This is part two of a short series of posts about the development of my most recent book, Firefly Hollow written by Alison McGhee. See my post from June 26th to read part one.
Putting a story together, or rather discovering one and unearthing it, is tricky business. Steven King describes it this way:
“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.”
What parts of my story did I have? Not much. I had a few sketches that were resonating and some notes about the characters, but still no real sense of the story yet.
I tried asking myself questions about the characters: Who is this vole? Where does he live? I caught a few glimmers of things but any sort of narrative remained elusive.
So, I did what many illustrators do when they are stuck: Research.
I started collecting images of voles, crickets and paintings of water that I really loved. I looked up rafts and boats, grabbing anything that caught my eye. Some of the images I already had in a folder that is constantly updated called "curiosities". In his book on creativity "Catching the Big Fish", David Lynch calls these collections "firewood". I love the term, and it is perfect the way he describes it, but I shied away from naming my folder likewise. I didn't want to burn through my material too quickly! I started putting things up and soon I had a wall of the shed covered in images.
Writing is hard work, I happen to think that it is MUCH harder than illustrating though many of my writer friends disagree with me. Writing good picture books is particularly difficult, you will know this if you have ever tried. Trying, as I was, to write something like the final manuscript of Firefly Hollow Firefly...was....lets just say that it is like showing at Wimbledon and trying to compete because you beat everyone in your family at badminton. Nevertheless, I tried to write the picture book version of my story-numerous times. They were terrible; really, really bad.
As an illustrator, I respond to a text and then begin to add my own voice. Ultimately, I try to create a corresponding visual narrative that enhances and supports the written word-basically creating a parallel emotional narrative. That is a summarization, and I don't think about it that way when I am working, but its the closest I can come to describing the process. I had nothing to respond to so I continued on with what I felt right...the pictures. I sketched little visual "notes" about things that I thought would be fun to paint.
I was still on hold for the project in my desk so I scanned a few of the sketches and painted them up in Photoshop (just for the fun of it) as a color studies.