Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How Real Life Affects My Writing

My daughters, Spring and Fern,
sitting under the Weeping Mulberry tree, about 2001.

Recently I was asked to participate in a panel discussion of fantasy writing at the Empire State Book Festival with three other writers, Julie Berry, Janine De Tillio Cammarata, and Vivian Vande Velde. Each of us was to speak for seven minutes on how our real lives affect our writing. Then we took turns answering questions from the floor. To prepare, I wrote the following essay, but in the end, just spoke off the cuff:

When I first saw my middle grade novel, The Kingfisher’s Gift, listed as fantasy, I was astonished. To me, fantasy was sorcerers and vampires, dragons and spells, something, well, fantastic! My story, built out of my memory and life experiences, but set in 1912 and based on an idea I had in seventh grade, seemed pretty real to me. My heroine, Franny Morrow, is shy, awkward, introverted, and imaginative. She is, in many ways, me at eleven years old.

The story is firmly rooted in historical fact. I did lots of research on life in New England in the period. I thumbed through pictures of automobiles to find one that fit my mental picture of Grandmother’s car—it turned out to be a Cadillac Touring Car. The setting is based on memories of my great grandmother, Mina Vestal French, and her estate in Wayland, Massachusetts. I was even able to go back and visit, where I discovered that the weeping mulberry tree that I remembered from half a century ago, is alive and well, and in use by the new owners’ grandchildren—and their fairies.



In The Kingfisher’s Gift, there is Meadowsweet, the changeling water sprite who yearns to fly, and her parents, King Tamarack and Queen Iris. They are real to Franny, real to many of my readers, and I, the author, cannot say for certain that fairies do not exist. I am grateful to editors Patty Gauch and Michael Green for helping me to develop and preserve their realness in my story. I never say in the story that the Franny’s fairies are not real. It’s up to the reader to decide. I think that is perhaps the strongest part of The Kingfisher’s Gift.

So I had to ask myself, what is fantasy? I looked at the definition from my old World Book double volume dictionary: “Fantasy: 1. a play of the mind (I love that!); a product of the imagination; fancy. Many stories, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland, are fantasies.” I wondered: what sort of fantasy is The Kingfisher’s Gift? Are any of my other books fantasy? Is all fiction really fantasy since it is “a play of the mind”—or must fantasy have something in it which most of us believe to be untrue?

But what is truth? When I asked my then eight year-old daughter, Spring, where the porcupine got his quills and she answered, “from the thorn apple tree,” I instantly recognized a truth in her words—and asked her permission to use her idea in a story! (In the Morning of the World, Down East Books 2000, How Porcupine came to Have Quills).

But the thing about fantasy is we need to believe it or it doesn’t work. Believability is built from a foundation of detail based on reality. Writers are often asked if their work is autobiographical. What a silly question! If we didn’t have lives, we’d have nothing to write about. We could rehash the writings of others infinitely—and dully. But to speak with a fresh and an individual voice, to create the illusion of reality—that lovely “play of the mind”—we must refer to our lives. Everything that happens to us is material for the crazy quilt of story we piece together. I heard one writer liken her work to dumping an armful of her experiences into a washing machine, hitting agitate and spin, and seeing what comes out.

Memory is a bottomless well that can be dipped into for all of one’s days. When I’m composing fresh material, I stare into space, letting my inner eye and senses take charge. I ask myself, How might that have happened? What if? How might that smell? Taste? Feel? Sound? Then I begin dredging up diamonds of my life. As they say, there’s nothing more amazing and fascinating than real life.

Often things pop into my stories without any conscious intention on my part. One day, long after The Kingfisher’s Gift had gone to press, when visiting my parents, I ran down to the basement for something. I looked up on a high shelf and stopped and stared. There sat a small, rectangular, covered basket—a basket that I thought I had not thought about since I carried my sock puppets in it as a little girl. It was also the very same basket that Franny uses for her fairies to travel in.

Other borrowings from real life come about through serendipitous discoveries—like the vintage advertisement that I found in the Mather Homestead Museum in Wellsville, NY. It shows a little girl with wings, sitting on a bar of floating Fairy Soap, with the slogan: “Is there a little fairy in your home?” Of course, Fanny had to find a bar of Fairy Soap at Grandmother’s house!

To help make Meadowsweet come to life, I gave her a pet, a wooly bear caterpillar which she smuggles with her to Grandmother’s house—just as my daughter Spring once smuggled a gerbil to camp in New Hampshire. What would its name be? What might a little girl name a striped pet? I thought of my other daughter Fern and her kitten—well it had to be Stripesy!

I could go on and on . . . the bearskin rug that I played on as a child, the miniature fishing poles that my brothers rigged and set on toy boats to catch real fish—which towed their boats crazily, the baby squirrel that I raised on a bottle, the golden winged warbler’s nest with a canopy of feathers woven delicately into its rim—exactly like a fairies cradle—that my friend Jill found, the Luna moth that once came to the screen porch late at night—too lovely to describe, every detail of Nin’s house: the mounted birds in bell jars, the portrait of Robert E. Lee . . . All that and more is tucked into The Kingfisher’s Gift.

What about my other books? In a way, writing prehistory is like writing fantasy too. We know just so much from scientific study, and the rest we have to guess, based on what we know of human nature, similar cultures, climate, geography, flora, and fauna, etc. When I wrote Wind Rider, a YA novel in which a young girl tames a wild horse and becomes the first human on earth to ride horseback, I wondered how it might have happened. Where and when was easy. I had only to look at the archaeology: 6000 years ago in what is now Kazakhstan. But how? Well, there was the time the mare I was riding got mired up to her belly. . . She was entirely helpless. I’m not sure she could have gotten out on her own. What if a wild horse got mired, a young one, and what a girl with an affinity for animals, who doesn’t want to see her people eat the horse, finds her? That became the germ for Wind Rider.

How might Moose get flat antlers? I’m pretty intimate with big rocks after building a stone house, and I know the foolishness of the ruffed grouse from the silly birds that strut at the side of Irish Hill Road and sometimes attack the side view mirror of my car. When Fern was tiny, she was afraid of the water heater and called it the Blue Moose, so I told my children many long forgotten stories about two baby moose named Sphagnum and Hemlock. When Moose finally gets his longed for children—not out of eggs I might add—I couldn’t resist naming them.

Shortly after the publication of Moose Eggs, a friend sent me a fake photo of a moose in harness. I come from a family of lumber men. I have harnessed and driven draft horses to gather maple sap. I have a cranky little Morgan mare named Kate who doesn’t tolerate flies on her belly, but who will work all day for you if you understand her. A story evolved called Moose Power.

I may never need to write a memoir or autobiography. It’s all there, woven into my stories in bits and pieces like the golden warbler’s nest. Reality becomes mind play—a fantasy—a reflection of my life.


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