a book by that very title that was published this fall.

When we proposed to Kids Can Press that we write a book about the most important happenings of the 20th century, our editor came back to us with the idea that we should expand our proposal. And we agreed — although there were times in the process when writing all the “180 Events, People and Inventions That Changed the World” (that’s the book’s subtitle) seemed rather overwhelming.

Horsing Around

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the Annick Press office, choosing photos for my book about horses that will be published in 2015 (title still to be determined). I wrote about horses in Why Do Horses Have Manes? but this new book uses the focus of horses to look at important events in world history. Kids can read about famous steeds ranging from Bucephalus (Alexander the Great’s horse) to Sea Biscuit (the Great Depression’s amazing race horse — go to to watch him beat War Admiral). The manuscript also includes the story of the Pony Express, pit ponies (the little horses that helped workers mine coal and minerals) and North America’s mustangs.

Oh, Those Fabulous, Furry Felines

At this time of year, our cat Cosimo is either stretched out on my desk under my desk lamp, curled up on a heating grate, snuggled under a duvet or lounging on a laptop. Anyone who knows me is likely amazed that I have waited this long to post a blog about cats.

As Mark Twain said, “When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” Edward Gorey explained, “Books. Cats. Life is good.” and my friend Karen, who is a wonderful writer, editor and grammarian, would agree wholeheartedly (while rubbing her cat Stanley’s speckled belly).

It Takes Two

For most of my books I’ve been the sole author. But I was also the ghost writer on one, and I’ve written two books (Everything But the Kitchen Sink and A History of Just About Everything) with Frieda Wishinsky — we’re now working on a third. (Perhaps we’ll have to make sure it has the word “Everything” in the middle of the title so we can create a trilogy!)

I’m not sure how other writing duos work, but Frieda and I often say that we work together by NOT working together. We create an outline for the book together, with lots of backing and forthing, but once the editor approves the outline, we split up the writing and work completely separately.

The Slush Pile

If you’re part of the publishing industry, then the title to this posting probably made you shudder. If you’re not in the business, then you need to know that the slush pile is the huge stack of unsolicited manuscripts — also known as “unsoliciteds” — that are sent to every publishing company in hopes the publisher will publish them

Brigitte and Book Trailers

It was Brigitte Waisberg, Marketing Manager at Annick Press, who got me involved with blogging at Open Book Toronto. Thanks to her and to Clelia Scala, Open Book’s Executive Director, I’ve made it through a week of blogging — thanks also to all the people who have sent me comments.

Usually when I get an e-mail from Brigitte, it’s to send me reviews of my books. However on Friday she sent me the link about some of Annick’s most recent non-fiction books, including one I wrote called Bones Never Lie.

A Sad Day

Perhaps many of us will always remember where we were yesterday when we heard that Nelson Mandela had “gone home.” As President Obama said, “We have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.”

Sadly, today is the anniversary of two tragedies in Canadian history. In 1989, the Montreal Massacre horrified Canadians. And almost 100 years ago today, the world’s greatest man-made explosion to that time took place in Halifax harbour.

The Case for Procrastination

One of the projects I’m working on right now is a picture book that will be published in Fall 2014 by Kids Can Press. The subject is a Toronto Police Force horse named Bunny, who was one of 18 horses chosen from the Force to go to Europe and serve in World War I. Bunny and his rider faced many dangers — they were even on the battlefield the first time poison gas was used in the war. But of all of those 18 horses, Bunny was the only one still alive at the end of World War I.

Finding Your Community

I hope everyone has recovered from your Telescope Day (see my December 3 post) celebrations yesterday! I had to curtail mine this year because in addition to working on a number of manuscripts, yesterday was the deadline for me to submit copy for the section I edit of the CANSCAIP News.

CANSCAIP stands for Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers ( and pronounced CAN-scape). This organization supports and promotes children’s literature, but perhaps even more importantly, it supports and promotes children’s authors, illustrators and performers.

Creativity: Tribulations, Trilogies (and Telescopes)

Thanks to everyone who sent me comments about yesterday’s post. Who knew there are so many Ringo fans out there?!

The hurry and hustle of December can make it hard to be creative, and often writers have a lot of projects that have to be finished before year end. But I think many non-writers try to be more creative in both their personal lives and careers. It’s very satisfying to create something, or solve a problem in a new way. And as work and home budgets are reduced, creativity can be even more important.

Here are a few methods I use to increase my creativity and blast through writer’s block:

Look at the Problem Another Way

From the Other Side of the Desk

I don’t know too many authors who have had a straightforward path to becoming a writer, and mine certainly hasn’t been. I studied sciences at the University of Toronto — I focused on biology despite the fact that I was at Victoria College, home of Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, and many other famous writers.

In my four years at university, I wrote many tests, exams and lab reports, but only one essay! However a few years after graduating, I attended the Banff Publishing Workshop and that led to a job as an editor at OWL (a children’s magazine) and later at Kids Can Press, a children’s book publisher. Before I left OWL, I’d already begun writing books, and I kept right on while editing at Kids Can. That’s why I often say that I got into writing from the other side of the desk.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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