Friday, May 25, 2012

Haying Experiences Turned into a Picture Book Manuscript

Virtually everyone who has ever tried to write a story has been given the advice, "Write what you know." This phrase means different things to different people- for example, some people have literally had an experience they describe in a piece of fiction while others may have experienced the emotion their characters are feeling, if not the same experience.

Lately, I've been immersed in the first scenario. That is to say, I'm writing a fiction picture book with made up farmers who need to bring in hay before a rainstorm, but I have experienced bringing in hay every summer for my entire life. I know what 'bringing in the hay' is like and therefore can write about it with authenticity and authority.

Many years ago, the seed of this idea was planted in my mind. It first came to me in September, so I started by writing from memory. In my mind, I went back to previous summers and recorded sensory details I remembered. Some came from my childhood, some from my adulthood, and some from memories of my children helping.  I have notes in my journal from these first attempts in September of 2006, and then in February of 2007 when I started to consider possible plot points. But the real work didn't come until I did "in the field" research. In June of 2007, 2008, and 2011 I brought my notebook to the hay fields and took notes in real time. I was amazed by the things I didn't include in my notes from memory. Most notably, I didn't include sounds, so I especially focused on those during last summer's research.

I simply recorded facts and details and let them percolate. Finally, after several fits and starts, the basic outline of a story came to me. I wrote it as quickly as I could and then I went back and reviewed all of my notes to see what I had missed. 

I'm now working on draft twelve of this manuscript and it's still not done. And when I say draft, I mean that each version is substantially different than the one that came before. Sometimes I changed the narrator, or the point of view, or I changed it from past tense to present tense. Other times I removed a whole scene or completely changed the ending or beginning. And this is a manuscript that at its longest has never been more than 1,000 words. Very few sentences (if any) are the same as they were when I first drafted this story. It's currently hovering around 650 words, though I need to rework the beginning again.

Some days I've been frustrated, sure, but mostly I've been excited. I LOVE revision because oftentimes that's when I truly find my character's story. And every time, I know I'm making it better. I rely heavily on my critique group and other trusted readers to to tell me when things are working and when they aren't,  but I always look to my characters to tell me if I'm telling their story "true."

Last Saturday my dad let us know he'd be taking in hay on Sunday, so you can be sure I showed up with my camera again. They had plenty of help, so I watched. I didn't take notes this time, rather I played my story in my mind as they worked. I asked myself if Kate (my main character) really could see the things I describe her seeing if she were sitting on her dad's lap driving the tractor. I watched the guys on the wagon stacking bales to be sure my descriptions were accurate. And I listened to the sounds again to see if I had them right. I also took loads of photographs for reference later.

I did all of this because setting is very important to me as a reader and as a writer. In many of my stories, the setting becomes almost another character- that's the naturalist in me coming out. I want readers to really feel like they're out there bringing in hay. 
Lest you think haying is all fun and games...check out those bits of hay heading straight to my son's nose. Hayfever anyone?
To learn more about haying, please read last year's post, Haying Season. In it, I share details of the process and suggest ways you can get involved.

To read about inspiration for a different picture book manuscript, please read Adoption Insensitivity.