Countdown to BREAKOUT: Relationships in a Fictional Family

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.

Relationships in a Fictional Family

When I was working on BREAKOUT, the character of Nora Tucker came very naturally for me. Like me, she’s a white girl who’s grown up in a small, rural town. My dad was a school superintendent and hers is a prison superintendent, but overall, our backgrounds are pretty similar. That wasn’t the case with another character in the story, Elidee. She’s a black girl from the Bronx who’s just moved to Wolf Creek because her brother is an inmate at the prison.

When I was revising BREAKOUT, I worked with multiple expert readers, or sensitivity readers as they’re sometimes called, to read my draft and offer feedback, particularly when it came to representation issues with Elidee and her family. One of those readers noticed a difference in the family relationships in the story. Nora’s family felt more fully realized (probably because it had been easier for me to write), and she suggested that I work more building a close relationship between Elidee and her mom.

Part of that work involved thinking more about how Elidee’s mom might have prepared her daughter for the move to Wolf Creek, a town where she had to have known Elidee would be one of the few brown faces at school. My expert reader reminded me that there are conversations that black parents have to have with their kids that white parents don’t. Where were they in the story? And where were the sweet, quiet moments with Elidee and her mom? The inside jokes that nobody else understands?

It was time to revise some more. Among the changes I made in this round of revision was adding one of those running jokes between Elidee and her mom – a play on that children’s book where the characters say “I love you to the moon and back.” Elidee and her mom used to go to the planetarium when they lived in the city, so I decided that they’d play a friendly game of one-upsmanship with that phrase in their text messages while Mom was at work.

And that book that Elidee left in the living room? It was one of the titles on her library check-out receipt from an earlier page in BREAKOUT. Fitting all the puzzle pieces together was one of the biggest challenges of writing this story. And at this point, it was coming together. I still felt like I wanted to do more with Elidee as a character, though, and to do that, I needed to know where she came from. More on that tomorrow, but first – today’s prompt.

Your Assignment: Write for a few minutes about the inside jokes that are part of your family’s relationships. What running jokes or little games do you play that show your love and connection?

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







2 Replies on “Countdown to BREAKOUT: Relationships in a Fictional Family

  1. My anticipation grows! So many layers to writing and all your revising shows how committed you were to this story and the characters.

  2. Happy Memorial Day Weekend! I am so grateful to have this time to sit with a prompt, especially one that deals with family! My siblings and I are forever quoting our dad’s sayings. Once during an empty college bank account season, I put all the quotes together in a book as a Father’s Day gift.