Tag Archives: what if’s

DISCOVERING THE ROOT OF OUR STORIES

My mom asked me to stay while she napped. “Take a nap, honey…on my bed.” I couldn’t refuse my 92-year-old mom. Plus, her air conditioning felt wonderful. We had just come back from being outside on a very muggy day. She quickly dozed off on her small couch. I sat close by on her twin bed and looked around her studio apartment. I was tempted to stretch out and nap, but I was too distracted.

I found myself studying all her favorite things – fragile figurines, throw pillows, antique lamps. Then, I honed in on the walls, studying decorative plates, framed art prints, framed photos of my parents wedding day… I disappeared into studying everything on her walls and atop her furniture. I felt a bit comforted. Afterall, I grew up surrounded by all these things. They were home. My mom was an incredibly talented decorator. Our home was beautiful inside. Every plate, print, figurine had a specific place. And a story. She bought most things at antique stores or from collectors out on farms. In a way, she had bought someone else’s “story” and then went on to create her own. I admit, I didn’t appreciate these things growing up. My chore was dusting them. But then I learned to negotiate with my brothers, so I could mow the lawn – and one of them was happy inside dusting away!

My mom let out an occasional snore as I tip-toed around her little apartment. I wanted to stand close and get a good look at things. I got a bit misty eyed, thinking about all the stories behind them. I was surrounded by story. Then, it hit me. Lots of these things have shown up in my fiction writing – in my character’s homes, in my themes, plots, etc. How could they not, I suppose… Afterall, they are still deep in my roots. These things. Each one holds so many stories. Each one holds part of my story. Each one.

Cards and letters: A red file next to her phone contains recent cards and letters from her kids. Growing up, she stored cards and letters in a mini wood trunk. I love having my characters write or receive letters. And I’m over the moon just imagining one of my characters opening a drawer, then discovering a bunch of letters. I get so excited about the “and then and then”! Especially when a letter holds a secret.

Framed photos: Many black-and-white photos decorate her walls; many feature her parents and grandparents. I never knew them. They were born in Poland, but my mom never told their stories. Oh my gosh! One of my characters is growing up in a Polish family. Even though I only saw my Polish relatives a few times a year (and they taught me how to polka), I never knew their origin stories, their roots. Perhaps, I have desired “finding” them in my writing. Actually, I have.

Shoes: Her brown leather lace-up shoes sit on the floor across from her couch. They have sat there ever since she started wearing a pair of white Reebok shoes. I always picture my character’s shoes, even if I don’t mention shoes in my story. The color, the brand, the style. I’m especially intrigued with why my character would choose a certain shoe.

Landline telephones: My mom has three landline phones, each within a few steps. In our teen years, my brothers and I were always vying for our one landline. All of my YA’s take place in the days of landlines. I prefer the challenge inherent in a landline, such as a family eavesdropping, everyone racing to the ringing phone…

Clocks: There are four clocks spread throughout my mom’s. I remember the obnoxious sound of our cuckoo clock while the seven of us ate Sunday pot roast. Despite my struggle with chronology in writing, I thoroughly enjoy giving clocks a major role. Nothing like an alarm clock startling a character! By the way, my childhood kitchen clock hangs in my writer studio.

Here’s to the finding, discovering the root of our stories, where ‘er they come from! Children’s author E.E. Duncan summed it up best: “It’s interesting to look to ourselves and find those themes that recur in our writing and discover their roots.” Elizabeth is a member of my amazing critique group, Story Spinners. Her biographies and historical fiction explore how history affects everyday people. Her books include, Florence Sabin, Teacher, Scientist, Humanitarian; Felipe and Dolores Baca, Hispanic Pioneers; Ralph Carr, Defender of Japanese Americans; Helen Hunt Jackson, Colorado’s Literary Lady.

