Guest Edition

Mina Witteman–What Was on Her . . .

Mina Witteman

I’m thrilled that Mina Witteman joins us today on What Was on… I’ve been trying to chase down Mina for a while, because she has an intriguing approach to writing. If she wants a character to brave a scorching desert, she braves it first. If her protagonist is set to crash down a waterfall in a kayak, she plunges down the waterfall ahead of time. I call it method writing. She calls it ‘no guts, no glory.’

Whatever you call it, her approach makes for fascinating stories—just ask her readers. The Boreas books, in which twelve-year-old Boreas circumnavigates the world on a sailboat—have been hugely successful, with the fourth book coming out this fall. Sadly for those of us who do not read Dutch, we are out of luck until the translation comes out.

But, don’t despair. Mina is working on a young adult novel. According to Mina, the story focuses on the confusing realities of life and how a decision can help one and hurt another, how love can backfire and what unconditional love actually entails. Up until a few months ago, when Mina moved to Berkeley, she lived in San Francisco, where she immersed herself in her ‘no guts, no glory’ method. So, let’s find out about her method writing and What was on Mina Witteman’s . . .

Must-Do List: My protagonist roams the streets of San Francisco and, true to my ‘no guts, no glory’ approach, I needed to roam the streets of San Francisco. I spent days and nights outside to experience what it feels like to have nowhere to go. I have to admit that I embarked on this journey knowing I had a tiny studio apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to go back to, but it was a soul-cleansing and eye-opening experience.

What I learned was how immensely privileged most of us are, how fortunate we are that we have a roof over our heads, that we have money to buy life’s basic necessities, that we can buy care if the need arises. I wrote a blog post about this and about how I feel that paying taxes (believe it or not!) is a very tangible basis of human solidarity.

Catalogue of most frightening experiences:

  • Surviving the heart-stopping adventure of a broaching sailboat, miles and miles out at sea. Broaching is when the boat is flipped on its side and you loose all ability to steer and control it. My brother had to climb the mast, knife between his teeth, to cut the spinnaker that had got caught. Scary? Yes. Exhilaratingly exciting? Yes! That too! And what’s more: it became a scene in the first Boreas book, Boreas en de zeven zeeën (Boreas and the Seven Seas). See below on how I do this!
  • More inspiration for writers like myself who thrive by what Sandra calls method writing! A Force 9 gale with gusts of 10 and 11. Thunder. Lightning. Waves so enormous, they were like 20-meter walls of water that relentlessly crashed down on me and tried to sink the boat. Being miles and miles out at sea, I had no choice but to go on, no matter how scared I was. It taught me a fundamental life lesson: despair is not an acceptable position. And it made it to the third Boreas book, Boreas en de vier windstreken (Boreas and the Four Winds), where, on his way to Hawaii, he ends up in a typhoon.
  • And this one ended up in the young adult manuscript I am working on: getting lost in San Francisco on a misty night. It was early in my stay in San Francisco and I had not yet connected with the city and its layout. The mist shrouded every landmark and soon I lost my way. It took me hours of drifting through the city, up hills and down hills and through the shadiest of districts, before I found my apartment again. This particular experience never made it to a book, but the emotion behind it, the fear of getting lost, absolutely did. I transposed the fear to my protagonist in the nightmares she has after she sells out her brother, in the feeling of having nowhere to go, nowhere to hide when she is out on the streets of San Francisco. And yes, I could have used my cell, I could have asked anyone to help me out, but I quickly realized that this was the exact frightful experience I could use in my story.

Workshop Outline: Fictionalizing Memories! Personal experiences and memories are crucial to my ‘no guts, no glory’ writing approach. They are the inspiration for actual scenes and they give me the opportunity to instill genuine and heartfelt emotions in my characters, not to mention riveting action. But summoning up strong emotions can be a fraught experience for writers. That’s where my workshop ‘Fictionalizing Your Memories’ comes in. In this workshop I take my students on a trip down Memory Lane and offer them tools and techniques to distance themselves from the actual memory while preserving the emotions. It’s a writing exercise—although I tend to call it playing even when it concerns the gut-wrenchingly sad memories—with tenses and 1st, 2nd and 3rd person points-of-view.

Berkeley Street: My street is the most serene I have ever lived on. At night, deer, raccoons and skunks roam my porch. Squirrels, scrub jays and chickadees populate the redwoods in my backyard. Hummingbirds feast on the roses. The night air is filled with the scent of night-blooming jasmine. It truly is a writer’s shed in the woods—as far as you can get from the Tenderloin—and which is fueling ideas for the middle grade novel I am writing now, about a twelve-year-old girl spending a lonesome summer in this town with only squirrels and old people around. And her pet magpie, of course. Wandering about always on the lookout for adventure, she meets and old lady, who, it turns out, suffers from Alzheimer’s. They strike up a friendship that will bring them both pleasure, sadness and lots of adventure.

Amsterdam Canal: Before I moved to San Francisco, I lived on one of Amsterdam’s main canals, Herengracht, or Lords’ Canal, for 27 years. The canal was a constant source of writer’s inspiration. I only had to look out the window to see life glide by. Spring is invariably announced by a man in his beautifully decorated boat the Notendop, playing songs from Cohen’s Hallelujah to Miles Davis. This video was filmed right outside my window. Adventures drifted by too: cars tipping over the edge of the quay into the water; a decades-old elm tree felled by a storm; people ice skating in winter and enjoying ‘koek en zopie’ (cookies and drinks) at cafés that set out their terraces on the ice. It’s a city that gave me a unique perspective on life and that perspective seeps through in all my stories and all my creative writing teaching.

