It’s summer, and to escape the heat I’m taking Patrick, his friend Jerry, and Jerry’s cousin Jeremy to the movies. Patrick and Jerry have just finished fourth grade; Jeremy is a couple years older. We’re driving through shimmering heat waves and I’m giving thanks for the A/C when Jerry suddenly breaks off his end of a conversation extolling the virtues of baseball to ask, “So how do you write stories?”
I am a little surprised. Jerry struggles in school, and as far as I know hasn’t voluntarily picked up a book on a subject other than sports in living memory. My years of experience driving boys around has made me fast with an answer, though, so I say, “You start with a question, or with a person, or an event. And then you start to ask questions about it.”
“Like what?” asks Jeremy. This is our first time with Jeremy in the car, so he’s largely an unknown quantity.
“A man,” somebody says.
“All right. Where does he live?’
“France,” Jerry says.
I am a bit taken aback. France seems a very long way from our little town. Still, though, it’s their story. “Okay,” I agree. “What does he do? What’s his job?”
“He has a cart,” the boys decide.
“What’s would a man in France sell off a cart?”
After a brief discussion they decide on coffee and croissants. I wonder where they’re getting their information, but I am too intrigued by the process to ask.
“Is he good at it?” I ask.
“No,” they decide.
“He keeps giving the stuff away.”
“His town’s poor.”
And so it goes, all the way home. We pull thread after thread, answering question after question, rapidfire. Within fifteen minutes the boys have outlined the “Cloud Writer.”
Back home, I am looking forward to putting my feet up and enjoying a cool drink. Nothing doing.
“What’s next?” asks Jerry.
“Well, next you’d start writing it down.”
Jerry’s face drops.
“Or you can start making pictures for it,” I finish, taking pity on him.
“Okay!” he says. “Do you have any paper?”
I get out some drawing paper and pencils and the boys sprawl on the living room floor. I boot up my computer and type the story into Word as fast as I can.
The afternoon turns to other things, games for them, work on one of my own books for me. But Jerry doesn’t forget. He’s a regular at our house that summer. Every visit begins with the same question: “How’s the book coming?”
Not well. I’ve become absorbed in other things. Patrick enjoyed the writing part of it, and liked getting to edit me, but art is not his forte in those years. And Jerry is more a sportsman than a man of letters. “Cloud Writer” languishes.
For one thing, I can’t think of the right setting for it. The story’s set in France, but other than what I learned in my history and art classes and a biography of Joan of Arc I read in third grade I know nothing about France. Paris is wrong for our coffee and croissant seller. It’s too big, too urban. It doesn’t have enough mysterious shadowy corners from which men in black hats and capes and bearing magic sketch pads can slither.
And then I happen upon a novel set in the Langue d’Oc section of France, in the years when the Cathars were just about to find themselves crosswise of the King of France, and his very own Crusade. The story catches my interest, and, as is my custom, I start googling place names. And that’s how I find Carcassonne, an old city surrounded by wheat fields and full of fantastical architecture, sunlit walls, boulangeries, tourists, and enough shadowy corners to delight the heart of the most mysterious stranger in the blackest cloak.
Finally, I can see the story. What’s more, I have a history and culture for the little coffee seller. The story includes passing references to Cathar priests–the parfaits. In our story, the parfaits are still present in the city. In reality, they were slaughtered a thousand years ago. The agrarian culture is there, front and center, in the failure of the crops, and the destruction of the economy. The tourists who really do flock to Carcassonne, Mont Segur–another Cathar stronghold–and Rennes le Chateau, are some of our coffee sellers’ most important customers.
Understanding the “where” of the story makes all the difference; this coffee seller isn’t some slick Parisian street vendor; he’s a simple man in a rusty black suit and a white apron, born and bred in his city, known to all, and known by all. He’s small town, small time. He’s a good man–and therein lies the key to the plot.
Jerry’s moved away. Jeremy is in high school. But at long last, I can finish their story. And it makes me glad. What those boys started on the way home from the movies was good. If you read yesterday’s post, you have an idea HOW good.
In the end, “Cloud Writer” is a story about our dreams, and how they shape, and are shaped by, our reality. Now if I can only get the illustrations done…