If you ever hesitate about writing an author a fan letter, don’t. That’s how my friendship with the inimitable Barbara O’Connor began! And what a friendship it’s been. From late night encouraging phone calls, to writing retreats, to surviving fires in restaurants — it’s been a wonderful ride so far. I consider Barbara the Betsy Byars of today’s middle grade fiction. She writes about kids who are outsiders, taking them just as they are, and then moving them through funny, painful stories until they can see a glimmer of hope for something better. As much as I have admired and adored all of her books, I think Wish, (FSG/MacMillan) might be her best. Here’s how her publisher describes it: From award-winning author Barbara O’Connor comes a middle-grade novel about a girl who, with the help of a true-blue friend, a big-hearted aunt and uncle, and the dog of her dreams, unexpectedly learns the true meaning of family in the least likely of places.
Do not miss it.
Author Alice Munro refers to the real life experiences that serve as the spark from which she crafts her fiction as “starter dough.” I love that. Like most writers, I encounter a variety of starter dough that eventually makes its way into my stories: an overheard conversation, a visit to a special place, a glimpse of an unusual person, an anecdote shared by a friend, the bits and pieces of life we encounter every day.
My latest novel, Wish sprang to life from starter dough, which I kneaded and shaped into the story of my imagination.
First there is the setting: the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I grew up in South Carolina at the base of those mountains and have many happy memories of day trips up the winding roads. The woods were lush with ferns and cool, damp moss. The creeks were icy cold with giant boulders warm from the sun, perfect for a barefoot little girl to jump on.
My adult life adventures took me out of the South and eventually to Boston. But after 26 snowy winters there, I have recently moved back and am happily settled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I drive up those winding mountain roads and become ten years old again.
So I knew my next book would be set in those mountains that are my heart’s home and that the setting would be a vital part of the story.
But, of course, I needed a character to put into that setting and I found the perfect starter dough for that. I was teaching a writing workshop to a class of fifth graders at an elementary school in Massachusetts. The students were given a set of questions to use to interview a relative. The next day, they brought those interview questions back to class and I would work with them on writing a short biography of that person. (Many people don’t know this, but I actually started my career writing biographies for children.)
I asked the students to share with the class one of their favorite questions from the interview. One young boy had interviewed his grandmother and he chose to share the question, “What were some of your favorite activities as a child?” His grandmother had answered, “Soccer, ballet and fighting.”
Well, there you go. The best starter dough I could ask for. I now had a character to plunk down into those mountains. Her name is Charlie Reese, a feisty, troubled child with a bad temper.
More starter dough: A friend of mine came across something on social media that she found touching and thought I would, too. Someone had posted a picture of a note that she had found in her young daughter’s lunchbox. It was in her daughter’s scribbled handwriting and read, “I love you. Miss you too.” That woman went on to say how bothered she had been when she found the note, realizing that her daughter must have pretended that the note had been written by her mother.
Well, if that’s not starter dough, I don’t know what is. You better believe I scooped that one up, so perfect for poor Charlie, longing to be loved and missed by her mother.
One of the best parts of being a writer is never knowing when you might chance upon some starter dough that will send you running to your next story.
Barbara O’Connor is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Drawing on your her South Carolina roots, Barbara’s books are known for their strong Southern settings and quirky characters.
In addition to six Parents Choice Awards, Barbara’s distinctions include School Library Journal Best Books, Kirkus Best Books, Bank Street College Best Books, and ALA Notables. She has had books nominated for children’s choice awards in 38 states. Barbara is a popular visiting author at schools and a frequent speaker at conferences around the country.
Thanks for having me on your blog, friend…and for all those nice words. Long live the Sisterhood.
“One of the best parts of being a writer is never knowing when you might chance upon some starter dough that will send you running to your next story.” Indeed. Starter dough is everywhere. Love this post and both of you. You both show me that the world is a fine place to live if you find the right women and books.
This is it! This is exactly how it happens. Thank you Barbara and Kirby, for a validating post. Must go punch down the dough.
By the way, Kirby, I don’t think you know this tidbit. Betsy Byars was the first real live author I ever met and I was in awe. I had read all of her books and adored her writing and then I SAT NEXT TO HER AT LUNCH at the national SCBWI conference in L.A. a trillion years ago. It was a highlight. (AND, at the same conference, I had my manuscript critiqued by LOIS EFFING LOWRY!!)
This was fun to read. I love the starter dough idea! I also use experiences from all parts of my life and from my students. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to read Wish. My copy is waiting for me at Fiction Addiction.
I just finished reading Hattie Big Sky. What a delightful story! I, too, started writing stories in elementary school. My husband and I wrote The Spirit of Lo, An Ordinary Family’s a Extraordinary Journey. It was published in 2000. It is a memoir but appealed to many schoolchildren. I am currently working on a manuscript inspired by the story of my grandmother, who came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon around 1900. I have been doing research about the era, devouring books both fiction and non-fiction. I am a native Oklahoman. My question is this. While I know I want to write a novel for young adults about this era, I am struggling with weaving facts and fiction together. What workshop or seminar would you most recommend for historical fiction writers? Thanks so much!