Raiding the Junk Drawer, a guest post by Hope Larson
I’m not a writer who enjoys looking back. I can’t imagine anything more cringe-inducing than reading through my old work. Old published work is bad enough, but at least those books passed through the hands of an editor. Worst of all are old scripts and pitches for projects that never went anywhere: the junk drawer projects. When something goes into the junk drawer, it might as well be falling into a bottomless pit. Many things go into the junk drawer, but few claw their way back out.
A few years before I came up with the idea for Salt Magic, I was working on another story. It had several working titles: first Yours Radiantly, then Luna Park. Or was it the other way around? It was a painfully overly-researched piece of historical fiction about a 1920s con man and a rodeo rider-turned-aspiring actress with the stage name of Vonceil Viking, and both of them were real people. Anyone who’s fallen down a Wikipedia rabbit hole will understand how easy it is to latch onto a story and fall head over heels with every minute detail–particularly when you have a personal connection to the material. For me the whole thing began when I ripped up some plywood flooring in my old house and found a 1927 newspaper article underneath.
“TO RIDE A HORSE across the Continent, a young woman started out from the New York City Hall. She hopes the complete the journey in 120 days in order to win a $25,000 wager.”
I included this snippet in a comic I drew for the New York Times in 2007, but I was in the middle of writing another book, so I set it aside and forgot about it.
A few years later I stumbled onto the newspaper article in my files, did a little research, and became totally freaking obsessed. I crawled through old newspaper articles. Visited colleges 2 hours away to go through their microfiche. Hunted down obscure, out-of-print books. I hired a professional genealogist to do research in the United Kingdom and even had a journalist friend pull a copy of Vonceil’s death certificate. On a trip to New Mexico, I made a point of locating and driving past the ranch where she grew up.
All of this resulted in a mountain of information and a probably-not-very-good script. I couldn’t get anyone interested in the project without substantial rewrites, and I was too invested in the “integrity” of the story to take it firmly in hand. I made the painful decision to shelve it and move on.
This project taught me many lessons about writing and researching historical fiction. For example: If you’re writing fiction, you’re in service of a great story, not great facts. Both are important, but there needs to be a balance. Step back from the work from time to time and ask yourself, “Are turn-of-the-century theme parks of interest to most people, or just to me?” “Does this story work in the context of today’s tastes and mores? Is there an audience for it?” “When I describe this story to a friend, do they start fidgeting and looking for the exit?”
Sometimes good projects go into the junk drawer–the right project at the wrong time, or a project I was working on that was superceded by a more pressing one and subsequently forgotten–but usually they end up there for good reason. More often than not, I never think about them again. Vonceil’s story was different. Maybe because she was a real person, I was never able to let her go. I wanted to pay tribute to the importance her story held in my own life, so when I began brainstorming Salt Magic I instantly knew I wanted to name the protagonist after her. Like Vonceil in Salt Magic, she had plenty of grit and courage; a newspaper article in the Roswell Daily Record described her as “not only a most proficient rifer, but according to cowboys of this section, ‘she always made a good cow hand and can rope and tie a steer as good as any of us.’” Like Vonceil in Salt Magic, she dreamed of a world beyond the ranch where she grew up and longed for glamour, bright lights, and distant shores where adventure lay in wait. She died tragically young, in a car crash when she was only 27, and paying tribute to her in Salt Magic felt like an opportunity to symbolically give her some agency and a happier ending.
It was also a way for me to close the door on a story that meant so much to me at a challenging time in my own life. It didn’t work out, but the time I spent on this book that never was helped make me the writer I am now. Without Vonceil Viking, there would be no Salt Magic. I can only hope that, if she could see the character Rebecca Mock and I created in her honor, the real-life Vonceil would be proud.
Meet the author
Hope Larson is the Eisner-winning author of numerous comics for young readers. Her most recent graphic novel, Salt Magic, was co-created by Rebecca Mock.
About Salt Magic
When a jealous witch curses her family’s well, it’s up to Vonceil to set things right in an epic journey that will leave her changed forever.
When Vonceil’s older brother, Elber, comes home to their family’s Oklahoma farm after serving on the front lines of World War I, things aren’t what she expects. His experiences have changed him into a serious and responsible man who doesn’t have time for Vonceil anymore. He even marries the girl he had left behind.
Then a mysterious and captivating woman shows up at the farm and confronts Elber for leaving her in France. When he refuses to leave his wife, she puts a curse on the family well, turning the entire town’s water supply into saltwater. Who is this lady dressed all in white, what has she done to the farm, and what does Vonceil’s old uncle Dell know about her?
To find out, Vonceil will have to strike out on her own and delve deep into the world of witchcraft, confronting dangerous relatives, shapeshifting animals, a capricious Sugar Witch, and the Lady in White herself—the foreboding Salt Witch. The journey will change Vonceil, but along the way she’ll learn a lot about love and what it means to grow up.
Hope Larson is the author and illustrator of the Eisner Award nominated All Summer Long and the illustrator of the Eisner Award winning A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel. Salt Magic is an utterly unique graphic fairy tale complete with striking illustrations by Rebecca Mock.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 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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