Lessons from Writing My First Book

CLP 200x216

by Christine Liu-Perkins


My debut book, AT HOME IN HER TOMB: LADY DAI AND THE ANCIENT CHINESE TREASURES OF MAWANGDUI, was released last week (April 8)! Over the fourteen years it took from inspiration to publication, I had time to learn a few things along the way.


Writing a nonfiction book can take several years. If I’m not sure how long I can stay interested in a topic, I may write an article about it rather than aim for a book. But when I started doing research on the Mawangdui tombs, I discovered they had so many amazing artifacts and revealed so much about life in ancient China—there was more than enough for a book. As I got further in, I could see a large web of connections between the tombs and other topics (e.g., forensics, art, and mourning traditions). Fortunately, my vision kept on growing with each draft I wrote, so I never lost interest.


My first proposal used 33 sources, the proposal that got accepted had 61 sources, and the final manuscript had over 400 sources. Collecting all that information was crucial for giving me facts, insights, and high impact details to enrich the book and to ensure accuracy. A friend once asked me, “Do you get tired of doing so much work?” My answer: there are two sides. I accept that I have to track down lots of sources, read them all, take notes, organize those notes, and let my mind wrestle with the chaos of so much information—that’s the time-consuming work part. But I do all that willingly because of the fun part—learning new things, seeing connections, and enjoying the writing because I have lots of wonderful stuff to work with.


AtHomeInHerTomb smFourteen years is a long time to keep one’s motivation up. Periodically along the way, I journaled about why I was writing this book, what I wanted it to be, who I was writing for, and what I hoped readers would take with them from it. Keeping these in mind helped sustain my faith in the value of pursuing the book.


I had plenty of opportunities to practice tenaciousness in every stage of the process. A few examples:

  • It took eight years and six proposals before the book was acquired.
  • A few chapters worked well from the beginning, but others were a struggle. I had to keep trying different approaches, trusting I could figure out how to make the chapters or sections meaningful and compelling.
  • I traveled to China to see the artifacts and the site of the Mawangdui tombs. My local guide took me to the museum, but three separate times he balked at taking me to the tomb site. “There’s nothing to see,” he insisted. Having come all the way from the other side of the world, I had to see where Lady Dai had lain hidden for two thousand years. After the third balk, I told him, “Even if it’s been built over and there’s only a sign marking the spot, I want to see the tomb site.” Finally, we went. Two of the tombs had been built over, but the third was open. I felt stunned staring down into the 33-foot deep, cavernous pit—an experience no photo or description could have given me.

Was it worth the marathon wait, the countless hours of work, the roller-coaster of ups and downs? I believe so. It’s a wondrous feeling to hold in my hands a book that I poured my heart, mind, and soul into. I appreciate the amazing journey it took to reach this point, and I’m grateful to the many people around the world who helped make the book come to life.



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2014 Colorado Teen Lit: Windows & Reflections

Denise VegaOn Saturday I had the privilege of helping to host the exhibit table for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – Rocky Mountain Chapter at the 2014 Colorado Teen Literature Conference. It was a blast meeting teachers, librarians, and writers of all ages!

One of the benefits of exhibiting is we get to hear the two keynote speeches. It’s always gratifying to me to have one of those “meant to be” moments, when something you’ve been talking about or working on is then reiterated later. This happened when author A.S. King (Reality Boy, Please Ignore Vera Deitz–Printz Honor, and more) kicked off the morning. She talked about the personal baggage we carry that gets in the way of achieving our dreams and goals and pointed out that it’s our suitcase; not anybody else’s. I put that person’s criticism in there, or that negative experience, or that limiting belief. And if I put them in, I can take them out. She encouraged us to claim our power, not give it away, and use it to fulfill out dreams. She also talked about giving back–through your life and your works as well as writing the books that resonate even if it doesn’t seem like those are the books that might sell. These are all things I’ve been focused on for the last 12-18 months and had just been talking to an author about them just before the keynote. Synchronistic validation…gotta love it.

Then after lunch, we heard from David Levithan. He read movingly from two of his books, including his latest–Two Boys Kissing–which provides points of view of current gay characters and the generation or so before them. As he continued, he brought up two approaches we, as novelists, can take. The first was that we can reflect the reality of our readers’ lives so they can say, “That’s me! Thank you! I’m not alone.” This is a wonderful way to connect and, interestingly, I had a conversation with two different people about this very thing at our exhibit table prior to David’s talk (more synchronicity). They both wanted to see their experiences reflected more widely in the literature and they had a passion to make that happen. It was thrilling to listen to.

