By Edie Hemingway
Spalding MFA Faculty Writing for Children & Young Adults
I have countless scribbled lists and files of ideas for stories tucked away. Many of the ideas may yellow away on those lists, but a few will inch onto the page and eventually into a novel. The key to what will spur me as a writer is in what first grabs me as a reader when I open a new book. And the answer to that is emotion. Something on the opening pages of a book must stir me enough to pull me into the setting or force me to care about the main character.
Finding the emotional core of my own stories is sometimes like digging a splinter out of my finger. Usually there’s a bigger hunk I can pull out first, but it breaks off just below the surface. Then it gets a little painful when I have to dig in deeper to get the rest. Just when I think I have it all, a niggling sensation tells me there’s still a sliver of substance to be retrieved. Lighter emotions may float on the surface, but digging to the true core calls for layering—breaking through a barrier and crawling beneath the outer skin to yet another story. That is the process I went through in writing Road to Tater Hill, and it involved many drafts and revisions until I found what I was truly vested in. It also required stepping into the lives and minds of more than just my protagonist in order to understand the actions, reactions, and responses of all my characters. I can’t remember the author who first said this, but I truly believe his words: “Until you have emotion (grief, anger, fear, guilt, humor, love, joy, satisfaction…) in your story, you are not writing with substance.”
Setting, too, encompasses emotion and draws me to a scene. The photo above of me standing on the summit of Tater Hill during my college years still pulls me back to that particular place in time. Many years later (I won’t say how many) I still feel the joy of standing on top of the world, the wind in my hair, and my life spread before me.
The emotional layers I am exploring now involve this door,
salvaged from the S.S. City of Atlanta, a steamboat that sailed the waters of the Chesapeake Bay from 1906 until 1930.
The emotions expressed in a diary, long hidden in a panel of that door, have worked their way onto the pages of my novel-in-progress and, I hope, will eventually tug at the hearts of my readers.
Edie Hemingway is co-author of two Civil War novels, both licensed by Scholastic Book Fairs and optioned for films. Her most recent middle grade novel, Road to Tater Hill, won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award and was listed on Bank Street College’s Best Books List. She is on the faculty of Spalding University’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and offers occasional creative writing workshops at Misty Hill Lodge, her secluded 1930s log cabin home near Frederick, MD. Edie served four years as Regional Advisor for the MD/DE/WV chapter of SCBWI and is an active member of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC.