The Ways Stories Find Us, a guest post by Lesa Cline-Ransome
“Where do you find your stories?” It’s a question asked of every author at every conference, panel, and nearly every interview. The real question is, do authors find stories, or do stories find authors?
I imagine some of us, like archaeologists on an excavation, head out digging for stories, unearthing layers until we uncover the treasures we were searching for buried beneath the surface. But others, like me, let the stories find us.
The task is no less easy. It requires preparation. Patience. A keen ear. Trust.
As a young girl, my neighborhood friends and I in Malden, Massachusetts spent our summer nights playing hide and seek until the streetlights came on. As the counting began, we ran and hid in backyards, behind houses and tall bushes, quietly fending off mosquitos hoping not to be caught. But if we were successful in securing too good of a hiding place, and we were alone for too long, we secretly hoped to be caught. There was a joy in being found, of being reunited with friends. This is how it feels when the right stories find their way to you. A lot like a celebration.
Stories can find us in the ways we least expect them to. As writers, we let them in, one by one, filtered through our life experiences, interests, and curiosities.
I have written nearly twenty-five books for young readers and rarely have any of them begun with me at a desk thinking of topics and subjects I’d like to tackle.
A taxicab hailed on a New York City street stops to pick up an editor on her way to the office and the driver listens to a public radio interview of a journalist who wrote a recently published adult biography on one of the first black female White House correspondents Ethel Payne during the editor’s brief ride. When she arrives at her desk she writes to me in an email, “Have you ever heard of Ethel Payne?” No, I have not, I reply, but I look her up, wanting to know more and in reading Ethel Payne’s story, I recall my youthful dreams of becoming a journalist and just like that, the picture book biography, The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne is born.
At a literary conference in Seward, Nebraska, I sit across from Steve Sheinkin, one of my favorite authors. The author next to me has a line about a mile long, and mine, not so much. Finally, I gather up the nerve to go over and introduce myself to Steve. I fumble a fangirl hello and look down to see one of his titles, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Hmmm. I think to myself. Why have I never heard about this? I manage to ask him to sign a copy and devour the book on the flight home. And there the story sits, quietly. Waiting. Until I begin writing my debut middle grade novel, Finding Langston where I insert a reference to the Port Chicago Disaster as part of a secondary character named Clem’s storyline. One year later my editor discusses with me the idea of expanding the story of Clem’s character into a novel all his own in the final book of the Finding Langston trilogy. “Maybe you could explore more of the Port Chicago Disaster,” she suggests. What my editor doesn’t know is that that story has already found me.
And so Being Clem, the story of Clem, emerges from a chance meeting in Seward, Nebraska years earlier. And in it we see Clem and his family struggle as they come to grips with the death of his fictionalized sailor father, Clemson Thurber killed during the tragic naval base explosion that killed over 200 black servicemen during WWII.
A nagging toothache reluctantly lands me in my dentist’s chair where in his attempts to soothe my dentophobia, my kindly dentist tells me a story to calm my jittery nerves. My dentist is a fan of nonfiction and shares the account of a strange story of a failed entrepreneur named Frederik Tudor who thought he could finally get rich by harvesting the ice from Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, packing it onboard a ship and selling it in India. “Aren’t you from Massachusetts?” he asks. I am from Massachusetts, but all I knew about Walden Pond was the story of the poet Henry David Thoreau, who sought a life of solitude in the woods of Concord, I tell him through a mouth full of gauze. “Well, Henry David Thoreau watched him harvest the ice,” my dentist continues in between his drilling, just steps away from his cabin and recorded it in his diary. My dentophobia disappears in my thoughts of a story of two men, one pond, and how it drew them together for very different reasons. And there in my dentist’s chair another story finds me and will make its way to bookstores as Of Walden Pond: Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Tudor, and the Pond Between in the fall of 2022.
Because much of my spare time is spent in the company of books, that is where my stories and I have made our acquaintance. I grew up with a mother who was an avid reader and often needed to be reminded she had children who wouldn’t mind having a hot dinner every now and again. She would reluctantly put down her book and throw something together so we could eat. I couldn’t imagine then what those pages held that so transfixed her that she couldn’t remember our grumbling stomachs. But now, when I look up to see that I have missed subway stops, appointments, and portions of my day because the time has simply disappeared in the pages of a book, I think of my mother. But it is in these moments, I am allowing the stories to come.
I could almost hear the voices calling from the stoop of 4501 Wabash Avenue on Chicago’s Southside for my book Finding Langston and feel the hard backed seats Ruth Ellen and her parents sat in bound for New York City in my book Overground Railroad in the instant I opened Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Epic Migration. Reading Wilkerson’s real-life portrayals of subjects whose journeys north and west were prompted by fear and racism, determination and hope inspired the worlds through which young Langston and Ruth Ellen see the world as passengers on the journeys of the adults in their lives.
It is often said that you need to be in the right place at the right time. In a taxicab, a dentist chair, a literary conference in Nebraska, a quiet place with a good book. And that is a large part of having stories find you. It is making space for the crucial moment when that piece of a story intersects with some part of you—your history, a memory, an experience, an untapped passion—and you know in that moment, there’s something here.
But being in the right place at the right time is just one part of creating a story that is authentic to you. That is the seed. Next comes the planting in an environment enriched with strong characters, setting, plot and dialogue. Carefully using your craft to remain true to the stories that are begging to be told, engagingly and honestly, the way only you can tell them.
Meet the author
Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of more than twenty books for young readers, including Just a Lucky So and So (2016), Before She Was Harriet (2017), and Underground Railroad (2020). Her Finding Langston Trilogy consists of Finding Langston (2018), Leaving Lymon (2020), and Being Clem(2021). Lesa’s work has received a plethora of honors, including dozens of starred reviews, NAACP Image Award nominations, Coretta Scott King Honors, and Christopher Award. Many titles have been named to ALA Notable Books and Bank Street Best Children’s Books lists. She lives in upstate New York. www.lesaclineransome.com
Twitter and Instagram – @lclineransome
About Being Clem
The final novel in the award-winning Finding Langston trilogy from Coretta Scott King Author Honoree and Scott O’Dell Award medalist Lesa Cline-Ransome.
Clem can make anybody, even his grumpy older sisters, smile with his jokes. But when his family receives news that his father has died in the infamous Port Chicago disaster, everything begins to fall apart. Clem’s mother is forced to work long, tough hours as a maid for a wealthy white family. Soon Clem can barely recognize his home—and himself. Can he live up to his father’s legacy?
In her award-winning trilogy, Lesa Cline-Ransome masterfully recreates mid-twentieth century America through the eyes of three boys: Langston, Lymon, and, now, Clem. Exploring the impact of the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow laws, and much more, Lesa’s work manages at once to be both an intimate portrait of each boy and his family as well as a landscape of American history.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/03/2021
Series: The Finding Langston Trilogy #3
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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