It’s pretty special to be able to host a friend AND a neighbor. Well, Dan Gemeinhart and I are almost neighbors; we live in the same state, me on the west side of the Cascade Mountains and Dan on the east. And that eastern Washington terrain/setting plays a big role in his newest book, Some Kind of Courage (Scholastic) which is just out. I can highly recommend this historical adventure, which even non-horse lovers (if such folks exist!) will love.
I have never shot a grizzly bear in the eye.
Like, not even once.
I’ve never jumped off a moving train. Well…not yet, anyway. I’ll keep you posted.
And I’ve never watched my family laid in their graves by a terrible disease. I’ve never been an orphan.
None of these things have happened to me.
But they all happened to Joseph Johnson.
Now, Joseph isn’t real. He’s the protagonist of my latest book, Some Kind of Courage, and he is wholly an invention of my imagination. But for the story to work, for the story to live, I had to try and make him real. I had to make him breathe, and feel, and think, and grieve, and hope. And, ultimately, I had to make him talk.
We talk about “voice” a lot when we talk about books. Readers connect with it, agents and publishers look for it, writers obsess over it. And for good reason. Voice can absolutely make or break a story. The voice of a story is the eyes that we see the story though, the ears we hear it with, the body that we live in for as long as we live in that world. It needs to have resonance, and truth, and it needs to feel right.
I have really struggled with voice in some other stories I’ve written. I’ve started and restarted and then started again, trying to find the right way to tell the story. I’ve tried out different voices – 1st person, 3rd person, lyrical, sparse – until I found the one that fit just right. Finding a story’s voice is a lot like picking out a pair of shoes: there are lots of choices, each of which could be great in its own context. What you’ve gotta do is find the exact right pair of shoes for the world of that story, and that protagonist.
Does your story require a sturdy, rugged pair of boots? Or dainty dancing slippers, toe-stepping their way from phrase to phrase? Casual summer flip-flops, or the formal sophistication of black high heels? (Note: if I’m ever writing a story that feels like it requires a “black high heels” kind of voice, I’ll probably decide that’s somebody else’s story to tell)
Getting a story right can mean a lot of trying on, a lot of writerly toe-wiggling, a lot of practice walks in different voices to find the one that fits. It can be maddening, and lead to more frustration than just blisters.
Not so with Joseph and Some Kind of Courage.
That kid, fictitious though he is, was aching to come out and tell his story. He was alive somewhere inside me, just waiting to clear his throat and start talking. From the moment I sat down and started writing that story, his voice came out clear as a mountain morning.
It’s a story about the Washington frontier, sure. And, yeah, it’s a story about one particular boy on a wild journey to reunite with one particular horse.
But, really, it’s about a kid figuring out who he is. A boy trying to discover where and how he fits in the world.
It’s a story about me, growing up as a kid in a military family, always moving from home to home and never knowing where I belonged.
It’s a story about every kid who’s almost not a kid anymore, looking at the world around them and trying to work out their own place in it.
And the voice, Joseph’s voice…it rang true for me right from the opening line. His voice, wherever it came from, was the only voice I could use to tell that story and tell it the right way.
There’s a reason we call it storytelling. Sure, we could call it storywriting or storycrafting or storybuilding. And there’s certainly writing and crafting and building that goes into finishing a novel. Plenty of it. But at the end of the day, we’re telling a story. And to tell a story, even on paper, you need a voice.
Some Kind of Courage is a story that was a pleasure to tell.
And Joseph’s voice was one that was an honor to speak with.
(Note: no grizzly bears were harmed in the writing of this book)
Dan Gemeinhart is the author of The Honest Truth (Scholastic, 2015) and Some Kind of Courage (Scholastic, 2016). He lives in a small town smack dab in the middle of Washington state with his wife and three young daughters. He’s lucky and grateful to be a teacher-librarian in an elementary school, where he gets to share awesome books with awesome kids. He loves camping, cooking and traveling. He also plays guitar (badly) and reads (constantly). His house is always a mess. He is really pretty darn happy.