As a beginning author devouring books about the writing craft, whenever I reached the inevitable lesson to “write what you know,” I tuned out. After all, I wanted to write fantasy novels. So how could I “know” unicorns, dragons, or girls who travelled the galaxy on tesseracts? I wanted to write whatever I could imagine—a much bigger realm than what I knew.
Here’s the irony. A specific place—my father-in-law’s orchard in Eastern Washington (the Farm) inspired my first and third fantasy novels. The Farm also inspired my recent contemporary verse novels, After the River the Sun and Eva of the Farm. I‘ve spent twenty-five years coming to know the farm in all its seasons. In the fall, walking through the orchard, I’ll whisper to the reddening apples, “I knew you when you were blossoms.” I’ve seen the wild canyon behind the farm change from drought, flood, fire, and storm.
In all of my novels inspired by the Farm, my intimate knowledge of the place fused with my imagination to create new story possibilities. This happened even more powerfully in my contemporary novels than in my fantasy novels. Why? My imagination could use all the specific details without filtering to run wild.
Here’s an example. In the canyon, a dead tree snag looms high on a foothill, silhouetted against the sky (photo). The snag has a pointy, blackened top. It spooked me for years, seeming somehow demonic (surprise— I have a vivid imagination!). One day, walking through the canyon, I glanced up at the snag. Something about how the light fell, or something inside me that was tired of being spooked, changed what I saw. Suddenly the pointy top looked like a wizard’s hat, the snag like a wizard in a robe. I shouted up, “I name you the Good Wizard who watches over the canyon.” Now when I walk up the canyon, I greet Good Wizard joyfully.
I used this incident in EVA OF THE FARM—Eva uses the Greater Power of Imagination to transform the Demon Snag into Good Wizard. I believe that how we choose to pay attention to the world creates the world. In AFTER THE RIVER THE SUN, a companion novel, Good Wizard actually pointed the story in a new direction. Eckhart needed to find a way to atone for his parents’ death. But at that moment in the story’s development, neither Eckhart nor I knew how he’d do that. To find out, I sent Eckhart and Eva up the steep foothill on a pilgrimage to visit Good Wizard. And there, to my surprise, Good Wizard showed Eckhart what to do:
The wind rose,
whistling through the stump,
and it seemed as though Good Wizard himself
as he pondered Eckhart’s question.
A pine tree swayed,
and Eva’s hair blew in ribbons
around her face.
Good Wizard whistled louder.
for the wizard’s arm-like branch
to the top
of Heaven’s Gate Mountain.
As the wind rose
as the whistling pierced
the scars and the weariness
in Eckhart’s heart,
as he became light,
almost lifting from the ridge—
exactly what he had to do
He had to go higher.
he had to go
all the way
to the very top
of Heaven’s Gate
Writing about what I know and love, the Farm, never limited me as a writer. Instead, specific details of place ignited my imagination—making that realm bigger and more magical than I could ever have imagined.
In my author visits with kids, live or via Skype, I talk about writing to ignite kids’ imaginations. I want to help them find the vast magical realm of story waiting inside them. To celebrate being Online Author Visits Author of the Month, I’m offering a free twenty-minute Skype visit to the first teacher who contacts me and whose entire class reads any one of my books.
Dia Calhoun is the Winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Aria of the Sea. Her most recent novels are After the River the Sun (Atheneum, July 2013)
Eva of the Farm (Atheneum, 2012) Learn more at diacalhoun.blogspot.com