Story Behind the Story #17:
Bright Shadow

Bright ShadowI recently wrote about my book, S.O.R. Losers, and how it was the fastest book I ever wrote: one day. Now I’ll write about Bright Shadow, which from the time I first started to write it, until publication day, required fourteen years.

I cannot recall what triggered me to start this book. I suspect I was reading fairy tales to my two older boys. It contains two aspects (common in fairy tales) that made it hard for me. It is a fantasy, and I had never written one before. It was also a fantasy which had, as its core, a dying gift of wishes, a kind of riddle.

The last wishes are here. They will bring thee long life if thou keep thyself from harm, but nothing for thyself. Use them well. Tell no one what thou has or before thy time, or all, both thee and they, shall be lost. For when the wishes are gone, so too shall thee be.

My heroine, Morwenna, is given this gift of a few wishes, but-ah ha!—she does not know it. However, her boyfriend—if you will—thinks he has the wishes and is forever getting into trouble, which forces Morwenna to use the wishes to save him. By so doing, she moves ever closer to her demise. It takes time-the plot-for her to understand what is happening, not just to the wishes, but to her.

Clever, yes? Alas, too clever by half. I loved the idea, its irony, its parable-like quality, its heroine. The problem was I couldn’t figure out how to put it all together. I would work on it, give it up, put it aside, work on other books, pick it up again, only to give up—but never completely. Back I’d go, while referring to this unending project as my “hobby.”

Somehow I figured it out. Fourteen years. In short (so to speak), beware of wishes: they can take a long, long time to come true.

Actually the book starts off with a riddle:

When bright, it’s dark, when darkest, it’s gone.
When gone for good, so are you.
What am I?

When dark, it’s bright, when brightest, it’s gone.
When gone for good, so will I be.
What am I?

But please don’t think I’m going to give you the answer here.

Story Behind the Story #16:
The Fighting Ground


At the time I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, so it was easy for me to catch a bus and get into NYC for a meeting with my editor. We were going to discuss the new novel manuscript I had sent her.

I did indeed meet with her and learn that she was rejecting my book. Long ago I had learned that you didn’t argue about such a thing, you just accepted it, and moved on. Indeed, while taking the bus back home my primary thought was, “What am I going to write now?”

I stared out the window.

I was just about a mile from home when I noticed a road marker, one of those signs that tell the passer-by about something that happened at that spot years ago. I had never really paid attention to it before.

The Fighting GroundThe bus was going full speed, but I caught enough of the sign to want to come back and read it more closely. I did so the next day.

The tale the sign told was about a small Revolutionary War skirmish fought between a few New Jersey militia and a small troop of Hessian soldiers. The numbers involved were small. “Only a few deaths,” read the sign. The last line of the sign read: “The import of this skirmish was small.”

But I thought, “It wasn’t small for those who died, or the families from which they came.”

That was the beginning of my thinking for The Fighting Ground about a boy who is caught up in just such a small skirmish The most interesting part of the book—in my view—is that the boy, when captured, hears only the German (and doesn’t understand) his captives speak. A friend translated my English into German.

Hessian soldiersMy protagonist guesses what these Germans are saying and acts accordingly, with fatal consequences.

At the back of the book I translated the German passages into English. For the reader, it completely changes the story.

It’s a curious case of what is not actually part of the story being an essential part of the story.

The Fighting Ground won the Scott O’Dell award for best historical fiction that year.

Staring out of windows can be productive.

Story Behind the Story #15:
S.O.R. Losers

S.O.R. LosersNovelists are often asked, how long does it take to write a book? My truthful answer is, about a year. S.O.R. Losers, however, was written in one day. How could such a thing happen?

I was able to do it because the story—about a team of nerds who are required (by their school) to form a soccer team and then go on to lose every game they play—is true.

I was on such a team, and indeed, I had the honor of being captain of that memorable squad. My boys loved to hear stories about what a bad player their dad was, and often asked me to regale them (and their friends) with the saga. Needless to say, I was happy to entertain them, throwing in (just a bit) of exaggerated ineptitude along the way—though my team truly scored a goal by putting the ball into the wrong net.

So it was that when I sat down to write S.O.R. Losers I had, if you will, rehearsed the story many, many times. It was easy, then, to write.

There are a couple of other curious things about the book. I had sent the book to my agent, and (I thought) agreed which editor to whom it would be sent. It did not go to that editor, but (to my surprise) to Richard Jackson, the first of the many, many books I did with him.

Another curious thing: I’m often asked how I name my characters. Perfectly reasonable question. But there is only one book about which I have often been asked: “How did you make up all those weird names for the characters on the S.O.R team?”

The answer? None of them. Every name in S.O.R Losers comes from the actual players on my illustrious team.

Story Behind the Story #14:
Devil’s Race

Years ago, when living in Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, I was a member of a back-packing club. We’d meet at a nature center early Saturday mornings, and returned Sunday afternoons, having camped for the night. One of the places we liked to hike and camp was along the Appalachian Trail, in a state forest park with the wonderful name, St. Anthony’s Wilderness.

