Looking for the back story

Hi everyone,

We haven’t talked lately about why successful writers produce unique work that stands out from most other submissions. A number of factors contribute: technique, skill with words, patience, and vocabulary among them, but one important element is often overlooked: back story.

In 1986, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist named JON FRANKLIN wrote a book called WRITING FOR STORY. I still refer to the book for its keen insights into the making of a good story. He talks about TRUMAN CAPOTE and his “nonfiction novel,” IN COLD BLOOD, that changed how short stories and novels would be written in the years ahead. A story, says Jon, needs a problem relevant to the human condition. The action is how the condition, the problem, is somehow resolved. He urged the reader to scan brief newspaper articles that report on the ends of stories: someone wins a price, dies from a lingering struggle with cancer, graduates from high school first in her family…

Often, such articles are not the real stories. They are the results of a problem or challenge or issue that has been resolved. The real story is what went on before that. The writer needs to dig deeper, examine the conditions that created the problem and the struggles that led to its resolution. This is the difference between reporting on a thing already done and holding your reader spellbound with the action that led to the conclusion of what may have been a tense, exciting story.

We writers are good at taking bits and pieces from what we learn and cobbling them together to suite our own purpose at hand. PIGGY WIGLET AND THE GREAT ADVENTURE, the story of a runaway piglet, grew from a short report I read years ago in The Kansas City Star. A boy in a Denver suburb was raising a young pig. The pig got away. It somehow made it into town. People tried in vain to catch the runaway and finally called the Police Department. Two officers were dispatched and caught the oinker on the parking lot of a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. All true. But why, I asked myself, did the baby pig run away? My answer? He was chasing the sun. Thus, the book.

WHEN COWS COME HOME, was inspired by a GARY LAWSON calendar cartoon on my desk. The cows’ antics made me wonder what else cows might do when our backs are turned.

I apply a slight variation of this approach to my poems, too. Take a word, examine it, look for a surprising back story, and you might wind up with a poem that no else saw coming. That’s our goal.

Video day

Hi everyone,

I’m off to the library today to make a one-minute video for a kindergarten teacher in Florida.

One of her favorite storybooks as a child was PIGGY WIGLET’S GREAT ADVENTURE and she still uses it, along with WAKE UP, SUN! A MONSTER IS COMING!, and WHEN COWS COME HOME, to help her students develop vocabulary and reading skills.

I’m delighted to know of another fan of PIGGY and am happy to make the video for her. My thanks to Krissy Sinor, Training Coordinator at The Edge Community Technology Center, Midtown Carnegie Branch Library, for facilitating my video, and to Kathleen O’Dell, Community Relations Director at Springfield-Greene County Library District, for being there to take me through it.

Piggy Wiglet rides again!

Hi everyone,

A few weeks ago I told you that a special friend of mine (and fan of PIGGY WIGLET) planned to get a tattoo of a picture and words from the book, which was originally published in 1973 by Western Publishing and illustrated by Les Gray. In 2007 the book was re-illustrated and published by Boyds Mills Press. Mary Cosker and her sisters have fond memories of PIGGY WIGLET’S BIG ADVENTURE when they were girls around their grandmother’s knees as she read them the story.

Mary, a teacher who lives in Shelby, Ohio, just sent me a picture of her brand new tattoo. I’ve had a library conference room and a school named after me, I’ve had my poetry painted on a bookmobile and sandblasted into a library sidewalk, but no one has EVER had a tattoo representing one of my books!

Piggy Wiglet rides again! Actually, he walks again, but either way I’m deeply flattered. Thank you, Mary Cosker!!

Most unusual news

Hi everyone,

Day One of the week went just fine. Got a lot done and also learned that the upcoming volume of SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR, which includes an updated article about me, is due out October 6. Today has a break in it but I’m ready for a good solid block of writing all morning and well into the afternoon.

Okay, here’s some news. My work has been sandblasted into a sidewalk and painted on a bookmobile, but it has never been a tattoo before. A good friend of mine, Mary Cosker, plans to have the original Piggy tattooed in January. Mary teaches junior and senior English at Pioneer Career and Technology Center in Shelby, Ohio. Her early memories of my story were when she was growing up on a dairy farm in Jeromesville.

Does anyone remember PIGGY WIGLET AND THE GREAT ADVENTURE? Technically my work isn’t involved. It’s that wonderful illustration created by Les Gray back in 1973. Les also illustrated Larry Brimner’s great story of MAX AND FELIX. But I’m taking credit anyway because it was my story that meant a lot to Mary and her sisters when they were girls around their grandmother’s knees, listening to the great adventure of a pig who set out to catch the sun.

In January I will feature Mary and ask her to tell her story about those times that remain so vivid today. It’s a moving example of how books can have such powerful, lasting influences on children, especially when they are lucky enough to have a loving adult read to them.

Piggy Wiglet soars to new heights

Hi everyone,

Here’s the latest on one of my old favorites, PIGGY WIGLET, Adventures of Piggy Wiglet originally published by Golden Books in 1973 and brought back to the market by Boyds Mills Press in 2007. Piggy Wiglet 2
I first heard from Mary Schweyer, a fan of PIGGY WIGLET, in 1995. She wrote one of the loveliest letters I’ve ever received to tell me why my storybook held such good memories for her. She and her sisters, Laurie, Sally, Debbie, and Becky, used to gather around their grandmother while she read the story about the runaway pig that chased the sun. I posted about this on January 18, 2014. Here’s a picture of the five women holding copies of the book. https://davidlharrison.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/5-women-holding-piggy-wiglet2.pdf

I haven’t corresponded with Mary’s sisters so Mary, if you see this, please tell everyone hello. Mary is married now and her last name is Cosker. She told me recently that as a teacher at a vocational school in Ohio she has read the book and given the back story to students 16 and 17 years old and that the diesel and auto mechanic students liked it best. w00t w00t for those kids!

What brought all these pleasant thoughts back to mind was a note from Mary two days ago. A friend found in a thrift store a framed print of THE HAY WAIN (1821), one of John Constable’s well known paintings, and painted Piggy Wiglet and the Ghostbusters on it. Mary sent a picture and here it is. 20151120_193023-1 She’s going to hang this in her living room. And what more could an author possibly ask! With all due respect to the marvelous Mr. Constable, I’m delighted. Mary, thank you!