This past Saturday, author Shana Burg spoke at the Austin SCBWI meeting at BookPeople on the topic of Building A World. Her debut novel, A Thousand Never Evers, is set in 1963 in Kuchachoo, Mississippi and how Addie Ann Pickett’s innocent actions result in dangerous consequences for her family. In writing this story, Shana knew how important it was to build a world that readers would connect with and she shared strategies with fellow writers (including middle grade students from Taylor, TX) who jam-packed the area eager for insight.
When Shana begins a new novel, she starts with the setting. She says some writers choose character or plot but whatever element you begin with, you need to infuse them with rich details. Oprah Winfrey says, “Love is in the details,” and Shana said the more love the better. But where do these details come from? One place...Research! Research! Research!
Shana immerses herself in the setting of her novel by reading gardening books, cook books, newspapers (black and white from the rural areas). She studies the language from the era and often consults a dictionary of expressions. She listens to music from the time period and oral histories. She interviews people and gets as many first person accounts as she can. In this process, she’s using all of her senses and it translates in her written pages. Because butter beans played a role in A Thousand Never Evers, she ordered some from a gardener and planted them. She received no gardening accolades, but check out her website to see the awards her debut novel has won.
A nifty trick I picked up from the presentation relates to building character profiles. Shana got the idea from James V. Smith Jr.’s book, You Can Write A Novel. She takes a file folder and staples in index cards, one card for each character. Then she writes down information pertinent to that character like name, age, repetitive phrases the character says, relationship to main character, and appearance to name a few. Smith’s book describes this process in greater detail, and it’s a wonderful way to keep your character details organized.
Obviously, Shana covered a lot more than I'm reporting here. Every ounce of her talk led to audience participation and offered tools to help the writer create their own authentic world. You'll have to check out her calendar and see when she's speaking next. What a great presentation! Thanks Shana for your fabulous information!
Next month, The Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) presents “What a Book Buyer Looks For” with Meghan Coel. The free meeting will be held at BookPeople in Austin on Saturday, June 18th from 11am – 12pm. I hope someone takes great notes, because I’ll be in Canada!