David then moved from reflection to the idea of a window, presenting a story that shows what could be or might be in the future. It’s a window of hope and promise and even as I write these words I am getting goose bumps. I loved that. And I know he has done this in his books–most notably in his first novel, Boy Meets Boy–but I never made the connection that he did in his talk. I found it empowering and exciting to think about writing books that present people, attitudes and a world that could be, even if it’s not here yet. Perhaps that story might even be the beginning of change, planting the seeds of new views and new ways of living and seeing and loving.

Our writing can be anything we want it to be. In a time when we can feel inundated with the message that we must write books that will sell (as if there is a guide somewhere that we can follow to guarantee that), it was gratifying and inspiring to hear two gifted authors not only tell us–but show us through the success of their work–that writing from passion is a path we can and should take.


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Illustration or Is It Fine Art?

Photo of Bobbi Shupe



By Bobbi Shupe

What is the difference between an illustrator and a fine artist?  I asked my 92-year-old father who made his living as a high school art teacher but did fabulous oil and water color landscapes on the side, what he perceived to be the difference.  He drowsily contemplated the question.  Everything asked of him is contemplated in a drowsy fashion these days.

“Illustrators get paid for their art,” he grumbled.  “Fine artists don’t.”

“You don’t sell your pieces as a fine artist?” I pushed.

“You can but you can’t make a living,” he huffed.

I feel my father’s response is colored by his age and his never wanting to push hard enough to make a living selling his art, although he showed in various local exhibits and at places he volunteered, once retired, like Roxborough State Park.  Although he was an accomplished artist, he chose teaching, where he could make a living.  I think down deep I’ve held a similar belief that the difference between an illustrator and a fine artist is as simple as illustrators can make a living with their art while very few fine artists actually make a good living with theirs.

And, how ironic that we label the one who we don’t perceive able to make a living with their work as “fine” and feel they aspire to a higher level of creativity because they are creating art for art’s sake, however, the illustrator who is able to make a living through the creation of art is looked at as creating within the boundaries of someone else’s dictates.  Hummmmm, seems a little questionable to me.


For years I’ve worked as an illustrator creating artwork for surface design, books and murals.  When asked if I ever “showed” any of my work I’d explain that I didn’t have time to create “fine art”.  If I ever retired, I might pursue that avenue.

When the economy went bust in 2008 my mural work, in particular, took a real hit.  Why not try the “finer” side of creativity I decided.  Odds of me ever retiring were looking pretty slim.  I joined the Colorado Artists Guild and Women’s Caucus for Art in order to rub elbows with those who created for their own satisfaction.  I realized quickly that I wasn’t intrigued with landscapes and floral arrangements.  I can paint them on a wall but the “fine” me didn’t fit that niche.  What would push my illustrations, murals and faux work into that other world?

I dredged up my childhood when creativity was fun, when I’d get up early on a Saturday morning to be by myself and execute a craft project.  Rarely did my creations look like the pictures in the books of my inspirations but I had FUN, particularly with papier mache and combining a variety of elements.

Ah ha. . . .mixed media and collage.  I’d found my non-niche.  Over the last few years my “fine art” has evolved from elementary shadow boxes to full compositions comprised of illustrations, faux, papier mache and found objects–the best of all of my worlds.

I still do my share of illustrative assignments and the occasional mural.  I am also participating in shows and exhibitions with my fine art pieces.  Am I an illustrator or a fine artist?

I am making a living and I am an artist and I feel my life as an artist is quite fine.  That’s as close as I can get to an answer to the illustrator or fine artist question.

4 comments to Illustration or Is It Fine Art?

  • Ceil

    Both speakers sound very inspiring, Denise. I’m sorry I missed that conference, but thanks for sharing your thoughts on what the speakers had to say.

  • Great post, Bobbi. I’d never really thought about the subtleties at play here. As Anna-Maria said, “We are all artists.” That’s what I’ve always thought about you gifted people in the art arena!

  • I love that you gave yourself permission to find your “non-niche.” We all need to do that – to reach outside the box and see what’s there. Thank you!

  • My brother is a fine artist and taught high school art. He retired about 2 years ago and has continued to show his fine art. While he taught he usually lined up a lot of shows during the summer where he could show and sell his art. Now he can do it year round. He’s also pursued his music. He started playing in a rock and roll band back in high school and kept it up most of his adult life. Now he’s concentrating on writing his own songs and recording them. I think he made some smart choices. Now he’s at a time in his life where he and his wife can do as they please (within a budget) while I’m still barely hanging on. I had some great years as an illustrator but that money disappeared when 80 percent of my educational clients disappeared because they could hire an Indian or South American illustrator for $5/image. Teaching sounds pretty steady to me right now. I do agree that the distinction between “fine art” and “illustration” is a puzzle to me. We are all artists.

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