St. Anthony's Wilderness

[Knowing that St. Anthony is the saint you pray to for lost things, makes it an even better name.] At one time the area had been home to a string of forts built by colonists during the French and Indian War. There were also any number of abandoned homes, and even small villages. Midst the trees you came upon many a lichen-covered stone ruin. At one point there had been coal-mining in the area, so the trails were black earth. In hearing distance was an army artillery fire-range, so as we hiked I sometimes heard the booming of distant cannons. An altogether strange but beautiful place.

St. Anthony’s Wilderness also contained an abandoned 18th Century cemetery, which was usually the place we camped on Saturday nights. One of the old stones had a name chiseled into it: John Proud.

Devil's RaceJohn Proud became the name of my hero in the ghostly tale, Devil’s Race, which is set in and about St. Anthony’s Wilderness. The title of the book I had chosen was St. Anthony’s Wilderness. This was vetoed by the editor who chose Devil’s Race, which has nothing to do with the story. There is no devil in the story and the word “race,” is a rarely used word which means fast-moving creek, such as the one briefly referenced in the story.

There is an old tradition in publishing, a party to celebrate the publication of a book. In all my years I have had only one such party. When my back-packing pals learned about my book, they insisted we must have such a party. So it was we all packed tiny bottles of champagne in our backpacks and hiked up to that cemetery. There, next to the stone that celebrated the once real John Proud, my friends toasted me, my hero, and my book, Devil’s Race.

Bad title. Great party.

Story Behind the Story #13:
Smuggler’s Island

Smuggler's IslandPeople are constantly telling writers, “I have a great story for you.”

If the writer is patient he/she will hear a narrative about something that happened to the storyteller. Truth to tell, sometimes these are good and even interesting stories, but simply don’t resonate with the writer. More often than not, they are simply curious narratives that do not have much literary possibility. Of course, the tellers of these tales are not interested in writing the story themselves.

But in one instance someone did tell me a story which caught my attention. It happened this way.

Joe, an acquaintance of mine, not a particularly close friend, approached me quite out of the blue in the library where I was working, and loudly announced, “I have a story for you.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“When I was a kid, I’d spend my summers with my grandmother on Cape Map (New Jersey). This was during prohibition. Every Thursday night she would lock me in her house because smugglers were bringing in liquor. Trying to keep me out of trouble.”

That’s all he said, and with those words, he went off.

The more I thought about it, the more Joe’s story appealed to me. In fact, Joe’s tale was the basis for the book I wrote, Shadrach’s Crossing. Subsequently, it would be republished under a different title, Smuggler’s Island.

The moral: When someone says “I have a story for you,” listen.

Story Behind the Story #12:
Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name

Sometimes I Think I Hear My NameMy eldest son had a classmate, a good friend. We’ll call him Toby. A likable, polite, full-of-fun kid, Toby was around our house often. I didn’t know much about him, save one thing: he lived with his grandparents, not his parents. I believe it was my son who told me that. It was nothing I pursued, but at school occasions I had the opportunity to meet these nice grandparents, where we exchanged pleasantries about our two boys.

One day, as spring break approached, my son was making preparations for a week of Boy Scout camping. Toby was at our house. “Toby,” I asked. “Have plans for spring break?”

He said, “I wanted to go visit my parents, but my grandparents said I couldn’t. So I’m just staying home.”

That gave me pause. I decided I needed to know a little more.

What I learned was not much, but a lot. Via the parents of another of my son’s friends-who knew Ian’s grandparents far better than I did, I learned that Toby’s parents had been divorced, that they lived in different parts of the country, and had been deemed “unsuitable” as parents, and that Toby’s grandparents had been named guardians by a court. That’s all I learned, and it was made clear I would not learn more. I had no particular desire to pursue it.

These circumstances, however, became the basis of my book, Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name. It tells the story of Owen, who lives with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis, but runs away to track down his parents in New York City. With the help of a secretive girl, Nancy, a girl with a butterfly tattoo (this was published in 1982) he finds his parents. The results are devastating.

Curiously enough, perhaps a year later, the real Toby did have a chance to visit with one of his parents. As I would learn, what happened was, alas, very much like the plot of my novel. Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name, is, I think, the saddest book I have ever written.

Story Behind the Story #11:
Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

Lots of people are fascinated by maps. I knew a serious book collector who built a large library of books which specifically had maps in them. For example, Treasure Island, famously, has a map in it. Indeed, it’s said that Stevenson drew the map for his step-son first, and then wrote the book.

Atlas of FantasyI too like maps and so, back in the day when I working as a librarian, I was intrigued when a new atlas came into the reference collection. Moreover to my great delight it was an atlas of fantasy lands. A wonderfully clever idea, it was such fun to see maps of, not just Treasure Island, but the lands of Oz, the Thousand-acre Woods, and so on. Much fun.

As I was going through the book I realized an important map was missing: the chessboard from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll. That was the beginning of my thinking of the book which became Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

Through the Looking Glass

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?My notion was to write a mystery in which the essential clues were to be found in the maps of well-known children’s books—books which had been stolen from the Checkertown, Ohio Library. When an innocent Becky has been accused of stealing the books, she and her twin brother, Toby, need to track down the real thief, and find a hidden treasure, using the maps as essential clues. (Hint: a checkerboard and a chessboard are identical.) And, if it brought my readers to The Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Oz books, Treasure Island, and Through the Looking Glass, better yet.

