I was raking leaves today and thinking about Fiona and the journey that I took writing her story, my first children's book. I probably never would have ventured down this road if it wasn't for my sister and her death.
Maybe this is a good time to talk about the ingredients for a children's book (as I used them): imagination, characters, a story line, a happy ending and illustrations that make the story come alive.
The first ingredient, a big dash of child-like imagination, should be spread liberally throughout the entire story. As I wrote, I learned that the child inside me still remains. She might hide sometimes, but she has never totally gone away, thank goodness. She can still see the fireflies lighting up a warm summer night as she sits on her front porch; she remembers the conversations with her imaginary friends - the favorite dolls and stuffed animals that I still hold dear. Imagination was not hard for me, but I had to keep reminding myself to see everything through a child's eye.
The second ingredient, characters, came fairly easy to me as I give birth to new ones in every novel I write. For this story, I started with the two characters that my sister had talked of - Fiona the firefly and the little girl who I named Lizbeth whose father was a fisherman. I knew the ending, but how was I going to get from here to there? I began by tying Fiona and Lizbeth together as best friends. And Fiona came to life. Now I had one firefly, but needed a set of more entertaining creatures to fill Lizbeth's day. She lived far from town and school, so her friends would be these creatures - Sally the seagull, Clarence the grey rabbit, Rowena the red fox, Stuart the squirrel and Betty the bumblebee. Something happened as I introduced each of these characters into Lizbeth's life. They all communicated, but the animals never spoke. I never realized this aspect of the story until one of my draft readers commented how she loved that part of the book - the creatures spoke, but not in words. Lizbeth's personality emerges as the story progresses - one of my friends said that she is a mirror image of me - headstrong and always believing anything is possible if you work hard at it. These traits had been instilled in me by my mother and father and so, I blessed Lizbeth with the same qualities.
Next was the story line and the happy ending - I had all the characters, but they had to interact and I had to move the story along from a perfectly delicious day with friends playing together to a fear-filled one... the storm was born. I made the sea crash, the rain pelt, the thunder reverberate, and the lightning - it made the lighthouse go dark . I was almost to the end. At this point I'm going to quote a review from Amazon which I loved: "The book aptly describes parallel worlds: the imaginary one of Lizbeth and her animal friends each of which the author endows lovingly with his or her own personality. In the adult world, anyone who has ever taken care of children, will identify with Mama, who worries about Lizbeth’s homework, her proper upbringing and above all her safety, while Daddy is away at sea, fishing. And then there is Mr James, the lighthouse keeper, who struggles to keep the light on for the safe return of those at sea. There is a storm and fear, but in the end the two worlds come together in a sweet happy ending." Again, a reader had the insight into what I had written before I did! I think that this is the most gratifying part of being a writer - people seeing all these wonderful twists and turns and layers in your writing.
And the ending was just as we would all want it... Stuart runs, finds Fiona who brings her entire family, flies up the lighthouse stairs to the lantern room and Daddy has his guiding light.
The words can be perfect, but unless a child can see all the characters, the storm, the lighthouse, Daddy and Mama, they're just flat words on the paper. I was lucky to have a very good artist friend of mine read those flat words and bring my characters to life... Mary Licata, a wonderfully talented illustrator.
Well, enough rambling. To close, I'll just say that I enjoyed this adventure and may write a few more children's books - possibly sequels. Lizbeth and Fiona and all the animals have become my new set of imaginary friends... bless them. They brought the child in me out again - I thank them.
Keep writing -- it's good for the soul.