Christina Baker Kline: Writing Practices from the Author of Orphan Train

To get from the seed of an initial idea to a published book, writers have to discover the habits and practices that work best for them.

Christina Baker Kline published several works before her most recent novel, Orphan Train, sold over 2 million copies. While her previous books did not attract immediate attention in the way Orphan Train did, her writing career is impressive. Kline has written five fiction novels, five nonfiction books and two collections of essays in addition to other collaborative work. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications such as The New York Times and Psychology Today.

When speaking about Orphan Train at the Des Moines Public Library AViD series in March, Kline revealed a couple of her writing practices. If you are stuck in a writing routine that’s not working, try giving one of these tricks a shot.

Create an Idea board

Kline presented several photographs she had found during her research on orphan trains. She showed the audience photos that inspired her protagonist, Niamh, and the supporting character, Dutchy, saying that her intention was to reveal the emotions she saw in the eyes of the photographed orphan train riders.

Claiming to be a visually inspired writer, Kline kept an idea board full of songs, poems, photos, recipes, and so on. Niamh’s wooden claddagh, commonly placed throughout the novel, had a prominent spot on the idea board as well.

Vision boards can help you keep track of your settings, timelines, characters and themes among other elements of your novel.

photo-1434030216411-0b793f4b4173Write Your Draft in Long Hand

Kline writes her first drafts in long-hand form with a Pilot P500 extra-fine point pen.

“A legal pad has 50 sheets,” Kline said. “A novel is about eight of those. My husband will see me carrying around several of those legal pads and tell me it’s time to start typing.”

This is a practice I use as well and find it to be the best way for me to get started. An empty notebook is easier for me to spill thoughts on than a blank screen. Then, typing my written draft forces me to revise and edit at least one time, as I have to go through every line and word. Writing long hand gets my momentum going.

In addition to her habitual tactics, Kline revealed a couple things that happened while she was writing Orphan Train specifically, which leads to two great points every writer should hear:

Jump on your idea

When Kline began research for the novel, roughly 150 people who had ridden the orphan trains were still living. Today, she said there are less than 10.

“How lucky was I to stumble upon this while there were still enough people to tell about it?”

Kline’s personal interviews with the train riders gave her the insight she needed to create a representative story for what this experience was like.

This makes me think of how common it is for writers to let fear and doubt stand in the way of their ideas. I am guilty of it, too, but ideas are precious gems that can’t be taken for granted. If you let frivolous insecurities keep you from developing your ideas, you will never know what you’re missing out on.

Do what it takes to make your story the best it can be

After Kline sent off her final draft off, she received a phone call the next morning that told her her work was not done. The woman who reviewed her draft was well-knowledged in the orphan train movement and was in close touch with the riders remaining. She told Kline she had to talk to one more person whose story she felt closely resembled that of her protagonist, Niamh.

Just when Kline hoped she had conducted her last interview and written her last thoughts on the subject, she knew her novel could only gain from talking to the woman recommended to her. Doing so changed certain aspects of the novel, resulting in the incredible, well-rounded story of Niamh and how her childhood affected her entire life.


Starting with a blank page isn’t easy. Try a few habits from a professional, and before you know it, you just might end up with 50 legal pads full of good ideas.

Want more from the pros? Check out my writing takeaways from author Karen Abbott.

Have you read Orphan Train? Check out my review of Christina Baker Kline’s national bestseller.

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