A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
In October I had cataract surgery—first the right eye and then, two weeks later, the left eye. Part of the procedure involved the placement of a new lens inside each eye in order to correct my previous 20/400 vision to something closer to 20/20. The results were amazing and, well, eye-opening! I was able to see the world with a clearer focus, colors with an unexpected clarity, and small events with a depth of perception that was, at times, unfamiliar. In essence, I had new eyes and new opportunities to view scenes around me (both familiar and new) with lucidity and appreciation.
The entire process got me thinking about how our eyes may be our most important writing tools—how they offer us an array of ideas, possibilities, events, circumstances, and vistas that comprise the fodder for our stories . . . if we keep them open. For example, at workshops, book expos, or conferences, I’m frequently asked about where I get the ideas for my books. I often respond that I usually don’t get ideas; typically, they get me. The trick is to keep my eyes open and be ready to accept them when they appear . . . many times, right in front of me.
For example, during a recent walk along a lakeside trail at Gifford Pinchot State Park in northern York County, I came across a tree that had been felled. I stared at the exposed rings and wondered how old the tree was before it succumbed to a ranger’s chainsaw. My eyes then swept upward and I noticed a small circular spider web lodged between a clutch of branches in a nearby tree. A few steps down the trail I saw an acorn plop into the lake and escalating rings moving outward. In just a matter of minutes I had seen three examples of circles in the natural world. As I took photos of those occurrences, I wondered how many more circles I would discover along the trail. When I returned home, my photo file and my notes revealed eighteen different examples of nature’s circles discovered in a 90-minute walk. I had the theme for my next book.
On the other hand, when I need scenes for a fictional piece, I stare at people in local restaurants, I observe the surge of crowds in an airport, I watch the interaction between kids at a nearby park, I scrutinize the way physically challenged folks cross the street, or I gaze at how teenagers queue up at a movie theater to get tickets for the newest blockbuster movie. I’m a “people watcher.” I actively look at common occurrences all around me—those that may offer behavioral traits, choice dialogue, poignant scenes, or basic plotlines. I don’t need to create something out of thin air; rather, my responsibility is to observe what is already happening and to put those events into words that will resonate with young readers.
Several years ago, I wrote a book entitled The Tsunami Quilt: Grandfather’s Story. The theme of this work of fiction rested on the relationship (as well as a critical conversation) between a young boy and his elderly grandfather. I needed to see interactions between youngsters and their grandparents in order to bring this important element into sharp focus for readers. And so, I searched out locations where grandparents and grandchildren could be observed. I visited a friend in a senior citizen’s center, I sat on benches at the periphery of some local parks and watched families at play, I hung out in a toy store and the local Walmart, and I visited county fairs and amusement parks.
I watched how kids and their grandparents held hands, embraced each other, conversed in friendly tones (and, sometimes, not-so-friendly terms), walked together, stood side by side, or just tossed a frisbee back and forth. The more I looked, the more I began to see the outlines for my own characters; the more I saw how the grandfather and grandson in The Tsunami Quilt would need to relate in order to generate the compassion necessary for the plot to work. I didn’t have to create that relationship artificially—it was already in play in various environments around me. When the book won the Storytelling World Awards Honor, I knew my observations had been accurate.
Eyes. They take in so much over the course of the day. But, they also offer us, as children’s authors, unique perspectives for our stories, no matter whether those stories are fiction or nonfiction. They give our tales depth, interest, reality . . . but, most important, they validate our stories as visions of both the possible and the imaginary. Spend some time intently focused on everyday events and you may be surprised by what you see . . . and what your readers will be able to see as well!
Tony is an award-winning writer of more than 50 children’s books, including The Tsunami Quilt: Grandfather’s Story [Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year List] (https://amzn.to/32aYkHZ). He is also author of the e-book Writing Children’s Books: 701 Creative Prompts for Stories Kids Will Love (https://amzn.to/2FMITxt). [“Wow! There are story ideas here for every genre and writing style.” —Amazon 5-star review]