April 17, 2018

It Takes a City To Create a Novel | One Cool Thing

In 2012, librarians at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL), KS, conceived of an ambitious program: to help their writing group create a novel and publish it. Serialized online between May and September of that year, Capital City Capers was, says public services librarian Lissa Staley, “a seat-of-the- pants project.”

ljx150701webOneCoolThingThe Community Novel Project was such a success, Staley told LJ in a recent phone interview, we “immediately realized we wanted to do it again.” And they did—each year since, the library has produced at least one book, with the procedures becoming more streamlined even as the formats became more ambitious.

Collaboration all the way

A community novel, the library’s website explains, is one that is “collaboratively conceptualized, written, illustrated, narrated, edited, and published” by local authors. At TSCPL, the 20-chapter volumes, which are written on a password-protected wiki, have a running theme: Topeka is central to each story. In Capital City Capers, for example, the protagonists are two city employees who are “trying to prove that Topeka is awesome,” says Staley. When the two discover a secret manuscript during their research about the city, a mystery unfolds and things turn deadly.

As in all the books, local authors take turns writing chapters. Each person has a week to ten days to compose 1,500–3,000 words. Librarians stress to the authors that point of view and narrative style should be consistent. “The majority of authors catch on to a dominant voice,” says TSCPL public service specialist Miranda Ericsson, who came aboard as a writer in year two.

Passing the baton

The various parts of the books present their own challenges, explains Staley, and are popular with various kinds of writers. The beginning is difficult, she says, as “you have to have a great idea but then give it up” so that the next author can take over. Authors who write chapters in the middle must be careful not to create a climax. And those who come last need not only to write a great ending but do so in a way that synthesizes the work of others.

Ericsson explains that in year two, given that the collaborators were more seasoned, they were more organized. The group met for an in-person brainstorming session in January 2013; after that, collaboration was via email.

The premise—which the writers were better at sticking to this time around—was that a grad student was interviewing elderly Topekans. In chapter seven, however, she was revealed to be an undercover cop, a turn of events that the authors of Speakeasy didn’t plan in advance. Authors do write notes to one another, offering a hint about how the next chapter should go, but these are only broad suggestions such as “things get worse,” says Staley.

Many endings

This year, the group took a leap of faith, producing its most technically involved title so far: Time Harbor, a YA “pick-your-path” novel—think “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Two AP history students travel to Kansas’s past—back to the landmark schools desegregation case against the Board of Education of Topeka, where they meet the famous plaintiff Oliver L. Brown. (Go to ow.ly/­OpPgF for a “Behind the Scenes” view of the creation of Time Harbor.)

The beauty of this book’s structure, explains Staley, is that more than one writer gets to write the ending, as a pick-your-path has multiple options. Authors are expected to “finish [their] scene so that the next person can do something with it,” Staley explains. Readers will find three choices at the end of each chapter, and authors are asked to write two of the endings as unsatisfactory. If you make a bad choice, says Staley, “all of the endings you find after that are somewhat diabolical and sketchy.”

Building in help

Some of the books are illustrated, and finding suitable artists is one aspect of the process that has at times been difficult. “Paths that lead to great writers don’t necessarily lead to great artists,” says Staley. The books are edited, too, a step that has not been as challenging—editors whom the authors know volunteer, say the librarians. In fact, an independent peer editing group, “Reading for Writers,” has been a breakaway success.

The goal of the project is not to make money, Ericsson says, rather, it is to give local authors ownership of a creation. They are proud to say, “You can look me up on Amazon. That’s my name on that book,” she reports. Best of all, says Staley, “it’s changed our culture here. Using the library is now the way into our local writing culture.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma (hverma@mediasourceinc.com, @ettaverma) was formerly reviews editor at Library Journal. Etta, who is from Ireland, has also been a reference librarian and a library director and is the mom of two avid readers.



  1. Lissa is an incredible librarian with a vision and mind that never quits. We’re so lucky to have her.

  2. Bethany McGuire says:

    Lissa is awesome! She leads by empowering the writers. And by being someone you want to follow.

  3. This is a great idea! Hope your future endeavors are successful. Maybe we should try a similar pursuit here and elsewhere in the country. What a marvelous way to promote local writers and to learn more about the city where they live.