While researching a book I am insatiable. I want to know everything about my subject. I read thousands and thousands of pages. My brain crunches all of that research into a single story; details gleaned from my research rise up at just the right moment to illustrate the text. Of course, less than 2 percent of what I’ve read actually makes it into the finished book, but probably 80 percent of what I’ve learned is subtly woven into the story. When the book is finished I have no desire to return to that subject again. I feel as if I have exhausted the topic and the topic has exhausted me. And, therefore, I have little or no interest in writing sequels.
Category: Come On Rain!
Feedback from my friend and colleague Eileen Christelow on a picture book manuscript (an early draft of COME ON, RAIN!) set me on the path to OUT OF THE DUST. As soon as I turned my attention to dust, agriculture, the country’s bread belt, and the impact of the Dirty Thirties on our country, I was hooked.
As a reader, I find certain books linger with me for months, for years, and occasionally for decades. Books have kept me afloat when I wondered how much longer I could hold on. They have taught me about decency and integrity. Books have shown me how survival is possible even when the odds suggest otherwise. Books have also taught me the elegance and beauty and power of language, not just for the message it contains but for the simple way it rolls off the tongue, the way it delights and excites every sense. Do I expect to have the same impact on my readers that certain writers have had on me? No. But I am grateful for every reader and for each opportunity to communicate and to share. If the reader feels less alone as he or she spends time inside one of my books, that’s enough for me.
If we study and learn from the way birds flock, or fish school, we glean so much about connection and instinct, direction and evolution, individual and group behavior. Life is filled with repeating patterns. Our brains are naturally drawn to them. If we study and learn from the way mankind has flocked and schooled in the past, we better our chances of survival into the distant future. That’s what draws me to historical fiction.
Ideas come from so many places. Sometimes, when I’m reading the work of other writers, I feel a finger of inspiration tickle my brain. I’ve transformed magazine and newspaper articles into novels and picture books. Concerts, lectures, documentaries, television and radio interviews can also become story catalysts. Occasionally a fan letter will open up a possible avenue to a story, or an overheard conversation in the doctor’s office, or someone sitting across the aisle from me in the theater. I trawl my own life, both my childhood and my adult years, for story ideas, too. Not every experience leads directly to a book, but every experience holds that potential within it.
Every experience has an impact on my writing. From hours and hours of play with my childhood friends (see COME ON, RAIN! and LESTER’S DOG), to my fascination with Captain James Cook following a talk I attended at my local library (see STOWAWAY), from a documentary on the Spanish Influenza pandemic and my hospice volunteer work and walks in the snowy woods (see A TIME OF ANGELS), to an extended road trip through the heartland of the U.S. with my dear friend Liza Ketchum (see OUT OF THE DUST), I never know which experience I’ll draw on as I’m sitting at my desk. I simply search for a way to bring the story to life for my reader by going very still inside and sifting through a lifetime of experiences until I light on just the right memory to mold and weave into the story I’m telling.
No. I’ve always written what I “had” to write. When a story won’t leave me alone. When it won’t let me put it aside, or ignore it, or discard it. When it haunts me until I have no choice but to write it, I surrender in the end and give the project my complete heart and soul. That’s my process. Winning the Newbery Medal and the MacArthur Award changed my life in many, many ways, but it did not change how or how much I write.
No. As often happens during the writer’s long process of creation, coincidences occur, disparate pieces link together to suggest commonalities. I’ve heard it said that there are no accidents. But often I discover only after a book is published (and a reader points it out) a symmetry I had not intended.
Although I’d been working on COME ON, RAIN! when a question from Eileen Christelow set me to thinking about the dustbowl, I didn’t intend to create a study of opposites with the two books. I simply followed the path of one book to the other and then back again.
The interpretation, the connection making, is often best left to readers who frequently discover parallels the writer never realized she/he was creating.