Saturday, November 1, 2008

Guest Blogger Donna Andrews On: "If You're Not Using That"

I love hanging around with fellow writers. Nothing more fun than comparing working methods or swapping industry gossip. But I try to make sure I also spend a fair amount of time with non-writers. (I almost said "real people," and then changed it to "normal people" before settling on "non-writers.") If I’m with a bunch of writers and something interesting happens, we all look at each other, and sooner or later one of us will ask the inevitable question: "Are you going to use that? Because if you’re not . . . " Much easier with non-writers, who aren't going to fight with you over a choice bit of book fodder.

We writers all mine our own lives and the lives of those around us for material. Sometimes we play the "what if" game. What if that noise in the night wasn't merely the cat? What if the skeleton we found wasn't a cow’s bones but the remains of a murder victim? What if that horrible person at work turned up dead one day—shortly after one of our noisiest clashes?

Other times we use an event just because it just works for a character. I did something like this in Six Geese a-Slaying—the tenth book in my Meg Langslow series, in which Meg finds herself in charge of her county’s annual holiday parade. In one scene, Meg’s nephew, Eric, not quite thirteen, confesses to Meg something he’s done that he’s feeling guilty about. When I began writing the scene between Meg and Eric, I realized I could put one of my most vivid Christmas memories to fictional use.

I don’t know how old I was. And I can no longer remember what toy I wanted so badly that when I woke up on Christmas morning, well before dawn, I didn’t think I could stand the wait to go downstairs. And that was the longstanding rule-- we kids had to wait upstairs in our rooms until our parents woke up, so we could all walk into the living room together to see what Santa had brought.

I couldn’t wait. I crept furtively downstairs and into the living room to see if Santa had gotten it right.

Horrors! Not only was the object of my desire missing from under the tree—so were all the other presents. No toys, no books, not even any clothes. The stockings hung by the chimney in limp, mute testimony to how bad my brother and I had been. Because clearly we must have done something pretty awful to get absolutely nothing for Christmas. Mom and Dad hadn’t noticed, apparently. And I was a little puzzled myself—my conscience was no heavier than usual. I could think of a few minor transgressions, but nothing big enough to warrant this. But Santa knew all—and no doubt once our parents got a look at the emptiness under the tree, they’d start an interrogation that would bring all our sins to light.

I slunk upstairs and crawled back into bed. No doubt my parents were greatly puzzled a few hours later when I proved so hard to rouse. And when I finally saw the bounty around the tree, they probably mistook my intense relief for the usual excitement.

I figured out later that I must have gotten up so early that Santa hadn’t yet finished his rounds. I was lucky I hadn’t interrupted him in the act of putting the tangerines and Hershey’s kisses in my stocking. And apparently he’d forgiven my minor trespass of sneaking down early. Perhaps he knew that I would never, ever do it again.

Strange to say, that has always been a favorite Christmas memory. And while I was writing Six Geese a-Slaying, I realized it was also the perfect memory for Eric to have, one that he can share with Meg before confessing that this Christmas he—but that would be a spoiler!

Now if I can just find a plot in which I can use the story about Dad and the beehive . . .

Donna's latest, Six Geese A-Slaying, was just released October 28th. Run out a buy a copy!
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