Yes! Very. In fact, here are ten ways the 1660s were different from today:
• Nobody used forks.
• If your appendix burst, it was because your humors were unbalanced.
• Kids drank beer for breakfast.
• Everybody knew that bathing was dangerously bad for your health.
• The Spanish Inquisition was still going strong.
• New York City didn’t exist yet. Instead it was a city called New Amsterdam that was part of a Dutch colony governed by Peter Stuyvesant.
• Your barber was also your surgeon. And vice versa.
• Soused pig’s face, boiled baby and stewed eels were things you’d be excited to eat for dinner.
• Candles were expensive. Unless you were rich, when it got dark you went to sleep.
• People had privacy. There were no phones, no cameras, no GPS systems, no Internet, no fax machines, no telegraphs, no satellites, no recording devices, no social media, no Google, no NSA. On the other hand, unless you were really rich, you probably slept in the same room with every member of your household, and overnight guests, too. So pick your poison.
Let me preface my answer to this question by saying I do NOT recommend that you find your ideas the way I found the idea for ESCAPE UNDER THE FOREVER SKY. Most of my story ideas come from anywhere and nowhere. Lying in bed half awake in the early morning, I think, What if all the world’s religions simultaneously identified one kid as the Messiah? Or somebody makes an offhand remark: “Yes, Mommy, Grandpa really does hate the bird.” Or sometimes I see something and it reminds me of something else. When my daughter was a toddler she never went anywhere without her stuffed pink bunny. She would carry the bunny under her arm, pat its ear, and suck her thumb all at the same time (yes, I know, she was very advanced). One day I thought, What if the whole United States Supreme Court carried pink bunnies and sucked their thumbs!
Clearly, not all ideas lead to books, but a few do. I carry around a small notebook everywhere I go to keep track of gems like these.
But back to the subject at hand. Here goes. I cannot tell a lie. I got the idea for ESCAPE UNDER THE FOREVER SKY from a news story I found online
when I was staying up way past a decent bedtime, surfing aimlessly. Even though this ordinarily unproductive pastime led to a published first novel,
I do NOT advocate staying up way too late to surf the internet. But there I was, hunched at my desk in tattered old pajamas, slack-jawed, eyes glazed
over (you know the look), when I saw this news headline: “Ethiopian Girl Kidnapped, Saved by Wild Lions.”
From that moment on, I was possessed. It didn’t matter that I knew nothing about Ethiopia or lions or how to survive alone in the bush with no food
and an injured foot. I heard Lucy’s voice in my head everywhere I went and I had to bring her to life on the page.
From my dad! He’s a lot like Grandpa. A lot. In fact, he IS Grandpa. We used to have a pet parrot named Galen and many of Grandpa’s most appalling ideas come from my father’s dark imagination: Dig a Hole to China and Send Birdie on a Trip, Birdie in the Microwave, Bird and Coyote Are Friends. Mind you, my father has never played any of these games; he just likes to talk about them. One day when my daughter was about four years old, she asked, “Mommy, does Grandpa really hate the bird?” and a story was born.
First I get an idea. Then I let it brew in my mind in what I call the primordial sludge phase. That can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. Really. During this phase I jot down thoughts as they come to me. I research. I outline. I daydream. Until the magic moment when I feel I’ve gathered enough raw material and I’m ready to start the first draft.
I write five days a week while my kids are in school. When I’m working on a first draft, which is, for me, the hardest part of the writing process, I give myself a quota of one thousand words a day. No matter how bad the writing is (and sometimes it’s pretty bad – you’d be surprised how rarely inspiration strikes, most of the time writers just slog it out), I have to write at least a thousand words a day. It takes me anywhere between two and four hours, usually closer to four.
I write at home on my laptop, usually in my bedroom or in the living room. I take breaks. (Eating is always a good excuse to stop working for a few minutes.) When the first draft is done, I close the file and do not allow myself to look at it for a few weeks. That way when I start revising I can read what I’ve done with a relatively fresh eye.
I love to revise. I do it again and again and again. And again. And each time I do it, the book gets a little better. When I run out of revisions, I give the manuscript to a trusted reader or two and ask them to tell me everything that’s wrong with it (preferably in a nice way). Then I revise some more based on their comments. I keep going with this process until there isn’t a single thing left that makes me cringe when I read it. Writing ESCAPE UNDER THE FOREVER SKY took about eight months, but I had to take off time in the middle to go to Ethiopia. (Click here to see a video of me feeding a wild hyena.)
And don’t think the process ends there. Once I’m happy with a book, it goes to my agent and then to my editor, both of whom ask for more revisions. You might think I’d get annoyed by this point, but I don’t. Publishing professionals whose judgment I trust are willing to spend time reading my book and helping me improve it. Annoyed? Heck no. I’m grateful.
You read. A lot. What’s really great is that when you read, all the good things good authors do will seep into your brain through osmosis, and you will learn a lot of what you need to know about writing with no effort at all. Wouldn’t it be terrific if learning everything were that much fun?
You also write a lot. Ideally every day, even if it’s just a page. Writing is one of those things you learn by doing. Like playing a musical instrument or throwing a baseball. If you commit to writing for a thousand hours (not all in one sitting, of course), I promise by the end you’ll be good at it.
And, please, do yourself a favor and don’t worry about getting published. Thinking about whether some editor you’ve never even met is going to like your book will sap every ounce of joy and creativity from your writing. After the book is done, and you’ve revised it a few dozen times and shown it to trusted readers and revised again based on their comments, you can ask yourself if you want to try to publish what you’ve written. And even then, my advice is to pursue publication only if you can honestly promise yourself not to be demoralized by a lot of rejection. EVERY author gets rejected. It’s nothing personal, but it sure feels lousy.
Here’s a sample, in no particular order: Kate DiCamillo, Jerry Spinelli (MANIAC MCGEE may be my favorite middle grade novel ever), Brian Selznick, Jonathan Stroud, Philip Pullman, Louisa May Alcott, Francis Hodgson Burnett, John Steinbeck (love his ACTS OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS NOBLE KNIGHTS), Alexandre Dumas (go read THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Seriously. Now), James Marshall (I think the GEORGE AND MARTHA books are perfect pieces of literature. I could go on about them for hours), Roald Dahl, Dav Pilkey (please tell me you’ve read the DUMB BUNNIES books!), Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jean Craighead George (have you read MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN? If you’ve ever wanted to live alone in a carved out tree with a falcon you stole from its mother and hand-raised yourself from infancy, you should), Mark Twain, Neil Gaiman, Sharon Creech, Markus Zusak.
Yes! Meet Ember and Magnolia. Ember is the calico and Magnolia is the white one. Magnolia is possibly the sweetest cat who’s ever lived. She can’t meow – she can only squeak like a mouse. Which is funny because she looks like a polar bear. Ember is secretly affectionate. By day she’s somewhat aloof but at night she sits on my chest and licks my ears (much appreciated but not so pleasant).