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A Setting in Search of a Plot (Or, Writing is Really Hard Work)

by Megan Frazer Blakemore
March 7, 2013
THE WATER CASTLE is a novel about an overly-ambitious young man on a road trip, trying to escape a bad breakup, who stumbles upon a quirky small town—and a quirky girl—and figures out what really matters to him in life.

THE WATER CASTLE is a novel about three teenaged siblings who return to their ancestral home and discover that two of them have secret, magical powers. The middle child remains unchanged—or does he?

THE WATER CASTLE is a novel about three siblings who return to their ancestral home and meet a strange man who seems to know everything about them, and hints at a secret legacy in the home: the Fountain of Youth.

THE WATER CASTLE is none of these. In fact, it is a novel about a boy, Ephraim, whose father has a stroke. The family, including his two siblings, moves to the ancestral home in the small town of Crystal Springs, Maine, so their father can recuperate. Strange sounds, flashing lights, and a legend about the old water bottling business lead Ephraim to the story that the Fountain of Youth is located in his town. He enlists the help of Mallory Green and Will Wylie—descendants of families who have been tied up with his own for generations—to try to find it and save his father.

But, at one point in time, the novel was each of these.

The problem—or maybe the gift, depending on how you look at it—was that I had a setting, but no story. In my head I could perfectly picture Mallory Green’s house: chock-full of books, a garage and old gas station outside, tiny animal figurines dotting the lawn. I could place that house in the town that would become Crystal Springs: pretty as a postcard, but something not quite right. A boy arrives—self-involved, grieving a bad relationship, trying to find an experience to round out his college application and then…nothing. The tale would not come. I started and stopped, started and stopped.

With the next draft, I unearthed another setting: the Water Castle itself. An old house, but not a museum, not one restored to its glory days, but one that was still in use. The idea of layers and layers of time, one on top of another, appealed to me. This draft, too, is where I got my characters: Ephraim, fearful of not measuring up, his more talented siblings, Price and Brynn. Mallory, too, the inhabitant of that house from the first draft, morphed from being an object of teenage boy’s desire, to a more prickly, independent girl.

I guess I got caught up in the paranormal wave because “strange things afoot” turned into these children having their natural gifts heightened. Price, an athlete, becomes stronger, faster: superhumanly so. Intelligent Brynn becomes gifted to the point of telepathy. Yet perhaps I am not cut out for this kind of writing because no matter what dire situation I put these characters into, they could get out of them—they were superheroes after all.

So my characters languished in their lovely setting, waiting for a plot.

I took a step back. What interested me about this place? These characters? I realized that I was not interested in magic, per se, but the possibility of magic. I wanted to explore the line where magic and science crossed. Another setting began to influence my writing: a real one. At the time I was living in Poland, Maine, home of Poland Springs water. I had visited the campus, which includes a museum and perfectly maintained old bottling plant and the “original source.” Here, again, was this line between magic and science: in the early days of marketing, the purveyors used both to claim that the water could cure a wide array of ailments. This is how the Fountain of Youth entered my story.

After a bit of a false start in which a quirky caretaker offers to lead the children through their own family history I realized, of course, that the children should be leading themselves. I had a question for my characters: is the Fountain of Youth really here? Can we find it? It was a mystery, an adventure, and—finally, finally—my plot.

All of this makes it sound like one draft flowed nicely to the next. This was not the case. There were tears, self-doubt, self-flagellation, and occasionally the strong desire to not only give up this story, but also the whole writing endeavor. It was work. Hard work.

The whole process—from those first scribblings to the story of three friends on a quest to discover the Fountain of Youth and save a father—took five years. On school visits I have asked kids how old they were five years ago and to think of the amount of time that has passed since then. This is a bit unfair since for them five years is nearly half of their lives while for me, it is a significantly smaller proportion.

I also show them a screenshot of my files. The “Castle” folder on my computer has 177 items. These are different drafts, pulled out chapters, revision notes, editorial letters, research files, and more: all the pieces that go together to create a novel.

I tell the students this not to scare them away from the world of writing, but rather in the hopes of inspiring some self-reflection. What, I ask them, would you be willing to dedicate five years of your life to—or even one year? Because for me, even with all the tears and the days I felt that this book—this reflection of me—would never amount to anything, it was worth it. Every day, every file, every tear built this book that I am immensely proud of. These pages and drafts were not wasted: they were the process that led me to the final product. Indeed it is this process that keeps me going as a writer. Not every book I write brings me to tears, and that is a good thing, but if writing were not work, it would quickly lose its appeal.

Megan Frazer Blakemore is the author of SECRETS OF TRUTH & BEAUTY, a novel for young adults, which received a starred review in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and was on the ALA Rainbow list. She works as a middle-school librarian in Maine, where she lives with her family. Visit her online at www.meganfrazerblakemore.com.

Looking for more resources? Click here for a teacher's guide to Megan Frazer Blakemore's WATER CASTLE.
© 2013 Megan Frazer Blakemore. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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