Lucy Christopher: How She Writes
Finally, I give you the long-promised post on Lucy Christopher’s fascinating writing process. Lucy shared this talk at the last Vermont College of Fine Arts residency, and I am posting it here with her permission. (Thank you, Lucy!) Lucy is a British and Australian author of three books for young readers. In her controversial first novel, Stolen, a Printz Honor Book, a British teenager is kidnapped from the airport and brought into an Australian desert, where she must deal with conflicted feelings of enchantment and revulsion for her kidnapper and for the land he expects her to love. Lucy’s second book, Flyaway, for younger readers, was actually the first one she wrote. And just last year, she published The Killing Woods, a YA thriller. Lucy teaches at Bath Spa University in England, as part of the Writing for Young People program. She came to VCFA last month as a visiting writer, to compare notes. She was a fun, gracious and curious guest!
While some writers may start a project with character, a spark of a plot, a theme they wish to explore, or maybe a conflict, Lucy’s entry point into any story is always a place.
“Generally, for me, it’s a wild place,” she said. Before she begins, Lucy doesn’t know who her characters are going to be. Once she has the setting that she “really [has] the urge to explore,” the question becomes, what could happen here?
Lucy approaches writing as a process of an exploration.
“Once I have my settings, I really really immerse myself in them,” she said. “I jump into them physically and mentally.”
In her research Lucy delves deep, getting as hands-on as possible. For example, when she wrote Flyaway, Lucy got a job as a field guide for kids in a nature reserve. For Killing Woods, she actually moved! Stolen was based on her most personal childhood landscapes. Though she was never kidnapped like her heroine was, Lucy said it sometimes felt that way when her parents moved her to Australia. But when she first approached the story, she had no idea a kidnapping would occur. She said, “I just wanted to write about the desert.” Even though she was intimately familiar with the landscape, Lucy did additional research and learned important things.
“I spent a lot of time in communities, working with some indigenous people. They don’t see land as separate from them. Land is them,” she said. “I made pages and pages of notes about the sensory details of the desert.”
Then, with setting details percolating in her mind, the first line of the story came to her.
“You saw me before I saw you.”
“And I was driving, and I thought, interesting. Who is watching her? A hot guy? Why? They’re in the airport. He’s about to kidnap her. Where would he take her? To the desert!!!”
Lucy often rewrites her stories several times, changing — everything. Her second book, Flyaway, Lucy said she wrote “ten times ten different ways.” From point of view and tense to the protagonist’s age and gender, nothing is sacred until the story starts to feel true. Lucy’s writing paths meander quite often. For example, for her third book — which was already under contract! — Lucy travelled to the rain forest, and did tons of research. But after she came home, even with the deadline looming, things just weren’t coming together. “I just felt like I couldn’t write about that setting,” Lucy said.
“[I realized], I do know these woods,” Lucy said. “I know them very well. I started to put the [original] plot into this setting, and it didn’t work. Then I asked myself, what would be the worst thing that could happen here? Someone could die. And what could be the best thing? Someone could fall in love. It was from there that the book started to come together.”
And thus a story that was supposed to feature some troubled kids in a reality TV show in the rainforest, ended up The Killing Woods, a novel about a teen, whose father is accused of murdering another teenage girl in the woods behind her home.
It takes courage, passion and trust for Lucy to immerse herself into her setting this way, and to then chase her stories’ truths, wherever they take her. And that’s Lucy’s advice to writers. Whatever our starting point is, be it character, theme or place, Lucy urges us to follow our passions, from yearning to wonder.
“When I wonder what it would be like, I have to write it,” Lucy said.
Just like Lucy and her characters, let’s be scared. Let’s be excited. Let’s take inspiration from Lucy to bring our own future readers on journeys to landscapes of terror and wonder.
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