WRITING REAL by Augusta Scattergood
I love answering young readers’ questions:
“Which character are you, Glory or Jesslyn?”
“Is your dog named Ginger Rogers?”
“When you were our age, did you like to play baseball, tap dance, or swimming?”
Here’s a confession from me and other writers who answered my questions. Authors frequently take big and little personal recollections and turn them into scenes. They pluck real people from their lives and cleverly disguise them as oddball characters.
Christina Diaz Gonzalez, author of one of my favorite middle-grade novels, describes a scene in THE RED UMBRELLA that’s beautifully visual. “… the goodbye scene at the Havana airport with the red umbrella really happened between my mother and grandmother. My grandmother stood on the roof of the building holding a red umbrella so that my mother could still see her as the plane departed. They didn’t know if they would see each other again.”
Events which shaped writers’ formative years, tweaked to fit our plots, often appear in the most emotional parts of our books. Lynda Mullaly Hunt mined school scenes from her memory that resonate with young readers. “In FISH IN A TREE, Mr. Daniels gives Ally a poetry award for the very same poem that I wrote in sixth grade. The assignment was to write a poem about nature that rhymed… Like Ally, I stood at the front of the room scanning the kids, picking out the ones I knew had written better poems… My response in real life was not anger like in the book. I was grateful he was trying to be nice to me.”
Sometimes words pop verbatim from life into scene. Kat Yeh and her brother say exactly what DiDi, older sister and cook, says to Gigi, the narrator of THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE. Kat and her brother may not make tuna casserole, but he always announces— about whatever dish he’s made— “Hot stuff coming through! And I’m not talking about the tuna noodle casserole!”
In the award-winning novel, TURTLE IN PARADISE, Jennifer Holm’s Author’s Note describes her Florida family, reimagined and remembered in scenes set in the Keys during the Great Depression and a powerful hurricane. Flip to the back of Shannon Hitchcock’s RUBY LEE AND ME. There it is, a photograph of the teacher at Shannon’s newly-integrated school who inspired the teacher in her novel.
Not only real people and their words but actual places find their way into our stories. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a coon dog cemetery? On my recent Author Visit to a school in Memphis, the 3rd grade students excitedly told me about their author study of Barbara O’Connor and showed me the hall lined with headstone drawings of their beloved pets. Barbara traveled to that cemetery for fun and curiosity, but it became part of THE SMALL ADVENTURE OF POPEYE AND ELVIS.
Greg Neri shared that “I am in all my stories, not so much by specific scenes from my life, more like the emotional story points.” But a short story he wrote for the anthology OPEN MIC is based directly on a personal experience while living in Berlin: “It was my Rosa Parks moment: whenever I got on the subway and sat next to older women from the east, they would get up and move (even if I was dressed in a suit).”
He and his daughter turned those days into a game for finding a seat on a crowded train. And Greg wrote about it.
Young writers can translate personal experiences into stories, too. At the end of my school presentations, I give two pieces of advice to students who wonder what it takes to be a writer. One is to read widely. The other is to carry a notebook. It doesn’t have to be big or fancy. It can be a phone or a stickie note. In an emergency, the palm of a hand works. As Jack Gantos says in his Nerdy-award-winning book, WRITING RADAR, “Working in a journal makes you pay attention to the whole world around you. It makes you aware of good days, bad days, embarrassing days, days when you were dealing with …friends, enemies… and so much more.” And possibly his best writing tip in the book? “Never forget: Every painful moment in life is a story waiting to be told.”
Those stories-from-memories can also be happy ones. A dance teacher named Miss Sister? A chance comment from a school friend about writing for the school newspaper? Anything can spark a novel idea. Collect your own people, places and dialog, re-vise and re-write to fool your friends, and you’re never far away from a story.
Augusta Scattergood, former school librarian and occasional book reviewer, is the author of three middle-grade novels, GLORY BE, THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY, and MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG. She loves to cleverly disguise people she knew and embarrassing personal memories in her stories. Follow her on Twitter at ARScattergood and Facebook as herself.