had a crush on an animatronic gorilla named Fatz. My grade-school self would sit on the side of the stage at Showbiz Pizza and wait until the teenaged server was out of sight. Then I’d sneak onto the stage by the drums just to touch Fatz’s furry leg and feel the rhythmic vibrations of his body. This crush never went away. Instead, it harbored in some portion of my memory next to Bart Simpson and kissing practice on my stuffed animals.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled across an article about a guy from Wisconsin who purchased the entire Showbiz Pizza band. If I wasn’t already married, I would’ve moved up north to live with Fatz and let the Wisconsin guy think it was about him. Instead, I clipped the article and used it in a YA novel, giving one of the characters the band in his basement. My former crush helped to create a fun character while providing a unique situation that stands out from similar stories.
Creating a Lasting Impression
When we give our story something unique and specific—quirky characters or memorable settings—we leave a lasting impression on our readers. It’s hard to forget John Green’s Paper Towns with Radar and his family’s obsessive collection of black santas or the nakedness hiding beneath graduation caps and gowns. In David Levithan’s and Rachel Cohn’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Nick’s beat-up Yugo named Jessie makes the main character extremely sympathetic.
In the movie based on the novel, a couple mistakes the Yugo for a cab, which results in a hilarious make out scene. The rocket slide in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is another memorable prop used in various scenes, symbolizing innocence amidst the darkness of the plot. When Antioch High School students produced a play version of the novel, they placed the rocket slide center stage; every action revolved around the vintage playground.
“When we give our story something unique and specific—quirky characters or memorable settings—we leave a lasting impression on our readers.”
Another great part about being a YA novelist is that we have the ability to recapture our childhood angst or love or explosive emotion—and we can create the ending we never experienced. You might get the cheerleader who wouldn’t say two words to you in high school, and I might get the furry gorilla. You might get to finally smoke a cigarette. Or you might get the chance to say no. We can give our characters parts of us, but they are never us. Richard Peck spoke about this at an Anderson’s Children’s Literature Breakfast, last month.
If we spent years writing about someone just like us, we’d probably wind up blowing spit bubbles and canning peaches while standing in three-day old underwear. But if we create people that intrigued us when we were younger or situations that we always wanted to get into but were too afraid, then we will find ourselves in love with our work. Reading and writing and perfecting it. Eating and sleeping and sharing daybreak with it.
When I set out to write my first novel, I was fueled by my obsession with summer camp. I spent five weeks during five separate summers, surrounded by strange girls and strange sounds—boys with mullets and bad teeth. I wanted to share some of my favorite moments with an audience. But how?
I started by talking with my family—to my older sister who had all the juicy stories: getting kicked out of camp, meeting her first love and having to say goodbye, tales of humiliation and trepidation and separation. Then, I visited my childhood bedroom—with drawers left untouched—and sifted through photos, journals, and random letters from camp friends. I found old pictures and put them in an album; so I had memories to flip through, which would later provide smells, sights, and sounds. I read my diary and remembered old feelings. Once I had the story, I went back to camp. I watched and listened to the campers.
“In order to start writing your childhood, dig deep into your past. Look for clues, objects, and memories that inspire you to move forward with the story.”
In order to start writing your childhood, dig deep into your past. Look for clues, objects, and memories that inspire you to move forward with the story. Then, jot down small ideas. The best advice I’ve found on writing from a childhood picture comes from Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, who says:
All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out of the front door and onto the porch.
Find a picture and write only what you see within the edges of the photo. Start there.
“Find objects that push you to write.”
Digging Through the Attic
I know that the life of a pack rat is socially unacceptable; but when you can get your hands on old newspaper articles, yearbooks, and programs stashed away in a dusty trunk, you might help transport your mind back in time. Find objects that push you to write. A great example of this: near my desk is a bag of my baby teeth, almost all of them, which my mother saved as a collection from the Tooth Fairy. I used this bag of teeth to write a picture book. They inspired me and continue to inspire young writers during my school visits.
Seek out the grossness of strange somethings lurking in your attic. Objects that make you uncomfortable will stir your emotions and propel your writing. Start by creating a small paragraph about the weird object. See where it goes. Write the scene that will get you into your story.
“Objects that make you uncomfortable will stir your emotions and propel your writing.”
Connecting It All Together
Ask yourself: why do you want to tell this story? Want. That’s such a key word. That wanting will keep you going through years and years of writing and revision. Why do you want to tell the story? What is driving you to this character? What makes you interested in this topic? What do you want your readers to get out of this? Keep that in mind while you are writing—you want to write. Many of you might need to write. Many of you might not be able to live without writing. I know I can’t. Writing is every part of me, just like my family. It is a mechanical and spiritual connection to the world that I need. And I want. That doesn’t go away.
“When you have an idea in your head from your childhood—a character that sticks out or a moment etched in your brain—write it down.”
When you have an idea in your head from your childhood—a character that sticks out or a moment etched in your brain—write it down. Leave it alone for awhile. See if it stalks you. If it does, revisit it. Take your past and turn it into fiction. Create the story you’ve always wanted to tell. You want to tell the story. You need to get it out. And we want to read it!
Trina Sotira became a young adult novelist with the help of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. Her career highlights include working as an assistant producer for Walter Jacobson’s Perspective on Fox Chicago, a morning show writer/producer in Rockford, to her current involvement with MuseWrite—authors who teach multi-genre writing seminars. Her graduate research in literature has been featured at academic conferences, including the EGO on class issues at Western Illinois University. “Pack Rats and Procreation” is part of a series of essays in Collect. Recollect. Connect!, a forthcoming book with Michelle Duster and Jen Cullerton Johnson.
Trina, her husband, and their two young boys live near Chicago, just down the road from what was once Showbiz Pizza. Follow Trina’s blog, Mild Madness, or visit her website.