December 7, 2014

WRITING ADVICE: What Went RIGHT With “Firestorm!” (Cricket July 2001) Guy Stewart #10

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote to the left will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

This short story was born out of a novel that I had written called RED DEMON.

The novel I’d written out of a frustration with the then popular GOOSEBUMPS series of books for young people. I’d grown tired of hearing teachers say, “Well, at least they’re reading!” It was my contention that there was plenty of horror to go around in real life and that authors didn’t really need to make up stories to scare kids!

The initial idea came from a camping trip we’d taken to central Minnesota. There in Hinckley we toured the Great Hinckley Fire Museum, detailing a horrendous conflagration that had swept over the town in 1894 killing 418 people, and in a chilling addition to ethnic hatred, “some Indians”.

Hundreds were saved as well, but the details of the fire, once I began my research, were overflowing with “dramatic possibility”

My sources were popular, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE RED DEMON (Larry Millett, 1996), historical UP FROM ASHES (Grace Stageberg Swenson, 1988), and an incredibly dull monograph called THE HINCKLEY FIRESTORM OF 1894 (collection of reports, articles, and eyewitness accounts, 1964 – came from a University of Minnesota collection).

The research was fascinating and I kept copious notes. When I put the story together, I created a protagonist who was 12, and whose name was Meg and wrapped her in the history of the period, using incidents I’d earmarked from my research to happen to her.

I submitted the book to the editor I knew at CRICKET MAGAZINE who was also the editor of CRICKET Books. She liked the story but had me rewrite it six times and ultimately turned it down – after I notified her that local author Jan Neubert Schultz had just published FIRESTORM, a novel with a young female protagonist named Maggie...

I refused to let it go though. The story was fascinating, the incidents numerous, and so I used everything I knew about the setting to write a short story with entirely different characters that detailed a different aspect of the facts. This time I used two boys in conflict, had them fall down wells and survive the Great Hinckley Fire – and I mentioned briefly that internationally famous journalist, Nellie Bly, had gone to Hinckley to report on the fire.

That was the ticket – the editor at CRICKET bought the story and ordered a sidebar as well highlighting facts of the fire. One pass of her pencil, and the story appeared two years later in the magazine.

The moral of this story is obvious – when you do lots of research on a book, use as much of it as you can in as many ways that you can!

What about the novel? I’ve got a plan to rewrite it as a time travel story and use it as an anchor for a second and a third novel in which young people change their “present” in much the same way that Marty McFly changed his present in the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies. We’ll see what happens with those, but I’m looking forward to a return to the world of 1894 Minnesota – and I am a much, MUCH better writer now than I was then!

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