The Gulf

Vision 1

The Gulf


Justin Stanchfield

Copyright © 2001, 2011, Justin Stanchfield, All Rights Reserved



Not too many sure things in this world. Death, probably. Taxes most likely. Beyond that, it's pretty much up for grabs. But one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that each and every one of us was, at some point, born, and that one way or another we managed to grow up. Some of us grow up faster, some of us slower. (I intend to grow up any day now. Really, I do.) But all of us, every man, woman and child, can look back across that gulf that separates our now from our then, and say, "Yeah, I've been there."

This ability to look back, to draw on our own past, is one of the most powerful weapons in any writer's arsenal. Especially if you want to write for kids. It is the ultimate example of "write what you know," this ability to mine our own childhoods for characters and stories. It is one of your strongest allies.

And it can also be, if you're not careful, your worst enemy.

Writing is a very personal experience. We create imaginary worlds, trying all the while to make every actor in our little dramas as real as we possibly can. But even though our characters sometimes take center stage and seem to act on their own volition, they are, in the end, extensions of our own imaginations. It can't be helped. And while this makes for wonderful, vivid characters, it also means our pasts have a tendency to intrude into our stories. And when you're writing about people younger than yourself, the temptation to simply recreate your own childhood can be incredibly seductive.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it does create its own set of problems. Think back on how difficult it was for you to understand grown-ups when you were in grade school. Try to remember how far apart your opinions were from your parents' when you were in your teens. The basic equipment doesn't change much from generation to generation. Kids are still kids, but the backdrop to their world and ours can be as different as night to day. Even if you're just out of high school, or maybe haven't even graduated yet, take a look at the where you were just a few years ago and see how much things have changed since then. It can be a staggering revelation.

Some writers avoid the problem by setting their stories in different eras. This is fine, as long as the writer creates a believable world for their characters to play in. No matter how exotic the locale, it's not enough to just plop a copy of yourself down on the page and pretend the backdrop doesn't matter. A girl from eighth century France is going to react differently than a twenty-third century teenager living on a colony orbiting Neptune. And both will, without a doubt, see the world differently than you did at their age. Wherever you set your story, let your characters be consistent with the times, even if those times exist nowhere but in your own imagination. The same advice applies if you are writing about kids growing up in the 60's or 70's. Every generation faces the same troubles in different ways. Don't cheat your readers by pretending they didn't.

Observation is such an integral part of what we do that most of us take it for granted. Writers are, by nature, curious people. Okay, we're a bunch of nosy busybodies. But beware the temptation to simply observe kids at play, or eavesdrop at a mall, and put down verbatim what you heard on paper. This can be a problem for two very important reasons, one subtle, one not. Trying to create realistic characters by giving them borrowed lines is all too often about as convincing as a middle-aged man in a convertible struggling to keep his toupee from blowing off. If you're going to observe, and by all means, do observe, look deep. Don't pay attention to what kids say as much as how they treat each other. Think like a detective. Look for the motives behind the actions. Listen to what kids say, not how they say it.

The other reason to be wary of overheard expressions is that they so quickly becomes dated. Slang is too mercurial for anyone to keep pace with. What is current in one area probably is already passé in an other. And if you're making up your own jargon, especially if your making up your own, please don't substitute one word for another. "Icy, guy" for "cool, dude" is nothing more than calling a rabbit a smeerp.

The same applies to fashion trends and music. I once dropped the name of a number-one band into a story thinking it would add that little extra touch of realism. It did. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to sell the story a few months later, the band had not only fallen off the charts, they had broken up, sued each other, and their lead singer had committed suicide. And if the story had ever made it into print, (the magazine folded with nary a peep) the reference to the band would have placed what was supposed to have been a cutting edge, young adult techno- thriller, almost two years in the past. Not a good place to be.

So, what's a poor writer to do?

Easy. Think like a kid. Look back at what you wanted when you were ten, or twelve, or seventeen. What scared you? What embarrassed you? What was the one thing you were just sure you couldn't live without. Earlier I said: don't just mine your own experiences. Instead, mine your emotions. Try to see your story through your character's eyes as you would have seen them at that age. And remember one thing above all else. Adults may believe that their actions as children were silly, but at the time the crisis were utterly vital. People have deep thoughts and passions no matter what age they might be. All that changes is what we're passionate about. Being stood up at a ninth grade dance is every bit as traumatic to a fifteen- year-old as losing a job is to a forty- year-old. Both situations are survivable, though at the time it doesn't seem like it. And just because you may never have been swept up in a religious fervor, or have been carried away in a surge of nationalism, don't pretend that the people in your stories wouldn't have been. Those children who marched off to die in the Crusades believed, to the very bottom of their souls, in what they were doing.

Maybe what it comes down to is giving your characters a little growing room. Don't arbitrarily force them to behave one way just because that's how you did it when you were their age. After all, you didn't like to eat your Brussel sprouts. Why should they?