(c) copyright ruth Ohi 2013
The Story: Tess (Annick Press 1995, illustrations by Ruth Ohi, Picture Book ages 5 - 8)
The Writing Tip: The one bit of family history that most appealed to me was an anecdote about how my aunt and my dad had been sent into the fields to gather cow paddies (cow poop!) to be burned as fuel in the cook-stove during the summer months. Dry cow paddies are free for the taking and they burn well - they are sometimes still used in less less developed parts of the world. But my aunt sensed that here in Canada the gathering was to be done secretly...not because it was bad, exactly, but because her parents were ashamed of how poor the family had become. When a neighbour happened upon her with her bag of dry cow paddies, and commented that he now understood why their house smelled so peculiar, my aunt was totally humiliated. That sense of humiliation is what told me this story would work -- it was something today's kids would be able to associate with even while going "ewwww" at the idea of the cow paddies.
Now my aunt, among many other accomplishments, is also a writer. She had already written about this incident for one of the farm newspapers. It had been a a short, factual article - not really what I was planning. But still, I couldn't steal her story --- I wouldn't steal anyone's story! And yet every time I sat down to write, I found my pen beginning to move in that direction. The more I tried to forget the idea, the more it returned, stronger than ever.
Finally I did the only reasonable thing. I phoned my aunt and asked if I could use her anecdote in my own way, turning it into a picture book for little kids.
The answer was an unqualified "yes". And because I, too, grew up on the prairies -- some thirty years later but still surrounded by endless horizons beneath a huge and wonderful arch of sky --I was then totally free to add my own twists to the tale. The characters grew, a crises fell into place (entirely apart from my aunt's original tale) and the story began to have a life of its own.
Is stealing a story always as simple as asking someone? No - of course not! Nor is it as easy as simply being aware of copyright considerations (copyright itself is seldom simple!). But in cases where a story calls to you with a strong voice, my best tip is to follow it up in any and all ways possible.
I will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to my wonderful Aunt Mag for the story Tess. Besides gathering cow paddies, her life has included riding bucking broncs, driving army transport trucks in London during the Blitz (the WW II bombings), being one of Calgary's first police women and success as a writer in many different areas.
Thanks Mag -- always!
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