Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask writers where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers. In that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.
Today’s guest for the blog is Michelle Knudsen, New York Times best-selling author of 45 books for young readers, including board books, picture books, early readers, and middle grade and young adult novels. Her best-known book to date is the award-winning picture book Library Lion, which was selected by Time Magazine as one of the Best 100 Children’s Books of All Time.
Her most recent picture book is Marilyn’s Monster (Candlewick, March 2015), illustrated by the wonderful Matt Phelan. Next up is the YA sequel REVENGE OF THE EVIL LIBRARIAN, coming on Valentine’s Day 2017. Michelle also works as a freelance editor and writing teacher, and is a member of the Writing for Young People MFA faculty at Lesley University.
Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?
Sort of? 🙂 I started Evil Librarian while I was working on another, darker novel and needed a break. I wanted to work on something fun, and really just started writing without much of an idea of where the story was going. Mostly I had a vague idea of a romance with a supernatural element, and I had the voice of the main character, Cyn. I didn’t even know there was going to be a librarian until Annie (Cyn’s best friend) suddenly mentioned him in the first chapter. I wrote along for about 80 pages, just having fun, until I finally had to stop and figure out what the book was really about and where it was all going to go.
For book two, I knew going in that I’d be setting most of the story at theater camp, which I was extra excited about since I went to theater camp myself for years during junior high and high school and loved it. It felt like a great way to put Cyn and her friends in a different environment and to give them some new challenges to face. I also knew I wanted to work in The Scarlet Pimpernel as one of the story’s musicals, and that was a lot of fun for me — I love that show!
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
With the first book, as I mentioned above, I wrote a fair amount before stopping to try and figure out more of the plot. That’s often how it works for me with a new novel — I need to get to know the characters and the feel of the story before I can determine the shape of the plot and all the elements I want to include. I’m pretty sure that at one point when I felt stuck, I made an actual list called “Things That Need to Happen in This Book” and then spent some time figuring out how I was going to get to those moments in the story.
For the second book, I already knew most of the characters, and so I was able to start plotting much sooner. I don’t want to mention any spoilers, but I can say that there were certain dangers I wanted to include in the story, and a certain new character I wanted to introduce, and I worked a lot of the initial plot around those things. I also knew that Cyn was going to have to deal with the secrets she’d decided to keep in the first book, and that doing so would not be easy.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
I never have the plot firmly in place. 🙂 I mean, not until after the first couple of drafts, at least. Nowadays I do like to start with some kind of outline, but I always know it’s just a rough plan. So much of what matters happens during the actual writing, and if I tried to force myself to stick to a preplanned plotline, I’d never stumble upon what invariably ends up being some of the best parts of the story. Sometimes I am really surprised by where the story goes, though. In my book The Princess of Trelian (book two of my Trelian fantasy trilogy), I had no idea the story would end the way it did when I first starting planning. It was completely different (and far more shocking!) than what I’d originally had in mind.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
Bits and pieces of ideas come to me all the time. The hard part is recognizing which ones have real potential to become a good story, and then figuring out how to coax the early sparks of idea along until the story catches fire.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
I’m often working on more than one book at a time. If I’m on a deadline for a particular book, then I (eventually) have to put everything else aside and focus on that. But otherwise I might go back and forth between a few ideas, trying to see which one grabs me the hardest. Once I’m deep into a novel it’s difficult to switch to another one, although I am able to work on picture books and novels at the same time. Those are different enough that it doesn’t feel like a conflict of creative energy.
I recently got stitches in my arm and was taking mental notes the entire time about how I felt before, during, and after the process of being badly injured. Do you have any major life events that you chronicled mentally to mine for possible writing purposes later?
My most devastating romantic heartbreaks fall into that category … I think it’s a coping mechanism. I tell myself at the time that the more it hurts, the better it will make some future story somewhere down the line. (It doesn’t really help me feel better in the moment, but at least I can believe that all the pain is going to be worth something eventually.) I also find myself paying attention to new landscapes and natural spaces for use in future books. I remember trying to lock down the feeling of being deep in a forest, noticing how close the trees grow together and how easy it can be to lose track of where you are if you stray from the path. I also tried to hold on to the feeling of climbing rocks (and to the realization that I’m a little afraid of heights) on a recent trip to Arizona. Some details of physical setting are definitely easier to recreate if you’ve actually experienced them in real life.