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SOWING STORY SEEDS FOR KIDS

Her smile is as wide and natural as the 103-acre farm in the background. Clad in a flannel shirt, the woman tells viewers, “Alright, well, we’re inside the tractor now.” After she introduces the two cats watching from outside, she holds up her book cover, THE WISH AND THE PEACOCK; she opens it and announces, “Chapter one, hide-and-seek…” pauses, then reads, Finding lost things on the farm is the world’s hardest game of hide-and-seek. I’ve been searching for Dad’s favorite shovel for weeks.

Meet farmer and children’s book author, Wendy Swore. For the next 15 minutes, Swore reads the chapter, acting out sentences with gestures and animated faces, and changing her voice for each character. Viewers get acquainted with 12-year-old Paige, who lost her father and wants to save her family farm, located on an Idaho reservation. Swore knows her setting. For the past 20 years, she has lived and farmed on the Sho-Ban Reservation, where her husband and five children were born and raised.

Sponsored by her publisher, Shadow Mountain Publishing, Swore’s online read-aloud isn’t just for kids. “They’re for everyone stuck in quarantine!” says Swore. I recently interviewed her about her books and how she juggles farming and writing.

Was farming part of your childhood?

My dad was a crop duster and we moved all around. I got to sit on his lap while he flew his crop duster plane. That was my introduction to agriculture.

What is your first memory of writing?

In elementary school, I had a teacher who was extraordinary. She used to tell us things like, start writing about the color brown without using the color brown. As a fourth grader, that was really mind-blowing! She told me, ‘you’re really good, you should really write more’. I wrote about a Hunter Cheetah. My teacher made me feel like it was as amazing as I thought it was.

When did you start writing professionally?

About 15 years ago, my husband said, ‘you should write a story about the farm’. I sat down and wrote a 90,000 word young adult (YA) novel about this farm thing. He said, ‘no, I meant a little flier-coloring book thing to hand to kids.’ I said, ‘too late’, and I’ve been writing ever since! No one will ever see the 90,000. It was just for fun.

You kept writing. What motivated you?

I went to a writer’s conference and suddenly, my world opened. On a farm, I’m totally by myself, especially during off-season. And…when I started writing A MONSTER LIKE ME, my youngest was 10 years old. He would come home from school and ask, ‘do you have the next chapter ready’? He liked finding typos and wanted to see the screen.

Describe your writing rituals or habits.

I write while sitting on a ball and plug in earbuds, because I have narcolepsy. I don’t struggle with it while farming, but as soon as I stop moving. The ball lets me move around and helps me stay awake while writing; and, I listen to movie soundtracks without words.

Did the Covid pandemic affect your writing in any way?

My son who has Asperger’s wasn’t able to do his schoolwork, unless I was with him all the time. My writing time went out the window and pushed the writing of my new novel into farming seasion, so I was trying to write and farm at the same time. We do 12-hour farming days. When I only had one hour, I needed to get into the zone fast. I used music to pull me into that (mental) place that I need to be to write.

Five kids, plus farming, organizing a popular pumpkin patch and farmers markets… Egads, how do you make time to write?

I call winter my writing season. I average a minimum of half-hour a day and a couple weekends a month. If I only write in winter, then I’m having to re-learn it. So, I do a little in summer. But, my days are very full, so it is difficult to write for long periods. Early in the season is easier, because I can go out and water, then go home and write for several hours. If there is a day when I am not wiped out from farming, I go next door to my best friend’s house on Friday afternoon and we might write till one in the morning. Next door for us means half-a-mile away! We sit next to each other, so we’re totally absorbed in our imaginary world; we stop and brainstorm. It’s fun.

Do you think about your characters and plot while farming?

It’s a creative outlet that can go with me into the field. If I am farming with my children, I’ll say, ‘what do you think about a character who is like this. Then I ask, what do you think is the worst thing that could happen to this character. If I am thinking of a certain part of my story, I’ll say, so this is the situation, this is the character, how do you think this character can get from point A to B’.

You have published two middle grade (MG) novels. Do you have a favorite?