Stovetop: My cherished Le Creuset Dutch oven and next to it my Escoffier bible, written by the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier. It holds every single secret of the French cuisine. I love cooking, from earthy Moroccan tajines to intricate French nouvelle cuisine to the spicy wonderfulness of the Szechuan kitchen. I love to blend and mix and combine the world’s délices. I may begin with an existing recipe but I can never resist fictionalizing it, giving it my own twist, like I transform real life into stories. Cooking like this invariably brings a dish à la Mina to the table.

Agenda: At the moment, I am mentoring two authors, one a published author who is trying his hand at a new genre, the other a pre-published writer. They are both working on awesome and very timely projects and it is a delight to be able to offer them my expertise as a published author, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. We meet once a month where they present their new writings and where I force them to go deeper and deeper into their story. Peel the onion, as it were, to find that kernel that will make your readers cry and hungry for more. I am also guiding another published author with edits of some of her new picture books. In addition to my expertise, I also bring my Dutch point-of-view to the table, a fresh outsider’s look to American stories.

I recently attended the Summer Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This is one of the absolute highlights of my life. I have organized smaller conference (the SCBWI Europolitan Conference) for this organization that connects writers, illustrators, translators, agents, editors and everyone else in the realm of children’s literature. Attending the many stimulating crafts and inspiration sessions fuels my own workshops and master classes, like the ones I taught at the BookPassage Children’s Conference.


I have a few new speaking and teaching engagements lined up that I will post on my website as soon as I have more details. In the fall, I will restart a series of workshops and master classes in a small and intimate setting in Berkeley, where attendees are offered the opportunity to not only learn, but immediately get to use, new techniques in their own stories. On the menu will be A Plotter’s Paradise, Aristotle’s Cat and IllustWriter, a workshop for illustrators who like to try their hand at writing their own stories with their illustrations. At the SCBWI Summer Conference it was clear again that agents and editors crave the work of author/illustrators. A schedule will be published on my blog.

And a great joy! In a few weeks I will be reading and writing again with Dutch children living in the Bay Area. The interaction with them is a constant source of inspiration and vital to crafting my new stories now that most of my Dutch readers are a continent and an ocean away.

The Bay Area Book Festival, a whirlwind of book centric fun that draws tens of thousands of people to Berkeley every year, has asked me to join their advisory committee and advise them with regard to the children’s and young adult programming.

Writing Checklist:

  • Proofread the fourth Boreas book Boreas and the Fifteen Friends, coming out in October 2018
  • Revise three picture book stories
  • Research a new non-fiction picture book
  • Revise a young adult novel
  • Finish the translation of the first Boreas books
  • Write the first draft of a new middle grade adventure

Mind: On my mind, always on my mind, is writing. Currently, most of my brain space is taken up by the final revision of my young adult novel. Before this round of revisions, I again received invaluable feedback from my critique group partners. I study that feedback thoroughly, make notes and pin them to their respective places in the manuscript. Next, I put the manuscript away for a minimum of three months. During those months, I ponder solutions to the problems in the story. I rewrite individual scenes in longhand to achieve a deeper understanding of what my characters are about, what my story is about, what I want to convey. I walk and walk and walk, to the beach to clear my head, to the Rose Garden to find bliss, crisscross town to observe people and study their interactions, how they move, what they look like. And all the while the story never leaves me. It may not be prominent, but it’s there and it blossoms and grows, it matures.

What I do in between? I write picture books and middle grade. Shorter and sharper formulated stories that help me to be as concise as possible and force me to concentrate on the bare bones of a story. Time and again it teaches me how to stay away from fluffing up my longer stories. Yes, they are excellent writing exercises for novelists.

Mina Witteman has published a Little Golden Book, seven middle grade novels, and over 40 short stories in the Netherlands. She is an active volunteer for the Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators in the United States and Europe and currently holds the position of International Published Authors’ Coordinator. She is also the Program Advisor for Children’s and Young Adult programming for the Bay Area Book Festival.

You can keep up to date with Mina by visiting her online at minawitteman.com and by following her on Twitter at @MinaWitteman. If you would like to order any of her Boreas books in Dutch, simply click on the book below:

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7 thoughts on “Mina Witteman–What Was on Her . . .

  1. Her “method writing” approach is truly fascinating—and very brave. I got chills reading about her crazy sail boat experience. I can’t wait to hear about her San Francisco experiences through her writing!

  2. Wow, Mina. I had no idea that you used such a hands-on approach to your writing. That is awesome…and gutsy…and did I say awesome yet? It’s just like learning a language. If you immerse yourself in it, you learn faster. So, with the story, if you live it, you can give it (the stoy) your best writing.

    And the new book sounds wonderful. Are you writing it in Dutch or English?

  3. I’m a fan of this method too. I’ve had some pretty scary experiences, such as being stopped at an army roadblock on a remote road with prominent dissidents during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. It is like the immersion method of learning a language, and your books are making me want to live for a while in Amsterdam so I can translate them. (Except I’m still loyal to Portugal!)

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