Beach Combing for Books by Kirby Larson
A few years back, we built a little house above a rocky beach, just south of the Canadian border, and named it Shangri-Lar. It truly is my piece of heaven on earth. The moment I turn into the drive, I feel myself unwind.
Once everything’s carted into the house, and the groceries are put away, Winston and I head to the beach for the first of many walks. Like most of his four-legged buddies, Winston’s beach time is centered on searching for one of two things: seabirds to chase or something dead and disgusting to roll in.
I’m on the hunt, too: for sea glass. I joke that a whale could breach in the bay and I wouldn’t even notice because my eyes are always down, looking for colored treasure. Because of the rocks and the tides and assorted other factors, glass finds are rare. And I certainly am not like my friend, Cynthia Lord, who lives in Maine and always seems to find shards of pink or yellow glass (which makes me very jealous!). Here, on this coast, the palette is limited to clear, green, brown and occasionally blue. Agates are another treasure to hunt, but they’re nearly as elusive as the sea glass. Some days – actually, most days! – I have to content myself with colorful stones or gnarled driftwood or the odd bird feather.
Right now, I’m in my Shangri-Lar office, just back from a beach walk where I struck gold: two pieces of clear glass – one in an appealing cylinder shape –, a shard of green, a crumb of blue, AND an agate. Woo-hoo! As I shook these treasures out of my pocket, it struck me how much writing, especially writing historical fiction, is like beach-combing.
When I start a story, it’s with the same frame of mind that I begin each beach walk: certain I’ll find an agate as big as my fist, or a piece of glass as pink as a peony. I know it’s unlikely that I’ll be successful in that regard, but it’s amazing what else is uncovered simply by poking around. If I hadn’t been looking for that elusive big thing, I might never have found the colorful 1920s newspaper story written by a young woman reporter who took a famous opera star’s place on a flight-seeing trip over Seattle. This news nugget tickled my fancy, so I tucked it in my writing pocket. (Readers of Hattie Ever After will discover how I used this gem in that novel).
I have to be honest. I was afraid to write a second book about 17-year-old orphan Hattie Inez Brooks (first introduced in Hattie Big Sky). I didn’t want to disappoint the readers who wanted more of her story, but I didn’t want to disappoint myself by rewriting the same story. So I went treasure hunting in the first novel for clues to a possible problem for a second novel. And I found just what I needed in Hattie’s self-described “scoundrel” uncle, Chester.
With that prize in my pocket, I began my search for Hattie’s new story, a search which turned up all kinds of artifacts: an image of an old coin carved into a love token; a biography of Nellie Bly; a set of souvenir postcards from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition; nineteen varieties of Campbell’s Soup; a world atlas, complete with detailed map of 1919 San Francisco; old cameras; new worries, and, every now and again, the odd feather.
I was once privileged to hear Paul Fleischman speak about his writing process and he described sitting quietly in his office, mentally composing every word of a book. When it was perfect in his head, he began to put it to paper.
My process is nothing like that! At some point, I get so excited by everything I’ve collected on my treasure hunt that I can’t help shaking it out of my pocket onto the page. It’s a huge jumble, with scenes in the wrong places, and characters acting out of character. This early draft smells a lot like Winston after he’s rolled in something on the beach.
But just as I’ve learned that I will eventually find sea glass on our stern and rocky shore, I’ve learned that, if I keep after it, I will find the heart of my story. Fortunately, neither endeavor is a solitary effort. My husband, my daughter and friends – even the wind and the waves– play a role in helping to fill that Mason jar in the kitchen with sea glass. Likewise, my search for a story has its own helpers: trusted first reader and plotter extraordinaire, Mary Nethery; and brave editor, Michelle Poploff, who wisely advised getting Hattie on the road sooner in the sequel. Sometimes the help is aimed at the writer, not the writing (Karen Cushman, Jenni Holm and Barbara O’Connor are the human equivalents of red sea glass, the rarest of all colors).
The best thing about being a collector is finding a way to use each and every bit of flotsam and jetsam picked up along the way—whether it’s a San Francisco weather report from an old issue of the Chronicle newspaper, or photos of the two pairs of shoes Hattie certainly would have owned, or the character names gleaned from the Social Security website (popular names of past decades). True, some bits end up in the “deleted scenes” file – oh, how I wanted Hattie to drive a Model T from Great Falls to Seattle! No matter! Each is an important part of the process of transforming the grit of an idea into a pearl of a book. No research is ever wasted, just as no crumb of glass is too small to keep.
The best thing about writing, however, is exactly the same as the best thing about beach-combing. No matter what this day holds, there’s new treasure out there, waiting for you, tomorrow.
Kirby Larson is the author of Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky, as well as The Fences Between Us, The Friendship Doll, and Hattie Ever After (due out Feb. 12). With her good friend, Mary Nethery, she has written two nonfiction picture books, Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle. She blogs at kirbyslane.blogspot.com (check out her Teacher Tuesday feature!); find her on Twitter: @kirbylarson. Even if President Obama asks “pretty please,” Kirby is not writing any more books about Hattie.
I love this analogy! It’s so true, and you’ve captured it beautifully. Great to share with students, too! Thank you for this lovely post!
I agree–perfect for explaining the creative process to new writers.
LOVE IT! I am excited to share this post with my 5th graders. My students will be relieved that not every author writes like this: “When it was perfect in his head, he began to put it to paper.” I have plenty of students that are more like this: “shaking it out of my pocket onto the page…a huge jumble…” Thank you, Kirby Larson for writing great books and sharing your writing life with us!
What a beautiful and thoughtful and inspiring post! Thank you for sharing. I have recently relocated and am in temporary housing right on a beach. I haven’t found any sea glass (alas) but have a new-found love for pieces of driftwood. I have no idea what I will do with them (I have a nice pile on the porch) but they will move with us to our new home, and I suspect they will find their way into my office. Now I think that maybe they will also find their way into a story. Thank you!
Loved your post! There are agates out there and treasures at every turn. Color me inspired….
I feel pretty awful for not reading this yesterday, but my very own sea glass steered me back here, knowing I needed to see this. What a beautiful way of talking about the process. Thank you for sharing and inspiring, and giving us something to take to our students as well!