Each one satisfies a different need. A MONSTER LIKE ME was me as a child, a kid with hemangioma (a golf ball-sized protrusion on my face) who was bullied by kids and adults. I like to ask what-if questions when I write. A MONSTER LIKE ME was born because I wondered, what if I believed the people who called me a monster? THE WITCH AND THE PEACOCK was meaningful, because it captures what our life is  like now. Most farms around us have gone to houses. I needed a happy ending.

Congratulations on your new MG coming out in May. How is it different from your others?

STRONG LIKE THE SEA is my first contemporary MG; it’s not directly based on my world. The main character likes codes and figuring things out. That’s the furthest from me right now.

Any advice for writers?

Writing is hard! You have to love the things you’re writing about. I’m interested in people you might think are broken, but you get to know them and there’s more to them. I want kids to learn to love themselves. Even when you don’t have time to write, you can write stories in your head for when you do have the time.

Note: Original prose and photos were printed with the permission of Wendy Swore.

 

 

 

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I WRITE, BECAUSE…

I write because it’s my

rock,

church,

wrinkles,

pain,

loudest laugh,

amid deep doubt

on mornings when I’m convinced the birds are singing,

“scrap it, stick with vacuuming.”

Second chance,

even when revision and I aren’t getting along.

Need for risks,

such fun to throw terrible twists at my characters.

Addiction to curiousity

and what, where, when, why,

by the way, how the heck did my research lead to the story of the chef who made the world’s largest dumpling,

and then on to 10 synonyms for said

that I’ll delight in using way too many times.

Decisions,

as complex as Colorado weather

and a one word sentence.

Seeing through lotsa lenses,

each a chance to make metaphors,

as like

and like as.

One what if after what if,

navigating the creative mess I’ve made.

Commitment to writing The End.

Reminder to trust

and hope,

oh, please, may my 10 years of revising

90,000 words make some sense!

I admit, it’s often my desperate attempt to whittle, whittle away at a chunk of wood

seeking the perfect knot

that I want to sand, buff, stain,

repeat;

and often, it’s a return to my rebellious teen,

sneaking up the stairs after curfew

with secrets of my doings deep in my Levi’s pocket;

and often, it’s my science lab,

experimenting with wit,

but, ending up with the same result,

me laughing at my same corny ideas.

Raw truth,

much, much better than any mirror.

Every wee fear,

including those I haven’t met.

Pillow and blanket,

especially when I want to hide from characters that I can’t bear to inform:

“I don’t know if you would laugh or cry over this matter.”

Giddy childhood,

when my four brothers and I wrapped towels around our necks

and raced our bikes two miles to the public pool,

competing all day for the biggest cannon ball splash

and finding enough coins on the concrete to buy Baby Ruth’s and lemon drops.

Freedom,

flying down a mountain on my bicycle at 40 mph,

hearing only air,

only!

Tuner,

honing in on how-to’s,

like my character’s nervous habit,

or, whether she should whine, sigh or snicker.

Adrenaline rush,

when rarely, oh so rarely,

six sentences in a row,

flow,

flow,

as if my character is in charge.

Admission

to the humbling fact,

yes, my characters will lead,

if you would listen,

they’d love to whisper:

“Get your ego out of the way, god damnit!”

Shower,

making sure I scrub deep, bid farewell to the filth and start all over.

Challenge

that wakes, sparks and jests me,

like when I hide dark chocolate in the freezer,

yet, keep avoiding, avoiding

till I must have a bite,

and then, you know what happens next,

I eat the whole bar!

Shovel,

reminding me: dig up, dig up, dig up the muck,

more,

more,

because, beneath is the real stuff, THE story,

arriving at an unexpected reality sign:

“welcome to the story you never knew you were telling!”

My rescue crew,

always ready with a

hug,

wisdom,

feedback,

nudge,

prayer,

a plethora of ideas,

edits,

commas,

periods.

Fresh baked paper

just out of the oven,

ready for my pen to

dabble,

let go,

forgive,

say hello,

how are ya,

goodbye

to mom, dad, brothers, best buds.

Stories

I write,

because,

I always have.

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Filed under Karen McChesney, Main character, Revision process, Uncategorized, WORD NERD