Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Story Seeds / Writing Tips #12 - Truth and Fiction

The Story Seed:  My young daughter had recently experienced two incidents that were rapidly letting her know more about the layers of the world: one in which she was unjustly accused of shoplifting and a second that had her thinking about a large fish at a pet store we'd visited.

(c) 2013 Ruth Ohi
The Books: Believing Sophie, illustrated by Dorothy Donohue (Albert Whiteman and Co. 1995)
      The Catfish Palace, illustrated by Ruth Ohi (Annick, 1996)

The Writing Tip:  It was an editor who helped me learn what I needed to know in order to get these two stories to work. She had just picked up Believing Sophie from her desk. I could tell that the manuscript was about to be rejected and it made me sad to think that such an honest story idea wasn't going to make the cut.
     "That's something that really happened," I told her quickly. 
     Her brow furrowed thoughtfully as she looked at it one last time.
     "Perhaps that's what is wrong with it," she commented.
     And handed it back to me.

     The comment puzzled me but I respected my editor hugely (and still do!) and I knew that no comment was ever made lightly. Over the next months I thought about what she'd said.
     What I came up with is this. All my stories are based on "something that really happened" — that's what my current blog entries are all about!  But up to that time, the real life incidents had only been starting points. The stories themselves had been allowed to grow into entities all their own.
     The manuscript she had just rejected, however, had not been allowed to do that. Thinking it would be the best way to capture the sense of what my daughter had experienced, I'd stuck close to the facts. But facts are tricky things. If you let them rule your narrative, the immediacy and emotional connection that are so vital to the entire purpose of "story" can become lost.
     I took a deep breath and stepped back. A picture book story is different in style, language and technique from either a more journalistic piece or from a straight retelling. I needed to remember all the important story elements. Character. Pacing. The right voice. Beginning, middle, end. And a whole lot of other things!
     And I had to be careful that I wasn't a mother writing about a daughter. I had to be an author seeking the heart of a story and telling it well.
     The resulting stories -- while still very much holding the facts at their core -- were richer, stronger and more revealing on all levels. 
      A strong fictional story, no matter how dramatic the original incident, is never as simple as a retelling. It needs to have a life of its own.

     On a side note .... the publishing of The Catfish Palace was the first time I realized that the illustrator and the book designer are sometimes separate people.  Ruth Ohi did the wonderful illustrations. Sheryl Shapiro designed the layout, including notebook paper on the front cover and an envelope on the back, to perfectly complement the story within.
(c) All Rights Reserved. All blog text(except comments by others) copyright Hazel Hutchins.

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