I know other writers who swear by it (Kirby Larson, I’m looking at you) but I hate reading old newspapers on microfiche. Talk about frustrating. Maybe that’s why I mostly write about pre-newspaper eras.
What’s your favorite part of researching a book you’re writing?
I like the early research that give the flavor of a time, a few interesting facts, and a place for me to stand.
It gets harder later when I search for specifics such as, “Was there mail delivery at Mission Beach, San Diego, 1941?” Never did find that answer. Do you know?
My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”
I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.
I find it both harder and easier to be a writer in days like these.
Harder, because the “hate, trauma, and tragedy” feel so intense right now, and it’s right there in our faces all day long. It seems difficult—and maybe even irresponsible—to turn away from the suffering and crises of our times to cocoon myself in my writing room and in the worlds of my books.
That said, I’ve found in the past that when there is tragedy in my personal life, writing can be a refuge. I can dive down into a book I’m writing and live in another place for a while every day. Right now, it’s 13th century England, in the menagerie at the Tower of London. In times past I have time-traveled to medieval Persia, Renaissance Venice, and places that never were. Writing gives me a break from the relentlessness of seemingly intractable 21st century problems. When I emerge from my writing room, the “real world” comes rushing back, but I am somehow better able to face it.
What’s more, writing offers a kind of sideways wisdom into the very difficulties I am facing. I’ve found that the crisis from which I am “escaping” by writing about a different world … seeps into the world of my book in altered form and lets me see it from different perspectives—at a distance from the intensity of emotion. Indirectly and through fiction, I gradually blunder my way to a better grasp of my thoughts and feelings … and then I can give them voice.
Susan Fletcher is the author of a dozen books for children and young adults, including Dragon’s Milk, Shadow Spinner, and Alphabet of Dreams. Visit her website.
For the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Next up, Gennifer Choldenko, whose book No Passengers Beyond This Point is set in an original fantasy world.
Q: What is the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?
A: The most challenging part is developing a completely original fantasy world. There are a lot of novels based on fantasy worlds that seem closely aligned with previous works. While you can make a case that a familiar trope fantasy can still be engaging, it isn’t what I am interested in writing or in reading. But how do you create something totally original? I believe fantasy worlds are a gift. I don’t think you can “try” to write a fantasy, so much as open your mind and your heart to the possibility.
Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?
A: In some ways, writing fantasy is remarkably similar to historical fiction. In both, you create a place and a sensibility which is not in a reader’s frame of reference. In both you have to give your reader a lot of carefully selected details that make the world come to life for him or for her. With historical fiction you can depend on research to feed your process at every stage of the game. There may be parts of your fantasy world which are fed by research—and if there are, lucky you—but that is not a given. The pure creative idea generation is at its most powerful in the fantasy genre.
Q: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?
A: I love to read. I especially love reading (and listening to) middle grade fiction. Generally, I read everything I can before I start writing. But I stay away from books I think might be similar to what I’m planning to do. I don’t want to inadvertently plagiarize. As for a favorite, I never like this question. Who has a favorite book? I adore: The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Oz books, A Wrinkle in Time and Charlotte’s Web. These are all books I read as a child. One of the reasons I write for kids is because I believe books you love during the ages eight to fourteen become a profound part of who you are. Certainly that is true of me.
Q. Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?
A. Kids always ask me what is my favorite of my novels. Generally I say: “the one I’m working on right now” which is true. On the other hand I have a special place in my heart for No Passengers Beyond This Point. Partly this is because writing it was such an incredibly intense experience. The ideas came to me as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope: a thousand different pictures I couldn’t write down fast enough. One of the characters in the novel is named Bing. He is the imaginary friend of the character Mouse. Since I had an imaginary friend when I was little who was named Bing, I would really like to invite him to dinner. I would ask him why he came to me. And why he left.
Thank you, Gennifer, for answering these questions with such candor. Do read all of Gennifer’s books: the historical Al Capone series, the contemporary If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, and her recent and exciting historical thriller Chasing Secrets. Learn more about Gennifer Choldenko on her website.
Grayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. Lena Dunham wrote, “Like all Karen Cushman’s gorgeous novels, Grayling’s Song delves into the past to let us know what we must ask of our future. I want Cushman’s books to raise my children for me: that way I can be assured they’ll grow up witty, vastly knowledgeable, and tough as nails.”
Moderator: How did the McCarthy Era affect you? When you were living through it, did you think of it as “an era”? Is that something we only create in hindsight?
Cushman: I am enough younger than Francine so that the only McCarthy I knew was Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist dummy. Joseph McCarthy and his era really were not a topic of conversation in my high school and even most of my college years. I would say that eras are pretty much identified and described long after they have passed. Otherwise we go day to day, step by step, the best we can.
About Karen Cushman’s The Loud Silence of Francine Green, School Library Journal wrote, “This novel follows Francine’s eighth-grade year, from August 1949 to June 1950, at All Saints School for Girls in Los Angeles, a year of changes largely inspired by a new transfer student, Sophie Bowman. While Francine is quiet and committed to staying out of trouble, happy to daydream of Hollywood movie stars and to follow her father’s advice not to get involved in controversy, Sophie questions authority and wants to make a difference. Her questioning of the nuns’ disparaging comments about the Godless communists frequently leads to her being punished and eventually to her expulsion from school. Francine begins to examine her own values, particularly when an actor friend of Sophie’s father is blacklisted and Mr. Bowman loses his scriptwriting job. At the novel’s end, Francine is poised to stand up to Sister Basil, the bullying principal, and exercise her freedom of speech.”
Why did I write a book about a boy? I had in mind a story about a child alone and on the road in Elizabethan England. I knew a girl likely would not survive there in those somewhat brutal times. And I don’t believe that in a world with so little privacy, she could successfully disguise herself as a boy for long. She wouldn’t have access to a private bedroom or dressing rooms or bathrooms. London did have one public restroom—a plank with 18-holes, emptying directly into the Thames River. In fact using the whole world as a toilet—streets, fields, the halls of great houses—was so common that a book of manners from 1731 stated that it was impolite to stop and greet someone who is urinating. So it had to be a boy, and Will Sparrow was born.
It was important to me to build a Will who was believable, true to his character, his gender, and his times. My first attempts made Will more like a girl in britches so I had to do a lot more research. I read books on psychology and child development. I spoke to boys and mothers of boys. I watched boys at the bus stop and my husband and his friends at play. The resulting Will has boundless energy, his voice is changing, he distrusts displays of emotion, and he longs to grow facial hair. But he lives in a time that was more chaotic and dangerous so he is extremely vulnerable. There was no concept of adolescence so a boy of thirteen, no longer a child, was considered a man, with the responsibilities of a man.
I hope I have managed to construct a Will who is believable, not a stereotype, and wholly entertaining. Let me know what you think.
This article originally appeared on the Green Bean Teen Queen blog.