Sunday, February 7, 2010
Why The Taxidermist Is Cockeyed
I've learned from my editor that a lot of first novels are based on a marginally fictionalized version of the author's story or experience. With my own career, that is definitely the case. How I Survived Being A Girl is embarrassingly autobiographical. (At least it's embarrassing when I confess this to adults who've read it--to the intended audience, not so much.) And although all 25 of my published books have something from my life woven into them, I've had to learn how to get over my fear of asking "experts" for help in areas where I just don't have enough knowledge. And yes, I mean fear. I was, for a lot of my young life, shy and without a lot of confidence. And the thought of public speaking? I would shake myself to pieces with fear. Teaching school is what finally got me over my fear of speaking in front of groups, and the fact that I now routinely get up in front of hundreds or even a thousand kids at one time and hold their attention for nearly an hour during an "Author Day" presentation is still a little mind-boggling to me. Who is that person? And the kids in these audiences would never in a million years suspect that I was runner-up for shyest in my high school graduating class. (My good friend and track team co-captain won--yeah, we were quite a pair.) I tell you all this so you'll believe me when I say that, for me, one of the hardest things about writing a book is asking strangers for help. I will spend weeks avoiding it. I go to the library, search the Internet, dig through old magazines... anything to avoid the phone call. And then when I finally do get up the courage, I, uh, pretend to be somebody I'm not. Like I'm somebody who's actually interested in having my fortune told, or incubating chickens, or transporting a pet in a Greyhound bus. I do this because, well, I'm scared of being hung up on. I hate getting hung up on. It's like a slap. And then I feel bad for being so obnoxious that I've interrupted this person's day and yeah, they've got a business to run and don't want to be bothered answering the silly questions of someone who says they're a children's book writer. Now, this doesn't always happen. Often people are delighted to be talking with an author and are quite willing to answer all your questions. So a gutsier person would just pick up the phone again and dial the next number on the list, hoping to connect with one of those nicer people. But I live in a fairly small town. And we don't have a large selection of, say, taxidermists to ring up and ask about the "stuffing" of a bird. So when the only taxidermist in town hangs up on me, I'm forced (after a period of brooding and stewing) to gather my things, get my story straight and head on down to the taxidermist shop, where I pretend to want to get a bird stuffed for my husband, who's, uh, a hunter, and has a birthday coming up, oh, next month. And then when I get enough info (and a real sense of the place), I go home and make the taxidermist in my story a cockeyed, pot-bellied, balding guy with bad breath. Childish, I know, but a soothing salve for the bruised confidence of a shy girl trying to research her book. So sometimes I skip the whole call-first-and-say-who-I-am-thing and just go straight for the subterfuge. That's how I researched "Greenhaven" for Flipped, and what being inside the cargo hold of a Greyhound is like for Runaway. Both times I got busted, but hey--all in the line of duty. And it's way better than getting hung up on. Where all this back story is leading is to my latest stand-alone novel, The Running Dream. I've had several questions in the blog comments asking what this book is about, but since it won't be out until January 2011, I don't want to get into any real detail. What I will tell you is that it's not about running per se...it's about overcoming adversity. And what I will also tell you is that when I got the idea, I told myself NO! Do not even THINK about writing this--there is WAY too much research involved. The thought of climbing the learning curve of what I'd need to know to write the story seemed overwhelming. And I'd have to ask for help from LOTS of "experts". But my mind kept going back to the idea. And pretty soon the main character had a name. And a best friend. And I found myself in tears, imagining her plight. So I did a little research on the Internet. Like I thought--there was WAY too much I didn't know. And there was no way I could fudge this information. Then Mark mentioned that someone he worked with used to be in the field I was researching. He was, like, a used-to-be expert. One who was willing to talk with me. And so began the slippery slope into The Running Dream. Or, more like, the long hard climb. This book was not under contract, but I was under deadline for Sammy 13, and already a little behind. Still, I asked my editor for a 3 month extension so that I could explore the possibilities. I wanted to see if it was even do-able for me to write this story. Those of you who have been waiting for Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher now know why there's been a delay of nearly a year with that book--this other story knocked, came in, and consumed my life. And since it's not the sort of story you can "research on the Internet", I wound up having to bite the bullet and call people. Go places. Ask the embarrassing questions. Some of that went okay, and some of that did not, but in the end I met and worked with "experts" in four separate "fields."(I promise you details on these people later--maybe when the book is in bound galley form?) And the really wonderful and unexpected thing for me is that we've become friends. This book has been a really emotional journey for me, and it's been so nice to have these people to share the experience with, and they've enjoyed sharing their knowledge and stories with me. I really couldn't have written it without them. Anyway, I do wish I could share more about The Running Dream, but for now I have to hold back. Meanwhile, I'm back in research mode with Sammy 14, and I can tell you this: It's gonna get messy!