Mining for Heart: “Plucking Heart Strings with Word Choice” by Vivian Kirkfield

Vivian Kirkfield has a really big year coming up in 2019! I had to nab her now to share her process of ‘Mining for Heart’ before she takes off on her trip hopping across the globe and gets too busy with multiple book launches! Thank you, Vivian, for your thoughts on heart as the emotional resonance of a story.

viv black dressHeart…we all have one…beating in our chests…pumping blood through our body to keep us alive and well.

And I guess that is what heart does for a manuscript – it keeps it alive and well. And it keeps readers turning the pages. I think that readers make an emotional connection to the story and to the characters because they recognize something in the characters that they see in themselves and something in the story that feels familiar. And for me, it is the words that are chosen, and how they are used that play with our heart strings, like a bow that is moved across the strings of a violin. Whether a story is rhyming or prose, fiction or nonfiction, just like the song says, it’s got to have heart.

In my lyrical picture book, Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (Pomegranate Press, March 15, 2019, illustrated by Mirka Hokkanen), I use language to connect with my child readers and listeners.

Water waits.four otters cover

Dawn breaks

in a chorus of bird song.

One willow flycatcher whistles

as night slips silently away.

Water ripples.

Two dragonflies dance

Ballerinas on a liquid stage,

while a school of bonytail chub

leap in a frenzy of feeding.

Most children have been up at dawn (every mother out there will attest to that, I’m sure!) and have heard birds whistle and sing…but have they thought about night slipping silently away? And most children have seen bugs on the water at a pool, lake, or river. But have they thought about the bugs as ‘ballerinas on a liquid stage’? Through my word choices, I try to ramp up the emotion that those sentences convey.

In addition, the counting aspect of the story helps engage the child listener who may observe the illustrations more carefully to count the animals on each spread. And I added a storm to help build tension as the child listener identifies with being caught in the rain and perhaps wonders or worries what will happen to the animals.

I also sought many different words for the movement of water (before, during, and after the storm) so that I could show how the character of the water changes as quickly as a child’s moods: ripples, calms, splashes, glistens, darkens, swells, cascades, roils, glitters, flows, waits. One of my favorite resources when I am writing or revising is It can provide hundreds of alternatives for a word that might be just ho-hum.

But can we make that heartfelt connection in a strictly prose story? I believe we can.

In another one of my debut picture books, Sweet Dreams, Sarah (Creston Books, May 1, 2019, illustrated by Chris Ewald), Iseek to connect with kids straight from the opening lines using one of my favorite techniques, the element of three. Three is a very pleasing rhythm to the human ear. In this story, I use the threes quite often:

Before the Civil War, Sarah obeyed her owner.  Sweet Dreams Cover Template Revised

Hurry up!

            Eyes down!

                        Don’t speak!

But every day, Sarah dreamed of a different life.

A husband.

            A family.

                        A job that she loved.

And a bit later in the book:

Sarah moved to Chicago

with freedom in her pocket,

            hope in her heart,

                        and dreams swirling in her head.

I also use specific phrases to help the reader connect on a deeper level. Most kids have experience with trying to do something…and failing. After Sarah builds her innovative piece of furniture, she applies for a patent— and waits a year. But it is denied and she needs to reapply.

Carefully she changed a word here and a sentence there, explaining more about her unique mechanism, the idea that had come to her so long ago. Slipping the paperwork, and a bit of her heart into the envelope, she sealed her fate and sent it off.

Can you imagine…slipping a bit of your heart into the envelope along with the paperwork? And sealing your fate…as you seal the flap of the envelope. 😉The story of Sarah E. Goode is an important one that needed to be told, but I think it was the language I used that spoke to the editor’s heart and helped her connect with the manuscript.

My last question is: can we find heart in a funny rhyming picture book? Yes, indeed we can!

When I wrote Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House, February 12, 2019, illustrated by Jill Weber), I used a repeating refrain woven throughout the story that is the heart which pumps life into the pages. Whenever I write a story in rhyme, my best friend iswww.rhymzone.comwhere you can input a word, click a button, and get all the words that rhyme with it.

