You have talked about your writing process not really following the advice you’ve heard so often. Can you talk about how you discovered a writing process that worked for you?
I attended a school district K-12 that followed the writing workshop model, so I felt very comfortable in my writing process, especially when it came to academic writing. I had not thought about it critically, though. When I got to college I did a program in creative writing so that each semester I had at least one class in creative writing. These were wonderful classes in which I really learned to hone my craft. However, there was one piece of advice that kept coming up which was, essentially, that you should over-write your first draft because you could always go back and cut. The problem was that this is not how I write. I tend to write more scantly, and then go back and add details. Often early drafts are just dialogue with no tags or description. I go back and add that in later drafts. This was working for me, but all the while, I kept telling myself, “You are doing this wrong, you are doing this wrong.” That’s an awful refrain to have in your head while you are writing. Sometimes I would try to force myself to add more detail while drafting. The breakthrough came for me when I was at a writing conference/retreat. I had a limited time and I really wanted to get a draft out. Serendipitously the speaker at the event was E. Lockhart who gave the advice, “Write it stupid.” By this she meant get something down on paper, you can fix something that is written. So, I decided to just pound out a quick and dirty draft of the book I was working on. That book went on to be The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, and since then I have felt much more confident in my writing process. The thing writers need to understand is that there are a million ways to write a book or a story or a paper, and figuring out what works for you is important. It’s also important to realize that not every project is going to work the same way, and you need to be flexible.
Your book The Water Castle is set in Maine and reminds many readers of real places there. What advice do you have for young writers to help them weave people or places they know into their writing?
I could not have written The Water Castle if I were not living in Maine. Specifically, Poland, Maine. I was spinning my wheels with this story about a boy who comes to a town where everyone is a little bit smarter, faster, and stronger than usual. I went in all different directions — superheroes, broken hearts, evil plots. But the problem was that I didn’t have the why: what was causing these people to be so different? Then one day my husband and I went hiking around the grounds of the Poland Springs Water campus and saw signs for the original source. I was expecting a bubbling creek — something very natural — but what we found was a small but ornate building in which there were mannequins sipping water from crystal goblets while a serving mannequin stood nearby. In the center of the room was a hole covered over by glass — that was the source. The tableau provided a story and I was intrigued. So I learned more about the history of the water. It’s a long story, but what really intrigued me was the way the early advertisements walked the line between proclaiming that the water was scientifically proven to be the best medicinal water while also claiming it has magical properties that could not be explained by science. That line between science and magic really interested me. I started thinking about how phenomenon’s we now understand scientifically were once explained by magic. And then I thought, “What if the Fountain of Youth exists, but we simply don’t have the science to discover or understand it yet?” And then, “What if the Fountain of Youth is in this town, and that’s what is giving the residents their special powers?” From there I had my story. Once I had that “What If?” question, I could build the rest of the story around it. This would be a quest for the Fountain of Youth, but one that approached it scientifically.
Now, Poland, Maine is a very small, sleepy town. But buried in its history was this story. I believe that every town has this sort of a history. Young writers can dig and uncover people, places, and events in their own backyards. The great thing about writing fiction is that you can then mold these real moments into your own world. I took some pieces from the history of Poland Spring water, but also invented my own back-story, in order to suit the tale I was telling.
Your historical fiction book The Spycatchers of Maple Hill it is obvious from your details about music, clothing and television that you had to do some research. Can you talk about how doing that research helped you write this story?
The book is set in the time period my parents grew up in, so I created a survey and sent it to all the people I knew from those generations. It was great to hear their recollections of the things they wore, ate, did, and said. I supported this first-person research with secondary sources. For me, learning about the way people lived day to day is the most interesting part of history. Even little things like the types of shoes people wore, or that kids wore school clothes to school and then changed when they got home — I find that fascinating and hope that readers do, too. In fiction you have to choose the details that make the characters, and having historical research to guide that is really interesting. Doing the research helped in bigger ways, too. I knew that Hazel was going to be convinced that the gravedigger was a spy, but I wasn’t sure why she thought a spy would be in her little town. As I read more about McCarthy and the Red Scare, I learned that McCarthy had sent his spy hunters to the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York — where my husband’s grandfather had worked. So, that gave me the idea of having a factory in town that was building something that spies might be interested in. I also read about how many of the people targeted in these investigations were union members, and how they believed they were being targeted for being in the union members rather than their political beliefs. Because the union was like a brotherhood, they did not want to implicate one another, and stayed quiet. In the politically charged atmosphere, not speaking up for oneself seemed like an admission of guilt. All of this makes its way onto the page in the book and ended up driving a lot of the story. So, having a complete understanding of the time was essential for developing the characters and the story.
Can you talk about your process for rereading your writing? What are you looking or listening for that helps you reflect or revise?
I re-read my writing over and over again. Early on in the writing process, I am looking for big problems. Is this character consistent? Do their actions make sense? As I go through drafts I get more and more specific. I start looking for tone and imagery. For example, in my young adult novel Very in Pieces the main character is a mathematician while her family is artists. There is a moment where, in all the early drafts, she compares the blue of someone’s shirt to paint brush cleaning water. But this was the wrong imagery for her. So I changed it to blue like the lines on graph paper. I was trying to get the most specific as possible. By the end, I start looking for what I consider my “crutch words”. For me, those are things like, “kind of”, “very”, “really.” I also have an addiction to characters shrugging. So I go through and weed out all those words that I over-use.
A big problem I have is making sure I do all these re-readings and re-writings. I just want to be done. Sometimes it helps to take a break and then come back to it with fresh eyes. That makes it easier for me to admit that it’s not quite ready yet.
What authors do you consider to be mentors? How have they or their work helped you?
There are some authors who I know personally who I consider to be mentors, like Kate Messner. Whenever I am faced with a problem, I literally ask myself, “What would Kate do?” The wonderful thing is that I also get to ask her, and she has given me great advice. There are also writers whose work I use as mentor texts. Rebecca Stead and E. Lockhart are at the top of my list for this. When I finished Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead, I was in awe. I went back through the book and made an outline of what she did in each chapter, how she built the story with an unreliable narrator. Then I took a big piece of construction paper and outlined the plots — the action plot and the emotional plot — to see how they worked together. Stead is a very spare writer, which I am not at all, but what she does so well, and what I am working on, is balancing that emotional plot (what the characters are feeling) with the action plot (what the characters are doing). I tend to focus on the emotional plot, and have to work to use the action plot to keep the story moving. It’s why I like to write mysteries. Stead is just a master of balancing those two types of plot and I feel like I learn so much every time I read her work.