A Peek at the Creative Space of Kerry O’Malley Cerra

Kerry O’Malley Cerra is a former high school history teacher who often incorporated historical fiction along with traditional textbooks to bring time periods to life. Just a Drop of Water, her first middle grade novel, was inspired by a deeply personal experience following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. You can read more about that inspiration on her website here. 

A summary of Just a Drop of Water from the publisher:

 Ever since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart—and outrun—the rival cross country team, the Palmetto Bugs. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.

According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. But the final blow comes when his grandpa’s real past is revealed to Jake. Suddenly, everything he ever knew to be true feels like one big lie. In the end, he must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned, or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

Award-winning author Richard Peck has praised this novel saying, This is history tensely told for readers too young to remember the moment when this century truly began.” And Kirkus Reviews said, “Cerra does a good job of re-creating the combination of fear, confusion, patriotism, prejudice and community spirit the attack engendered, and readers should identify with Jake’s plight. A perceptive exploration of an event its audience already sees as history.”

Describe your workspace.

Honestly, I change up my workspace quite a bit. My most favorite place to write is at the beach—which, on most Florida days, looks like this.

I’m so lucky, right? I do my best thinking there. But, that’s a luxury I can’t have every single day, so most of the time I get to write in this beautiful office surrounded by wonderful books…and my dogs. (Confession, it’s rarely as clean as it looks in this photo. Three dogs and several kids cause such HUGE messes.)

Describe a typical workday.
Typical is not in my vocabulary. Does that really exist? I truly admire anyone who can set a routine for themself, and I’m sure I’d have a boatload more books in the world if I did have a “typical” daily routine, but, alas, I’m a mom and that comes first. I hate to admit it, but there are times I go weeks (and sometimes a few months) without writing. Shameful! It won’t be much longer before all of my kids are off on their own, so I’m okay with the writing time suffering, for now.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
What a fun question! First, definitely my dogs. They are crazy, obnoxious, bark incessantly at lizards, birds, or whatever else might be outside. See that big window in the photo above. They have lots to look at, so it’s rarely quiet. On the flip side, they don’t bark when I read to them, even when it’s a sucky first draft. They’re so loyal!

Second, I’d have to say this really cool box my daughter made is a favorite object. Back when I was unpublished and still wallpapering my entire downstairs with rejection letters, she gave me this keepsake for Christmas with an awesome note telling me the multitude of reasons why I shouldn’t give up. Love her!

Third—but not last because there’s so much I love about my office—are the books on the shelves next to me. Most are written by friends and fellow SCBWI members, so it’s like writing with big, giant arms wrapped around me, whispering words of encouragement and reminding me what the end result can be. Sometimes we even have wine. J
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I love scented candles and tend to pick a scent to carry me through each book. With Just a Drop of Water, I lit a Japanese Cherry Blossom candle each time I went in my office to work. I’m still looking for the prefect scent as I begin a new book soon.
What do you listen to while you work?
Other than my dogs barking, absolutely nothing. I cannot concentrate with any noise in the background. Unless of course I’m at the beach. Then it would be the sound of waves. Love!
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
*Hangs head in shame* I’m a Starbucks addict. You might as well just inject the vanilla chai latte directly into my veins. And, I simply cannot write without it. But, I’ve promise hubby to break this habit, unless I sell a gazillion copies of my book and can justify continuing down this expensive path. Hey, ya’ll, go buy a copy so I can keep Starbucks in business.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
Nothing. Is there a trick to this? Maybe I should go read what other authors responded here so I can find out all the tricks. My mind wanders way too much…
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
I jot notes in lots of pretty spirals all the time. Especially when I’m with my critique group or get ideas while at a conference. Before I dive into a story, I try to do a plot clock, so I at least know where the story is going, what my MC wants, and what’s in his or her way. Then I can settle down with the computer for the actual writing.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
I’ve never admitted this before, but I don’t think I have a muse. I read all the time about how authors have conversations with their characters, or how their main character is taking over the page while the author merely types in carefully dictated words. And every time I hear or read this, I wonder if the author is on something. Does this really happen? Characters speak to you? My books are written slowly. Each word is a struggle for me. Every sentence a chore to make sure I’m keeping in line with how my character would act or speak. I’m museless, but if he/she’s out there floating around, I hope they show up soon. My current revision sure could use it.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
This may sound lame, but I’d actually love to share my space with my critique partners. It would be awesome to be able to bounce ideas off them when things popped in my head without having to wait for an email or text reply. I could do the same for them. But, then again, we might get all goofy and nothing would be accomplished.  (We’re missing one in this photo, but you can see, we tend to mess around a lot.)

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received? 
Of course we all know this, and you, like me, have probably heard it from a countless other writers, but it’s something I found myself repeating many times during my publishing journey. This business is subjective—from getting an agent, to selling a book, to editing, and even reviews. Your work isn’t going to be for everyone. It won’t be liked by everyone. Find the right editor and the rightagent. The ones who fall in love with your words and your story. That’s all it takes. Just one amidst the hundreds! They’re out there.

Thank you for stopping by Creative Spaces! To learn more about Kerry O’Malley Cerra and her writing, visit her website