In short, Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? is a book about books brought into my head by yet another book. That’s what happens when the writer is also a librarian.

Story Behind the Story #10:
A Place Called Ugly

A Place Called UglyMy parents had a retirement home on Shelter Island, a quite enchanting and rather unusual island (wild canaries, bamboo groves, and bays filled with oysters and clams) at the end of Long Island, New York—about a hundred miles from New York City.

It was around Labor Day one year that I, along with my family, had been visiting my parents. My youngest son was endlessly grumbling about the fact that he was about to end his summer vacation and needed to return to school. Could he not, he constantly begged, just stay with his grandparents in this idyllic place? Well, no.

The car was packed. We had said our good byes. My wife was in the car. My oldest son was in the car. I was in the car. It was necessary that we leave quickly so that we could catch the last ferry to the mainland. But—my youngest son was nowhere in sight.

The thought suddenly struck me: could he have run off and hid so as to avoid going back home and skip returning to school?

In the instant I thought about this possibility I had the plot of A Place Called Ugly. Sometimes, if a writer is lucky, the idea for a story fairly well leaps at you, whole and breathtakingly complete. It has happened a few times, but not often. This was one of these times.

As for my son, he popped out of the house. He had merely been to the bathroom.

We drove off, made the ferry and continued on home … and to school.

But I had the plot of my next book in my mind and, during that long drive, I worked out the details.

That said, when I submitted the book to my editor he turned it down. “Not good. Something is missing,” he said. “Find it.”

It was rather like my missing son.

I searched and found the missing piece.

Second submission. “Terrific,” said my editor.

So there it was, A Place Called Ugly. One of my favorite books.

Story Behind the Story #9:
The History of Helpless Harry

The History of Helpless HarryBooks evolve in curious ways. Consider The History of Helpless Harry. Or, to give it its full title:

The History of Helpless Harry
To which is added a Variety
Of Amusing and Entertaining

I had written, or so I thought, a realistic tale about a boy—in an historical context—who was being pushed about, and generally bullied, until he turns things around and comes out unscathed and triumphant.

I sent the manuscript to my agent. She gave me a call and suggested we have lunch to talk about the book. Of course I met with her.

Lunch was a genial affair, with chit chat about family, publishing, and the like. Not a word about my book. Until she said, “What was your intent with your story?”

“A serious study of how a boy is mistreated, but, with struggle, sees his way to a good end.”

“Serious? In what way?”

“A realistic, and hopefully moving, novel.”

She hesitated a moment and then said, “What would you say if I told you I thought it was very funny?”

“Funny?” I said, shocked.

“Very funny. I suggest you take another look at what you’ve written.”

Rather shaken, I went home and went over what I had written—her words in my head. And “egad!” as they say in old-time melodramas, I had to admit that what I had written was absurd, and yes, possibly a slapstick farce.

I set back to rewriting, and added a variety of amusing and entertaining adventures.

With pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky it worked well. And was quite funny.

Story Behind the Story #8:
Man From the Sky

Man from the SkyOn November 14, 1971, a man who came to be known as “D.B. Cooper” hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft when it was flying between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. It was the first plane hijacking in the US. The man leaped from the plane—when it was flying—and parachuted somewhere with a mass of stolen money. It is not known if he survived, who he really was, or what happened to the money.

All those unknowns did not keep any number of people from investigating the event, and trying to find out—or invent—what in fact happened. I can recall talking to a crime reporter who told me he knew the whole story, having “just interviewed” D.B. Cooper. But the reporter would tell me no more. “Saving it for my newspaper,” he said. Oh, sure.

One of those people who used the story was me. It appears in the short novel, The Man from the Sky which was first published in 1980 by Knopf, then republished by Morrow.

While the hijacking is very much part of the story, that was not the essential part of my book. I was much more interested in my hero, Jamie Peters, aged eleven. He is dyslexic, and since he cannot read well, he reads the sky, in particular, clouds. In so doing, he invents stories, which he is happy to share, though understandably no one believes his tales to be true, certainly not his friend Gillian.

It is while Jamie is watching the sky that he sees a man parachuting down to earth. Does anyone believe him? In a cops and robbers plot, this man from the sky captures Gillian, and seeks to use her as a hostage. Gillian, however, manages to leave a note for Jamie, saying where she is being taken. Jamie finds the note—but, being dyslexic—he can’t read it. Or can he?

For that is what I was most interested in relating; Jamie’s dyslexic struggle to read that note.

Sorry, I won’t reveal the whole plot here.

I came to write the book shortly after I learned that I had dysgraphia. It has some of the same symptoms of dyslexia, but the problems have more to do with writing, not reading. I had been severely frustrated by this condition ever since I began school, but did not know why I did so poorly, such that my high school English teacher informed my parents that “I was the worst student he ever had.”

Man from the Sky was subsequently rewritten under the title Reading the Sky, and widely serialized in newspapers by Breakfast Serials.

As I write this, a publisher is seriously considering reissuing the book.