In the story, Pippa Mouse is searching for her missing Seder plate and she has to find it before sundown when the holiday starts. So, right away, we are cheering for her to beat the deadline. Then, she must face each of her natural enemies, first Cat.

 Quiver! Quaver! Shiver! Shake! Cats make Pippa cringe and quake.pippa cover

Pippa, though afraid to stir, gently strokes the velvet fur.

Have you seen my Seder plate? Sun sets soon—it’s getting late.”

And then Snake:

Quiver! Quaver! Shiver! Shake! Snakes make Pippa cringe and quake.

Pippa scrambles down the lane. Offers Snake a daisy chain.

“Have you seen my Seder plate? Sun sets soon—it’s getting late.”

And finally, Owl. Owl directs her to the lake to question Golda Fish. Mouse hurries to the lake, climbs on a hedge, falls in, and….

At the bottom—something round.

Can you guess what Pippa found?

Ball and coin and old tin can,

Bottle cap and rusty pan,

Globe to circumnavigate,

Best of all—the Seder plate!

In the end, all join together for a holiday feast.


And that is exactly what you want the agents, editors, parents, teachers, and kids to be saying when they read the last lines of your manuscript. Or perhaps, Ahhh! Or even Hahahaha!

Because with an Awww! or an Ahhh! or a Hahaha! it means your story has heart…and you’ve captured theirs.

 Be sure to visit Vivian’s super site HERE . She has all kinds of posts about books and authors! And also offers critique services. 


45 thoughts on “Mining for Heart: “Plucking Heart Strings with Word Choice” by Vivian Kirkfield

  1. Vivian is a marvel, not only in beautiful creative energy but also as a bottomless well of positive spirit. Thank you for featuring her work, Beth.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Your post helps us look at our manuscripts with fresh eyes. How can we make our readers care? What are the perfect words with which to tell our stories! Great job, Viv! I need a loan to purchase all your books!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. If it weren’t for the encouragement and support I’ve gotten from you and the rest of the kid lit community, Jilanne, I don’t know what I would have done with the SARAH delays…but the launch day is definitely coming and I thank you for all of your patience.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Golda Fish? Really Vivian? Ok, I will admit that after the cymbal crash in my head, I did snort out loud. Sounds like a fun Passover book. I am especially looking forward to Sweet Dreams Sarah, as I love history stories, especially about women with chutzpah/spunk. Also her persistence is admirable. I think books about being persistent and then letting the kids see that it paid off, will have some effect on kids’ attitudes. You have quite an exciting year and we are all excited for you Vivian. I imagine you like Mary Poppins, in your fluffy, black party dress and a black lace umbrella, floating off across the globe, spreading positivity and the love of literature to little kids all over. It will be exciting to see all the magic unfold for you in 2019, and to discover the purpose of your journey and why you are being sent, not just why you want to go. I am very glad to have met you and Beth Anderson whose book An Inconvenient Alphabet has a place of honor in my kidlit bookcase in my recording studio. It’s a story I think about now, out of nowhere. Pretty cool. New knowledge. Happy Weekend everyone. Peace, Annie Lynn AnnieBirdd Music, LLC

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I LOVE that image of Mary Poppins in a black lacy skirt…I actually took out Pollyanna, one of my favorite middle grade stories from when I was a kid because I wanted to reread it to discover why I had loved it so much and why my older sister always called me Pollyanna. And I discovered that it was because Pollyanna, the character in the story, is ALWAYS finding the glad happy side of things. Yup! That’s me, for sure.
      Thank you for all of your wonderful Twitter support, Annie…I am so very grateful for it!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not sure about the expert part, but I’m glad if the advice and examples are helpful to other writers. You, my dear Tina, have always been amazing in helping me hone my manuscripts…and I thank you so very much!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for this glimpse into Vivian’s upcoming books. Heartening and inspiring to see her approach in three different books. 2019 is going to quite the year. Looking forward to adding these to our personal library.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Great interview and great advice! I also use Rhymezone, not only for rhyming words, but for synonyms and all the other things they offer. I think I’ll take a lot at all my PB manuscripts and see if I can dig a little deeper and add some more heart. Congratulations, Vivian. Your books sound great.


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