"Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet."
I started my short speech with that quote. I was speaking to my publisher’s publicity team about my inspiration for writing my first book. The sales people in charge of the book’s future wanted to know about me, why I chose to tell this story, and set in this place. They wanted to know where it came from and was it true?
Since the topic for this season’s blogging is Nature and Writing, I’ve been thinking about the “nature” parts of my book that are true.
My middle-grade novel is set where I grew up, in the Mississippi Delta. Some of the story is not true to my experiences, but it’s all true to history. The place, however, is a part of me.
I wanted to get it right.
When I lived in that small Delta town, my grandmother’s take on the annual spring flood was “Whoever built the drainage system here ought to be tarred and feathered.” During the spring of my junior year in high school, the front page of the local paper ran a picture of our English teacher being rescued by the Civil Defense team in a flat-bottomed boat. My friends who lived near Fireman’s Park had sandbags protecting their houses. For the grownups in our town, like my grandmother, it was a nightmare. For the kids, it was sheer joy. Thankfully, we never had to worry about being swept away because of backed-up drains or overflowing bayous. For us, spring floods meant tromping all over town in water up to our knees. Missing school or skipping church.
A great scene for a kids’ book, right? So I wrote it in, muddy water and all.
I also tried to write what it felt like in July to sleep under ceiling fans with only minimal help from window air-conditioners. How the sun baked the sidewalks. How a cooling summer storm felt to kids.
I keep reminding myself that some of my readers will never have slept under a ceiling fan or walked barefooted across a park’s dry grass. They may only know a mimosa tree’s pink blossoms from the way I choose to describe them.
I have this hanging above my desk. Both the quote and the friend who made it help remind me that my vision counts:
My friend’s talented like that. We collected the sea glass together. We often talk about getting the writing right. She wrote something on the razor clam that’s worth paying attention to.
Whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.
From the description of those hot July days when my characters sit still under a big pecan tree and listen to the mockingbirds fussing, to getting the moon in the “right part of the sky” as Miss Eudora warned writers—I'm always asking myself did I write it true? After all, I didn’t spend those too-many-to-count years as a school librarian only to have my first book— historical fiction with an emphasis on historical—criticized as unreliable.
And perhaps even more importantly, did I write it so that young readers who’ll never plant a zinnia can imagine a row of them blooming along a white fence.
Putting the natural world into your writing seems simple enough. But writing it well, taking your readers’ collective breath away, making it true- now that’s a harder task.
Augusta Scattergood first middle-grade novel, Glory Be, will be published in January 2012 by Scholastic. You can follow her slow and steady progress on her blog http://ascattergood.blogspot.com.