Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How to Tackle a Story That is Bigger Than You

By Elizabeth O. Dulemba, @dulemba

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Please help me give a warm welcome to a great writer and even better friend, Elizabeth O. Dulemba. Some stories hit us with such force we're afraid we won't be able to write them. They're just too big, too important, too deep--but we know in our hearts we have to write them. Elizabeth had one of those tales and she's today to share some of that experience and what she learned along the way.

Elizabeth is an award-winning children's book author/illustrator with two dozen titles to her credit. She is Illustrator Coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Southern Breeze region, a board member for the Georgia Center for the Book, and a Visiting Associate Professor at Hollins University in the MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating program. She speaks regularly at schools, festivals, and events, and her "Coloring Page Tuesday" images (free to parents, teachers and librarians) garner around a million hits to her website annually with over 3,500 subscribers to her newsletter. A BIRD ON WATER STREET (Little Pickle Press) is her first novel and has already won three awards: it is a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Okra Pick; a Gold Mom’s Choice Award Winner; and is THE 2014 National Book Festival Featured Title for the state of Georgia in Washington, D.C. Learn more at here.

Plus, one lucky commenter will win a FREE, signed and dedicated copy of A BIRD ON WATER STREET

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Take it away Elizabeth...

Over a decade ago I found myself in a small wood-paneled room surrounded by a crowd of angry people I didn’t know. Well, I knew two of them. My husband, and the new friend I’d made when we moved to the small mountain community, who invited us to the meeting.

It was a meeting between former copper miners and the mining company who wanted to open a scenic railway going north from the town around an interesting and rare turn-around. They wanted to fund the railway by reopening the mine and shipping one load of sulfuric acid out each week. The miners wanted nothing of it.

They stood like gnarled oak trees in their denim overalls and plaid flannel shirts and told heart-breaking stories of their family, friends and coworkers who had been lost to injury or illness—all because of the mine. Their emotions were raw as they made thinly veiled threats that if the company went forward with their plans, the tracks would be sabotaged.

I sat with my mouth open wondering what I had stumbled into. I didn’t choose to write A BIRD ON WATER STREET that night. I was chosen to.

But I had no idea how to attack such a complicated subject. Perhaps that’s why it took a decade to write the book. At first, I thought it was going to be a picture book, because that’s what I was writing at the time. But the story couldn’t be contained in 32 pages.

So I turned it into a chapter book and my agent sent it out on submission. We received nice comments on my writing, but again, the overall feedback was the subject was too BIG to be a chapter book.

Suddenly I found myself writing a full-blown mid-grade novel. I’d never written anything like that before. I approached it like a circling dog—doing countless hours of research, dropping down one rabbit hole after another. I stalled, I struggled, I wrote and rewrote. I did interviews with dozens of citizens to whom the story was so personal that my sense of responsibility to get it right grew. Forgetting about the story and moving on was not an option.

But how could I get all that information into one book? I needed a conduit, a protagonist (Jack) and a story arc to share it in an entertaining and digestible way. So I came up with scenes - mini-events that fit into a larger whole. My main character went blackberry picking, watched fireworks, trick-or-treated and danced on music night. These were the rich stories relayed to me by folks who loved their home. But I needed to tie them together and that was tricky.

I made sure that each scene related to the overall arc in some way. Either Jack was growing from the event, the town was changing, or life was becoming more difficult. In each scene, something fed into Jack’s life and his goals. It didn’t mean he got what he wanted, but every scene did change him in some way—moving forward.

It allowed me to play with subplots of first crushes, unemployment, teen pregnancy, bullying, and drugs. Because no man (or main character) is an island. Other character arcs wove in and out of Jack’s life. No issue was treated as black or white - just as is. I played in the gray areas. I wanted the reader to judge for him or herself how to feel about an issue, not dictate how I felt about it. I had to have faith in my reader.

In fact, in the end, faith in my reader is how I finally dealt with most of the larger subjects. I dropped hints, eluded to things going on off-stage. I let just enough information enter Jack’s world to change him and make him wonder about the bigger picture. Because that’s how most of life works after all. We don’t live every thread, we live our own. I pared down to what Jack would see, experience, and feel. It lets the reader fill in the gaps on the BIG stuff—and not surprisingly, they do. So, faith in my reader became my writing elixir.

Overall, the book took time to write—maybe more than it should have. But I like to think that I’ve learned enough about writing that I would have done it better and faster if I had it to do again. Of course, I needed to learn those lessons, because I now have a thorough understanding of how to take a very BIG story and make it mine.

About A Bird on Water Street

When the birds return to Water Street, will anyone be left to hear them sing?

A Bird on Water Street is a coming of age story about Jack, a boy growing up in a Southern Appalachian town environmentally devastated by a century of poor copper-mining practices and pollution. Jack is opposed to the mine where so many of his relatives have died, but how can he tell that to his Dad who wants him to follow in the family trade? Jack just wants his dad safe and the land returned to its pre-mining glory with trees, birds, frogs, and nature--like he's learning about in school. After Jack's uncle is killed in a mining accident and the Company implements a massive layoff, the union organizes and the miners go on strike. It seems Jack's wish is coming true. But the cost may be the ruin of his home and everything he loves.

A Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Spring OKRA PICK


  1. THANK YOU for having me on Janice!! :) e

  2. That must have taken a lot of courage, to not just tackle a huge subject, but also leave your usual writing form. Your passion for the subject comes through, even just in talking about writing the book.

  3. I have been wanting to read this book since it was announced. I love Dulemba's and drawing.

  4. Wow - your description really got me - especially the part about natural things "that he's learning about in school" - as opposed to experiencing. I'll have to look for this book for sure!

  5. Thanks for the peak into how the book came to be. Congratulations Elizabeth!

  6. Chicory - I don't know if you call it courage or a calling! But yes, I am quite passionate about it.
    Scattered Brain - Please check out some of the giveaways I'm hosting at my blog at others: http://dulemba.blogspot.com - maybe you can get a free one!
    Knittinjen - Yes - the pictures of Jack's home are really shocking. I can't imagine growing up like he does.
    Thank you Gail!!!

  7. Congratulations Elizabeth for taking on this task. Sounds like this story and characters called on the perfect author to have their tale told.

  8. I'm so impressed that you carried on, recognised where changes were needed, and finished such a big process Elizabeth. I will certainly read it! What do they say - write about what you want to learn. Sounds like you had a learning curve here!

  9. I first saw this article and immediately the little voice in my head shouted "YES!" This article was perfectly timed with a dilemma I am having at the moment. Thank you!

  10. Wow. I'm totally intrigued with this book now. Great post!

  11. Thank you guys! And ThatDanniGirl - I'm so glad it helped you with your own writing! :) e

  12. Oh, this sounds wonderful. I'll bet it's a deeply layered story, because it's so close to your heart. Thanks for sharing your process.

  13. Julie, I hope it comes across that way! It's been a huge part of my life and my sense of responsibility to the story is enormous. Hugs, e