Countdown to BREAKOUT: The Hamilton Effect

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015.

The Hamilton Effect

Being a writer is different from many other jobs in that you’re never really off the clock. When I’m working on a book, I can’t really turn off my writer brain (much to my family’s dismay sometimes, when they’re trying to get me to focus on something else). And when I’m living in a character’s world, I tend to see things in my world through the lens of that character’s experiences, too. That’s how Hamilton ended up in BREAKOUT.

When I went to see the Broadway musical Hamilton in April of 2016, I was deep in the revision process, rewriting BREAKOUT from a single narrative told in first person to a novel-in-documents with many different perspectives. I’d been working a lot with Elidee, a character who’d just moved from the Bronx to this quiet and nearly all-white prison town where the manhunt was happening. Elidee was incredibly homesick and felt anything but welcome in Wolf Creek, and I thought of her when I heard Lin Manuel Miranda sing “Hurricane.”

I wrote my way out
Wrote everything down far as I could see
I wrote my way out
I looked up and the town had its eyes on me…

Elidee’s brother was in prison and had been working on an appeal. She’d think of him when she heard those lyrics, but maybe of her own situation, too. Could she write her way out of Wolf Creek and write herself back home?

This was the inspiration for Elidee’s experimentation with poetry throughout the book. She uses Hamilton lyrics as inspiration and writes rap lyrics offering commentary on the happenings in Wolf Creek. This one was inspired by “Ten Duel Commandments” and is in a letter Elidee wrote to her brother Troy in prison.

As Wolf Creek’s manhunt drags on, Elidee uses more Hamilton lyrics as well as other great poems as mentor texts as she works to find her voice. We’ll explore some of her other mentor texts in tomorrow’s post, but for now, it’s time to try your hand at some Hamilton-inspired lyrics, too.

Your Assignment: Choose a song from Hamilton (or another song if you prefer) and rewrite the lyrics so they reflect an event or issue in your own community or school. (Elidee also rewrote one of the Hamilton Cabinet Battles as a rap battle between her school’s vice principal and student council president.)

Thanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  

Breakout cover image

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2 Comments

  1. Martha Willey
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Good morning. Another wonderful insight. Was it a long process to get permission to use the song lyrics?

    • Posted May 24, 2018 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      We didn’t use the actual lyrics from Hamilton – just the titles, with the thought that readers who know them will be all set and those who don’t can look them up fairly easily. Getting permission to use song lyrics is almost always a very long and very expensive process, so we opted not to do that for this book. We did end up using the full poems for “We Wear the Mask,” (which didn’t require permission because it’s in the public domain) “We Real Cool,” (which was a quick permissions process with the Brooks estate & cost $300, if I recall) and a poem from the amazing book ONE LAST WORD by Nikki Grimes (which was also quick because it’s published by Bloomsbury, and Nikki is a friend). I’ve had this come up with other books I’ve written and it’s about 50-50 whether we end up using the lyrics/excerpt or writing around it because getting permissions is cost prohibitive or just takes too long.

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