Saturday, October 1, 2016

Story Behind Write This Down - Guest Post

Mills, Claudia. Write This Down. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR, Macmillan), 2016. 256 pages. $15.99. 978-0-37430-1644.

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Read on to find out how Claudia Mills learned from her character, Autumn Granger, as well as her own life to pen Write This Down.





The Story Behind the Story

Most authors get their ideas in some way from their own lives. I know I do. I draw on childhood memories of growing up in New Jersey with my sister; I steal incidents my two sons brought home from elementary and middle school; when I do author visits at schools around the country, I think of myself as an undercover agent, there to scout for something wonderful to write about.

But when stories are inspired by real life, authors face tough ethical questions. Do we have the right to borrow material from other people’s lives? What if the stories we use are embarrassing or painful (which, after all, tend to be the best ones!)? But if we decide that we shouldn’t draw on real life, how on earth are we going to write stories that have that deep believability, that essence of truth?

The desire to explore this ethical dilemma was the impetus for Write This Down. At first I knew only that I wanted to tell the story of a girl who loves to write, who yearns to be published, and who faces a wrenching choice when she finally has the chance to achieve her dream, but at the cost of exposing something intensely personal about someone she loves. I figured that as my character wrestled with what she should do, it would help clarify my own deliberations. I tend to write the books that I most need to read.

I wanted to make things as hard as possible for my character, Autumn Granger; we authors have to harden our hearts to amp up the difficulty of any choice a character needs to make. So I thought. . . what if one of the main reasons Autumn is so determined to be published is to impress her idolized older brother, Hunter, who used to be her chief protector, but now openly mocks her writing? What form of mockery would be most painful? Ooh, what if he takes a secret poem she’s written to her crush, and reads it to his friends, who include the crush’s older brother? I saved notebooks filled with love poems I wrote in junior high to various boys with whom I fell in and out of love. I copied one of them, almost verbatim, to be the poem Hunter mocks in the book.

Still brainstorming, I asked myself: what if Autumn has the chance to be published by writing something about that very brother? What if her essay reveals what she herself discovers in the course of the book: the reason why her brother has changed so much toward her, a reason that has to do with Hunter’s own past heartbreak, his own inner demons?

Autumn and Hunter are both fictional characters, of course. I had a younger sister, not an older brother. (I wrote about that relationship in an early book of mine, The One and Only Cynthia Jane Thornton, about a girl who tries to distinguish herself from her one-year-younger sister, Lucy. After reading it, my sister said she now planned to publish her own book called Cynthia and Lucy, The Real Story: At Last It Can Be Told.) But as an aspiring writer, Autumn is nonetheless like me in so many ways. Certainly she smarts under rejections just as I did at her age, and still do. In fact, the program Autumn attends at the public library, where two literary agents scathingly critique attendees’ manuscripts on the spot, was inspired by a similar program I attended recently. Even as the author of almost 60 published books, I left close to tears at the reaction my work received.

I wasn’t sure until I got to the conclusion of the book what I would have Autumn decide about her ethical dilemma. In the end, I felt as if I were merely scribbling down what transpired as Autumn made her own choice, as characters tend to do. But watching Autumn weigh the joys of publication against its costs and betrayals helped me sort through these issues.

We base our characters on ourselves. But we end up learning from them, too.

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