A Peek at the Creative Space of Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff

We’re starting this week off with a look at the workspace of author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff. Liz is a former elementary and middle school teacher who has published a number of books including The ABC’s of Writing for Children, John Muir and Stickeen: An Alaskan Adventure, Louise the One and Only, and her latest title Jackson and Bud’s Bumpy Ride.

Jackson and Bud is about the true story of the first cross-country road trip, completed in 1903 by Horatio Jackson, his mechanic Sewall Crocker, and a dog they picked up along the way named Bud. If you thought Oprah and Gayle toughed it out in their cross-country road trip, get a load of this: Horatio Jackson drove a 1903 Winton that clocked an impressive 30 miles per hour at its zippiest. They covered over 5,600 miles in their trip, only 150 miles of which were paved at that time, with few road signs and no maps to guide them. All this in a car that had no windshield or roof, neccesiatating everyone–even Bud the dog!–to wear driving goggles to keep dirt and bugs out of their eyes. 

Booklist said of Jackson and Bud’s Bumpy Ride: “It might be difficult for children to imagine a time when cars didn’t rule the road, and roads themselves didn’t rule the landscape, but this true account will take them back to an era when that scenario seemed unlikely. . . . Hargis’ glib cartoon illustrations of the begoggled trio and their clanging, mud-spattered auto are a terrific match to the lighthearted narrative. An afterword provides a deeper appreciation for just how remarkable and historical their adventure really was. Easily accesible history here.”

Here is a book trailer for Jackson and Bud’s Bumpy Ride:

In addition to the books she’s authored, Liz has published more than 350 articles in magazines and newspapers and was the writing for children columnist for ByLine magazine for eight years. She has taught educators through the California State University Hayward’s East Bay Extension program, and currently is the chairwoman of the California Writers Club “Young Writers Contest” and workshops for middle school students.

If you’d like to learn more about Liz and her books, you can visit her website and her blog. (Her blog is a great place to find writing prompts, and I especially enjoyed the recent posts–June 20 and June 8–on Sylvia Beach Hotel, a bed and breakfast where each room is decorated in homage to a different author. Another one to add to my list of “Places I’d Like To Go Someday”!)

Me in my clutter!
Describe your writing space.

My husband took our old guest room and made it into my current office. He built wall-to-wall bookshelves and made a long computer desk which is in the center of the room, facing the door. On one wall there is a large window which looks out at open space of oak trees and northern California wildlife. Deer and red-tailed hawks are frequent visitors.

This is what I see out of my office window.  

Although I love this space, I must confess it’s cluttered with books, papers, and small, loving treasures I’ve collected over the years! Fortunately, my whole house isn’t this way. Only this one room.

I also have a second, smaller space for my roll-top desk and file cabinets. This area, off our bedroom, used to be my only writing area and my computer was in the hallway of this space. When my son and his friends played outside, I’d have to roll my chair away from my computer, allowing the traffic to pass through, and then roll back to my computer so I could finish my sentence! I worked this way for years.

The bookshelves my husband made for me.

Describe a typical workday.

After some exercise and e-mail, I will write most of the day with short breaks for lunch and dog-walking. Besides writing for children, I freelance for adult magazines and newspapers, and chair a county-wide writing contest for middle school students. That plus school visits and teaching writing workshops for kids provides a lot of variety and sometimes disrupts my focus.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

I treasure my books. Some are from my childhood, my son’s childhood, and some real special ones are from my mother and father’s childhoods. Others I’ve bought at used bookstores or found at free library-give-aways.

Then there are those lovely ones that are autographed from my friends and other authors. Books for writers can be research and also pure joy!

A collection of small animals reading and writing.

My altar to the angels and Mother Mary, as well as pictures of my mother and father who have crossed over. Although I consider myself a “Cafeteria Catholic,” I have a strong belief and love for Mother Mary and angels.

Anna and Valentine Koehler – My father’s grandparents.  I’ve never known any of my grandparents, as they all passed on before I could meet them. But for some reason, I feel close to Anna.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I usually begin the morning with some meditation and prayer, with my Yorkie, Zoie, at my feet.


What do you listen to while you work?

If it’s warm enough, I’ll open the window so I can listen to the birds and the squirrels. Otherwise, silence.

In the old days when my son was young and lived at home, I’d pop in a classical CD or listen to movie music without lyrics.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Decaf iced tea. And then lots and lots of ice water. A handful of nuts is a good protein snack for me, although I would rather eat chocolate all day long!

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Trying to keep myself from NOT looking at “my” hawk outside that window! And turning the sound off of my computer so I don’t hear when someone has sent me mail online so I won’t check it so often!

Also, once I’m “in” a project, I often don’t hear or see anything else and am surprised when my husband walks in the door after work. It’s that late already? Isn’t it still morning?

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

When I write articles and nonfiction, I tend to write everything on the computer. When I write fiction, I do a mixture of the two. Some of my first drafts and brainstorming are done longhand. Once I capture the voice or next few plot points, I go to the computer and continue with the scenes ahead.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I use a mixture of the two, depending upon the project. With fiction, the muse leads me first. Then it’s a mixture of head and heart! When I use ONLY my heart, later I’ll get in a muddle. If I use ONLY an outline, there is no soul to the book. So with me it’s “back-and-forths” of muse-plot-outline-muse-plot-outline and a meshing of both.

With nonfiction books and articles, I do an outline first before going too far with the project.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Probably one of my writing friends: Ellen, Paula, Karen, Susan, Loretta, or Susie.

What is the best piece of writing/illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

1. This from a character workshop I just took from Martha Engber: Detail the moment your character’s thinking changed.  What moment in his or her life gave her the “ah-ha” time that propels her inner fear/rule/motivation?  In my current book, I know this, but didn’t write it because it will be revealed at the end of the book. However, as writers we need to write this first. This tiny minute in time for the character, written as a slow-down-the-scene, is crucial for the author to be aware of from the first page of the book. It’s one of those “duh” moments for me! Why didn’t I do that all along? (Said as I knock my head against the wall now!)

2. When I interviewed Karen Cushman for The ABCs of Writing for Children she said her first drafts were short. With each subsequent draft, she’d add description, details, character depth, layers, etc. This is freeing me now that I’m in a first draft stage with a book.

I hope you enjoyed this interview! Later this week I’ll be posting details about a really fun summer project that I hope you’ll be interested in participating with. Stay tuned for more info . . .

3 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff”

  1. LadybugSF

    How awesome is that hotel you talked about?! We have to go there! Love love love it. Elizabeth's blog is very cool.

  2. Lynn

    What a wonderful interview. Liz this is very inspiring. I don't know how you find the time to get everything done. Jennifer, thanks for sharing Liz's story with the world. You asked great questions.

    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  3. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files)

    Thank you for stopping by and your nice comment, Lynn!

    And Kath, yes! We should go to the Sylvia Hotel sometime. Maybe a good potential future trip for our families to meet up? Or just you and me and we can have our own writer retreat.