Taking Stories on the Road by Tara Dairman
Many writers get their first wisp of inspiration from a character who pops into their head, or a plot idea that won’t let them go. But I love starting with setting.
Other than writing, travel is my great passion, and I’ve been lucky to visit more than 90 countries. This gives me a huge library of real-life places to draw from when creating a made-up world. Most of the time, a story idea will come to me after visiting a new potential setting. But in the case of The Girl from Earth’s End, a setting actually inspired the story before I’d even been there.
The Azores are a remote string of volcanic islands in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. They’re part of Portugal, but located 1,000 miles west of the mainland. If you look at pictures, you’ll find green hills, volcanic regions active and extinct, and blue craterlakes. My family was excited to visit in the summer of 2018, and I was reading guidebooks to plan our itinerary.
As I explored options for day trips on São Miguel, the main island, I read about estates with magnificent gardens—and how, in the 1800’s, wealthy landowners would compete for the prestige of having the most beautiful garden on the island.
I also read about how, in the 1800’s, the Azores’ groves produced and exported massive numbers of oranges. Fast boats would race from Azorean harbors to London to be the first to deliver oranges in time for Christmas. But then, a disease wiped out the islands’ orange industry, which never recovered.
What, I wondered, happened to all those fast boats? And just like that, the first line of a story came to me: “The Orange Boat doesn’t carry oranges anymore.”
More lines followed, and a fantastical tale unspooled: about a family on a remote island, and a nationwide gardening competition, and a land where oranges used to grow freely but had been wiped out by blight. But there was one secret tree left that would become very important . . . that might even save someone’s life . . .
The world of the Gardenia Islands—the setting for my book, inspired by the Azores—not only served as a backdrop, but as a guide as I developed plot and cast. Distance between islands isolated my characters. The slow schedule of the Orange Boat (which now carried mail instead of citrus fruits) limited their communication. The geography of her home island led my main character, Henna, to become an expert gardener at a young age. Eventually, that expertise would send her into the wider world of more islands, with different features.
This was where in-person research came in, and I was lucky to have many plot elements already in place when I landed in the Azores. Knowing that I would next write about Henna’s journey to the capital island and her time at school there, I paid special attention to the cities and towns I visited—the slopes of their cobbled streets, the discoloration of their historic buildings, the way the air smelled in their harbors. And I kept my senses open at other locales (and took plenty of pictures and notes). That way, when I expanded the world of the Gardenias further, I’d be able to draw on the wild hydrangeas of Faial, the volcanic blackness of Pico, and the seaside tea estates of São Miguel.
I completed my first draft of The Girl from Earth’s End in the spring of 2019, just in time for my family to set off on its next adventure. We’d bought an RV and sold most of our possessions, and now the four of us would live on wheels full-time for two years so we could explore North America.
Well, full-time for my husband, our three-year-old, and our one-year-old. I still had a novel to finish.
As it turns out, an RV with a single closing door is not the ideal place to revise a novel. There was no space for my trusty big-picture bulletin board and whiteboard. I couldn’t even leave index cards lying out as we drove our home from spot to spot.And gone were full days of preschool for my kids. If I wanted to write, I had to find time between outings and barricade myself into the little space between the RV’s washing machine and dresser with my noise-cancelling headphones on.
By necessity, I learned to break my revision process into small, manageable chunks. I created an index card for each chapter, showing not only what should happen in the plot, but what should reverse or change for the characters involved. I printed my manuscript, which filled three binders, so I could work by hand, page by page. And each time I’d made a new chunk of the story as strong as I could, I sent it to my trusted critique group for feedback.
I’d hoped to revise the book within a few months, but as 2019 drew to a close, I was nowhere near done. Of course, I’d taken breaks to explore cities and national parks and visit family and friends—the whole point of our RV adventure! We’d spent five days on a cargo boat in Labrador; we’d spent six weeks in Australia, leaving the RV behind to road-trip in a wholly new country. There, I’d had the luck to tour “Orange World,” an orchard where I peppered our guide with questions about citruscultivation. The answers were useful as I revised my book.
But what I really learned was that adventure is best at the beginning of the writing process. (It’s wonderful for story inspiration!) But revision, ideally, should take place somewhere with far fewer distractions.
The pandemic, for better or worse, finally brought me to the setting where I would finish the book. With attractions shutting down everywhere, my family found a spot at a tiny campground in New Mexico and settled in for two months. That corner of the world was just as beautiful and interesting as anywhere else we’d stayed. But being in the same place for a long time meant I could work consistently and take outings to explore without shortchanging either.
As desert flowers bloomed around us in the mountains and valleys of the Lincoln National Forest, I settled into my new “corner office” (the passenger seat of our truck) and dug into revisions once more. I was determined to get Henna back to her island home of Earth’s End for the—revised and improved—conclusion to her epic story.
Tara Dairman writes middle-grade novels and picture books about kids with strong passions and big questions about the world. These titles, which include All Four Stars and Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy (illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan) have been named to best-of-the-year lists by A Mighty Girl, Kirkus Reviews, Bank Street College of Education, and CCBC. Tara’slatest novel, The Girl from Earth’s End, is a Junior Library Guild selection, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and has received two starred reviews.
What a wonderful story on how you create, Tara! Thank you for sharing with us. The pictures are beautiful. You’re right. Traveling is just flat out magical.
Isn’t it? And I didn’t even get to mention the magical weeks at KWW where I made great progress on this book! One character’s house was inspired by the Story House in the Whidbey woods. Thanks for the comment, my friend. ❤
I was already excited to read the story, but now I am extra-extra excited. I love hearing where authors get their inspiration and where a story seed begins. And I really felt sympathy picturing you trying to write in a corner of an RV with noise-cancelling headphones and your kiddos certainly wondering why Mom couldn’t play 24/7!
I hope you extra-extra enjoy it! I love hearing about this kind of behind-the-scenes stuff, too. Thanks for reading and responding, Christina!
What a way to spend the first couple months of lockdown! I’m curious where you guys went next to wait things out. I also can’t imagine getting work done with a one and three year old ON THE ROAD. Holy cow. The book sounds fantastic and the cover art is just gorgeous. Congratulations!
So when will you be turning your own adventures into a book, Tara?
They seem to bleed into every fiction story I write in some way. I don’t know about memoir–maybe one day!