Countdown to BREAKOUT: It starts with curiosity

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.  

It starts with curiosity…

On June 6, 2015, I was at a book festival in the Thousand Islands, and my husband and daughter were driving in that morning to meet up with me. A few hours before they were due to arrive, I got a text message.

It was huge news. That prison, Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, is famous for being among the toughest in New York State, and the most secure. Everyone was sure the inmates would be captured within hours, but the next morning, they were still on the run, and it was front-page news.

Searchers poured in from all over the state. Surely they’ll be caught today, we all thought. Right?


When I arrived home from my book festival, I returned to a community on edge. My neighbors were glued to their police scanners, listening for news. People who never worried about safety in our quiet town double and triple locked their doors and windows. We went to bed at night with police helicopters circling overhead. Even the usual night noises — rain on the roof, raccoons in the garbage cans —  somehow sounded sinister.

Many of my readers know that before I was a full-time writer, I was a middle school teacher, and some know that before that, I was a TV news reporter. That’s what I went to college for, and journalism will always be in my blood. That week, I was chatting online with a college friend who asked if I was missing the news business, given all of the excitement, and I had to admit that I was pretty envious of the reporters out at the prison.

“So why don’t you take your notebook and go out there?” he said. “Do you have somewhere else you need to be today?”

I didn’t. And I know from experience in my writing life that when I feel curious about something – whether it’s animals living under the snow or coral reefs or what really happened in Viking Age Iceland – it’s good to follow that impulse. So I drove through the police roadblocks to Dannemora, where network TV trucks were already lined up outside the prison.

I attended that day’s news conference and then settled in at a coffee shop across the street from the prison.

The place was mobbed. It seemed like everyone in town was there, and everyone had a story. There were police officers who came in for lunch, covered in mud and ticks after a morning out searching the woods. There were neighbors who talked about how they couldn’t get their kids to sleep in their own beds at night. And there were relatives of inmates who’d come to town to visit, only to be told that the prison was on lockdown, and they wouldn’t be able to visit for a long time. I hung out at that coffee shop for the better part of three days, just talking with people and listening to their stories.

Somewhere near the end of the second day, a story started to take shape in my imagination, written in the voice of Nora Tucker, a prison superintendent’s daughter. This is the scribble that would become the first line of my first draft of BREAKOUT.

From there, it was a matter of collecting more ideas, more details, discovering more about Nora’s voice, and making my way through a first draft. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about setting and how a fictional town can be crafted from tiny specific details of real-world places.

But first – I’m finishing each of these posts with a quick writing prompt for readers who are also writers, or want to be.

Your assignment: Take five minutes today and write about something you’re curious about. What might you do to feed that curiosity and learn a bit more? 

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




4 Replies on “Countdown to BREAKOUT: It starts with curiosity

  1. Extraordinary story of how a book can be born. Thank you for sharing! I am a recent graduate of Lesley University’s MFA in Writing for Young People program, and I am writing a novel with a similar birth event. I look forward to reading Breakout!

  2. Kate, thank you so much for doing this blog about your new book, which I have preordered awhile ago. I always tell my library students that as writers we never know where the next idea for a book will come from. How cool it is the way you got your opening. I look forward to your next post. And your book!!

  3. So glad you are teaching us about the writing process. I’m a 7th and 8th grade English teacher and these are the types of stories I love to share with students! Plus, students tell me I should write a book about a teacher I told them, “I honestly have no idea how to write fiction… I teach you guys how to summarize, argue, and stuff like that, but iI is know how you write a 250 page book. “