Recently, I’ve begun writing a young adult novel. I have no idea where it came from. Like most of my ideas, a character just showed up in my head and started talking one day, so I took dictation. She kept talking, I kept writing, and I’ve already got 40 pages and over 8000 words. I’m hoping she won’t go silent as I gently ignore her while I whip my final edits for Merlyn’s Raven into shape. Hopefully, she’ll be ready to continue once I have more time in my schedule. I’m enjoying learning about who she is and the world she lives in.
This foray brought to mind my younger days and some of my earliest memories of reading and writing. I grew up with books in my hands. I loved reading from a very early age. I always read way above my grade level when I was in school. I remember working my way through every Nancy Drew mystery story in my Catholic school’s library as a first grader. Most of the other kids were still in the picture book section, but I devoured Nancy’s adventures one after another.
Naturally, Nancy influenced me to write mystery stories. I wasn’t very good at it. I was much better at having my own titian-haired heroine (gods, how I loved the word titian!) tool around with her Ken-doll boyfriend (who looked, I’m sure, very similar to Nancy’s blond hunk-a-man, Ned Nickerson) in a convertible wearing cool clothes and listening to rock music. They never quite got around to solving any mysteries. Maybe this is where my romantic side started to emerge… Nevertheless, I did write many stories in this vein, even though Carolyn Keene (or her many ghost writers) didn’t have to worry about any real competition.
I kept reading. I used to walk to our local library, which was actually quite a feat. I lived at the top of a hill on a fairly busy road, and to reach the library, I had a long hike down the hill and into downtown Sharonville, my hometown. To this day, I still dream that I am trudging back up the hill with a bag full of books on my back.
All that exercise was worth it. Especially when I discovered this awesome author.
(This is even the cover I remember! How incredible is that?!)
I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the first time in the fourth grade. All my friends read it, and it was the most scandalous and amazing story ever! I recall all of us buzzing about it at lunchtime, gathering in pockets on the playground to whisper about menstruation (pronounced, of course, MEN STROO A SHUN, like in the book), kissing boys in closets, and exercises to increase our chest sizes (“I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”) I read the book over and over and over, and of course, I started writing my own stories that were like Margaret’s life mixed with my own. Judy Blume became a favorite author, and her books were staples in my young life.
Then, in the fifth grade, at the local library (thank goodness I continued trudging up and down that blasted hill!), I found the book that really changed my life:
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. (And that cover in the middle of the above image–that’s the version I first picked up off the shelf that burned itself into my brain. How great to see it again!)
I really can’t express how big an impact this book had on me. It changed the way I thought about things, the way I expressed myself, and the way I wrote. I fell in love with this book, and with all of the characters, in a way I had never experienced before. And S.E. Hinton became my hero. I wanted to be S.E. Hinton. As proof of my dedication, I churned out story after story of greasers and parentless teenagers rebelling against the world, filled with angst and love and poetry like “Nothing gold can stay.” I became even more inspired when I researched S.E. Hinton (and not in the easy world of the Internet, no-siree-bob!) and found out that she was a young woman (like me!) and had written The Outsiders at the age of sixteen. I vowed to be just like her.
(Young Susie Hinton. Come on, I know you can see the resemblance!)
Anyway, throughout my high school years, I kept thinking of S.E. Hinton and what she’d accomplished. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I even won some short story contests and competitions. But I never had any idea how to write a novel, and I really didn’t know anything about how to be a “real” writer. It never occurred to me that one could choose writing as a profession, unless it was as a journalist. I considered this for a time, but I finally settled on an education major in college (theatre, speech, and English). I still wrote, but my time became consumed with shows and my boyfriend and my obligations. Being S.E. Hinton, or any professional writer, faded into the background.
So here I am, at the age of 43, publishing my first novel. Merlyn’s Raven isn’t much like The Outsiders. The characters are young, and maybe a bit rebellious, but the parallels end there. Still, I am proud, and I hope my readers will enjoy it when it’s released.
And I am eternally grateful to all of the early writers–Carolyn Keene (in her many incarnations), Judy Blume, and especially S.E. Hinton–for their influence and their beautiful stories. They made me who I am today as a writer. Their work will never leave me. What a gift to the world! I can only hope I will give a gift in my work as well.
Who are some of your writing influences from your younger days? I’d love to hear about them.