Here we are in a new year. I wonder if you, like me, are using this quiet Covid time to generate new writing projects?
The EMOTION door is one way into a new story. Many of my favorite picture books are powered by emotion – i.e. Where the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, The Rabbit Listened. A whole reason to read is to feel the emotion of the story. Why not cross the border to childhood and mine your own emotional geography for stories from your deepest sense of who you are, your particular take on the world?
For instance, the Zelda and Ivy series comes from my experience as the middle of five children. I earned my black belt in sibling rivalry. Those childhood incidents have provided material for six books about the fox sisters. Mostly I go for stuff that makes me laugh, but those long ago happenings evoke all five of the major emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger and peevishness.
It’s a matter of feeling your way back to where the good stuff is waiting and reconnecting with experiences that provoked big emotions; experiences you found funny or scary or exasperating or intriguing or hurtful as hell.
Here are three exercises I have found useful:
1. Emotional event inventory: Look at the first ten years of your life in two or three year chunks. What significant events occurred in each chunk? Note events that hold emotion: times of great loss, disappointments, times of wonder, deep satisfactions, things that made you laugh. List objects, people, places you loved or hated or found scary or funny. Even if you are not an illustrator, it is helpful to draw this stuff, or at least describe it carefully in words, so you retrieve a mental picture – picture books are a visual medium. Then add the audio. Put the event on scene – write it in first person present tense, using dialogue and narration. Don’t be encumbered by the facts. Lie, embellish and shape your story into the best story it can be.
2. Gather evidence from family archives: Revisit home movies and photos, diaries and any other artifacts from your childhood that bring up emotion.
3. Research Your Own Life: Visit the old neighborhoods, talk to the kids you grew up with. Comb old newspapers and magazines from the places and times in which you were a child. This probably comes from my journalism background, but often research will present stories and backstories. Scratch around. It’s waiting to be discovered. You can tell something belongs in a story if it raises the little hairs on the back of your neck, as friend and fellow Seattle writer Brenda Guiberson taught me years ago. Pay attention. Some stuff is charged for some people. Who knows why? It¹s that emotional charge that will carry your story and connect to readers.
Of course, ideas are found in the present, too. In fact, think it is the synergy of experiences and observations across a lifetime that gives a story juice. Crafting a story is a way to make sense of it all: to savor and honor some memories, and to provide closure and put to rest others.
Here’s to a new year bursting with new work!
A great look, and a reminder, of the promise the New Year holds, whether in storywriting or other endeavors. Thanks, Laura!
Nothing like the energy of a fresh year to get the wheels turning.
Wonderful piece. Just what I needed to read this morning as I evaluated some old work. Thanks little sis.
You have inspired and encouraged me all my life. Thank YOU, big sis.
Good stuff here, thank you! I actually have published two books during the pandemic that are all about our FAMILY! (Well, really one book, but the 2nd is the Spanish translation and, since I did that too, feels like a 2nd book to me! I used tons of photos, documents & family history, even from the Spanish historical archives, for this historical fiction YA novel about the Spanish Civil War based on my mother-in-law’s childhood & adolescent years in Spain. But apart from the book cover which is part drawing, part photo, most illustrations are on the book website since it is a novel. I also am working on a children’s book about my mom in Cape Cod, MA (and looking for the right illustrator for that!) Here are the websites, one in English and one in Spanish, of the novel I just published! Thanks for looking and keep safe and keep creating, all! Laura Atwood Duran
Hi Laura – Your books sound right up my alley — I would love to know more about how your research process impacted the story as you were building it. I will look on your website to see if you have more info. Thanks for commenting on our blog!
Thanks Laura (or ‘Tocaya’ as we say in Spanish when speaking to someone who shares your name!) Yes, it’s really amazing how it happened actually! I mention it in my Acknowledgments at the end of the book…how, while doing a search online about one of my heroine’s uncles, I discover, on a military blog in Spain, someone talking about him who turns out to be an unknown second cousin of my husband! I reach out to him, and a whole new, wonderful extended family enters our lives, with lots of info re. my real, life characters, leading to much of the plot to my exciting true story!
i love there is a word just for the person who shares your name. and how fun to find more connections family-to-family. What a coincidence!
I had a dear childhood friend in Placerville named Stephanie Atwood. Any relation to you? Their family adopted several children from Asia and had a singing group.
They sound wonderful, too bad we’re not related as far as I know. But we Atwoods also have adopted children in our extended family, and singers, too!
Thank you, Laura, for all of this encouragement to delve into one’s young emotional life to mine the jewel stories. I like the way you tunnel forward, leaving no doubt or fears about a story’s possible relevant connection to today’s kids. If I can let go of that, it is easier to revel in the my own real exploits and adventures!
Staying relevant is always a concern in the back of my head — especially as i head into my 8th decade. But I like to think the emotions kids feel today are not different from emotions humans have felt all along the way — only the circumstances change.
Just the words needed for sparking some memories! Thank you!
You’re welcome. Good luck!
p.s. I love your illustrations,
I recently re-read the Zelda and Ivy books to my granddaughter and she was as enchanted by them as she was the first time around. Love the tips outlined here! So true, your words about emotions: “…only the circumstances change”. Those circumstances can be the basis for many a story. Can’t wait for your next book. 🙂
Hi Marion — Is this the little one we met in 2017 at the Little Wolf reading at UW Bookstore? And now she’s old enough to re-read Zelda and Ivy? Oh how time flies. Thank you for keeping my books in the rotation. xox