Starting with Setting

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So I was finishing up Elise Broach’s book MASTERPIECE last night, and the author’s note at the end talked about the spark of idea that led to this brilliant book – a contact lens lost in the sink.  That led Elise to wish for some tiny creature who could crawl down and get it for her, and that led her to imagine Marvin, a friendly, talented beetle who absolutely shines as a main character.

I love hearing about the whispers that start a story churning, so I thought I’d share the stories behind my two latest works in progress, both of which started with setting. 

Right now I’m working on a middle grade mystery that grew out of my editor’s travel troubles. (She has no idea about any of this, so if you are reading this, Mary Kate, thanks for the inspiration! *waves to Mary Kate* ) When bad weather stranded her in Atlanta this spring, I got thinking about airports and how much I like them and how I’d love to set a book in one.  And then I got thinking about being stuck in airports and how I often end up meeting the most interesting people, just because we can’t get to Tulsa or wherever for three more hours, and that’s where my middle grade mystery begins…with three kids, snowed in at a Washington D.C. airport, and a stolen treasure.  I’m in the early stages of this book, just a few chapters in and stalled until I get to D.C. for a research trip later this month, so it’s too early for me to share more.  But it’s interesting to me that the story started with setting.

That was the also case with SUGAR ON SNOW, the middle grade novel I worked on much of last year.  The whispers started here…

…at a sugar house on pancake weekend, where I crunched through the spring snow with my daughter, watched the sugar steam puff into the sky,  inhaled the sweet smell of sap being boiled down to syrup, and watched the hustle and bustle of the family that owns this farm.  For the next few weeks, I toyed with the idea of a character who lives on a maple farm near the Canadian border, and that’s when Claire showed up and started whispering in my ear. 

I’d talk back to her on my morning run.  "Well, sure…you’re a great kid and you have a fascinating life up there, skating on the frozen cow pond in the winter and everything. And sure, it would be fun to write the sugaring scenes, but what are you going to do? You have to do something. You can’t really have your own book until something happens, you know?"

Claire would sigh and go away for a few days, but she kept coming back.  I liked her, but I didn’t start to write about her until summer, when I spent a weekend with my daughter at a basic skills figure skating camp in Lake Placid.  She was excited to take different kinds of skating classes at the camp, and I was excited to sit in the coffee shop across the street and work on revisions for the first book in my MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series with Scholastic. 

But it turns out I hadn’t read the fine print on the skating camp brochure.  When I signed my daughter up for camp, I had also signed myself up for a weekend of "parent education" workshops.  So instead of drinking mocha lattes with my laptop, I found myself in the Olympic Center Hall of Fame Room with a bunch of other skating parents, learning about figure skate blades that cost more than my car is worth.  Although they weren’t what I had planned, the workshops were fascinating, particularly the one that featured a sports psychologist who works with figure skaters and talked about the stress, the pressure to commit more time and money, the competitive nature of the sport.  What if my sweet Claire from the maple farm somehow ended up training here? I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling ideas.

After that, there was a whole lot of research and writing and revising, brilliant critiques from writing friends, more revising, an editorial letter from my agent,  and more revising.  And here’s what grew out of that pancake breakfast in the March sunshine and not reading the fine print about skating camp.  From yesterday’s Publishers Marketplace…

BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z author Kate Messner’s SUGAR ON SNOW, in which a farm girl is discovered by a charismatic Russian skating coach and thrown into the uber-competitive world of elite figure skating, where she must stand up to the mean girls on ice and find the courage to follow her dreams, again to Mary Kate Castellani at Walker Children’s, for publication in Winter 2011, by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.