What a treat it is to host the wonderful Liz Garton Scanlon (who may have the warmest smile in kid lit!). We met eons ago in Austin, I believe, and I have followed her skyrocketing career with interest and joy since that time. Please welcome her today!
The Reality of Writing Fiction
When I made the leap from picture book author to novelist, it was truly a leap. Like, across a deep and icy crevasse. I felt jittery and ill-equipped when I realized that my favored safety gear (imagery, pretty language, emotional understanding) wasn’t enough to get me all the way from here to there. I needed something new, and more.
Oddly, what I grabbed for – and in the end, relied upon – were some good, hard facts. Some narrative threads that didn’t belong to me and my world, but instead belonged to the real world. I say “oddly” because I’m not a nonfiction author – at all. I’m not a skilled researcher and my memory kind of stinks. I like to go with my gut. I trust my intuition fully. In the Myers-Briggs test, I’m a solid F for “Feeling”. So how did I end up using facts to help swing me safely across the fictional chasm I was afraid of?
As a picture book author, I’m perfectly comfortable losing myself in the land of magical thinking for a few weeks or months, for a few hundred words. But writing a novel requires losing oneself for months or years instead of weeks, and for thousands of words instead of hundreds. The threads of nonfiction I wove through my story gave me something to hang onto during all that time, something solid. (Because if you’re like me you also don’t have an outline. Naturally.)
So my characters and the town they came from? Invented, entirely. Their predicaments? Figments of my imagination. But the space shuttle program one of them was obsessed with? The real deal. The forest fires in East Texas that precipitated their story? Based on the Bastrop, Texas fires of 2011. The Baptist hymns, the Greyhound bus schedules, the roadtrip route? Truth.
Even as I did my own fictional world building, these things helped make all the elements of the story more real to me. “So if Ivy and Paul are getting on a real bus and heading to a real town in Florida, then Ivy and Paul themselves must be real.” That’s what I thought. And the more real Ivy and Paul seemed to me, the more real (I hope) I was able to make them.
I’m working on another middle grade novel right now. I don’t know why I didn’t learn my lesson. It’s just as befuddling as the first one. Two more fictional protagonists living in a fictional town facing challenges I just flat made up. But as they face those challenges, there are touchstones – real ones – for them to use as they navigate their way through, and for me to use, too.
Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of numerous beloved books for young people, including the highly-acclaimed, Caldecott-honored picture book All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee, and her debut novel for middle grade readers, The Great Good Summer, as well as The Good-Pie Party; Happy Birthday, Bunny!; Noodle & Lou, and several others. Ms. Scanlon is also a poet, a teacher and a frequent & popular presenter at schools, libraries and conferences. She grew up in Colorado and Wisconsin, and now lives with her husband and two daughters in Austin, Texas.