The question readers often ask, adults or kids, is the same. Did that really happen? And to you? And sometimes, of course, it has . . . in some way, at some time. Most of my stories, though, come not from the substance of my life but from fragments and bits: a place I once lived, a promise once broken, a cat that once rode a dog’s back all the way out of our yard.
I have been writing lately about researching to extend my experience, going dog-sledding in order to write a dog-sledding scene, reading books written by soldiers in Vietnam so I can include letters home from that war.
Some novels, though, are born, not from my immediate experience or from research of any kind, but simply from the world I know. Little Dog, Lost is such a story.
The place that forms the center of Little Dog, Lost, a town named Erthly, is very familiar to me. Erthly is based on the small town in north-central Illinois where I grew up. Erthly isn’t that same town in any factual way. I have added what did not exist and taken away some of what did. A mansion stands at the center of Erthly. There was no such mansion in my home town. I’ve left out the taverns that wafted their fried-food and beer smells onto the sidewalk as I walked home from school. (Most stories for young children don’t seem to need taverns.) I’ve left out the dusty cement mill that was so much a part of my life. My father worked at the mill and we lived in the mill housing, tucked neatly at the base of the mill. The mill with its smokestack and its throaty whistles and huffing, clanging trains has appeared in other of my novels, but it wasn’t needed in this one.
The names of the streets I grew up with do have a way of finding themselves in Erthly, however. And more important, the town comes onto the page with some of the same feel as the town I remember: folks who mostly know one another and have opinions about what they know; freedom, even for the very young, and a safe, encompassing world.
A picture book, Dinosaur Thunder, is coming out this spring, too, and that is drawn from my life in a very different way. It began with a summer week spent with my daughter’s and son’s families in two adjoining cabins in Wisconsin. One evening, I was upstairs in the loft of one of the cabins with my son’s three little boys reading bedtime stories when a thunder storm came banging through. Brannon, who was three, grew frightened, but he accepted no comfort from me, an occasional grandma who lived too far away to count. He wanted neither cuddling nor soothing explanations. Instead, he went to the corner of the loft and stood there, very close, facing into the adjoining walls until the storm had roared on by.
What a strange thing to do! I thought, and I carried the incident home with me when the week was over. Eventually, What a strange thing to do! turned into a story about a little boy, who happened to be named Brannon, who was afraid of thunder. (It was the first–and the last–time I ever used one of my grandchildren’s names in a story.)
In Dinosaur Thunder, the family attempt all kinds of comfort, but Brannon accepts none of it. His response with each new explanation about why he doesn’t need to be afraid is to find a new place to hide until . . . But I’ll let that stand until you read the story yourself.
(The interesting add on to this story is that I placed Dinosaur Thunder with an editor about twelve years ago and, for an assortment of reasons, it has been delayed coming out until now, which means it’s arriving in time to humiliate ever atom of fifteen-year-old Brannon’s soul. He’s a bright, thoughtful young man, though. I assume he will forgive me.)
Did that really happen? Yes, three-year-old Brannon, upstairs in a strange cabin, was once afraid of thunder. Did various members of the family try to reassure him as the family does in my story? Nope. All that came from my imagination. And that’s the way stories are born, from fragments and bits of a writer’s life, from books we’ve read, from experiences we’ve sought in order to write about them. Mostly, though, they rise out of a place I haven’t yet talked about, out of our deepest longing.
Longing is the place where writers and readers meet, and I’ll talk more about that next week.