If you’re a worrier, asking “what if…?” will probably lead you down paths you don’t even want to imagine.
But, if you’re a writer, as I am, it’s the perfect question to ask yourself over and over as you plot your story, raising the tension and the stakes as you go. “What if…?” is also a question to help you dig deeper into your characters, as well as your setting. Sometimes I’m in danger of not knowing when my story is complete and when I can finally stop asking the questions. Or, even worse, asking, “What if no one ever reads my story?”
For my newest middle grade novel,That Smudge of Smoke, “what if…” questions started shortly after my husband and I moved into a 1930s log cabin, whose doors were salvaged from an old Chesapeake Bay steamboat (the SS City of Atlanta) that was sold for scrap in 1930.
The doors still had their original keys, complete with leather tags inscribed with cabin numbers and the name of the steamboat.
A story began to brew in my head. I knew I wanted to include two timeframes (sometime in the 1920s when the doors were still on the steamboat, and closer to the present time—2015—in the log cabin). Because I am a realistic writer, I also knew I didn’t want to use magic as a literary device to travel back and forth in time.
So, I began to ask my questions…
What if a 12-year-old girl’s mother dies suddenly of pneumonia in 1929? What if the girl (Penelope, soon known as Piper) not only loses her mother, but then has to leave her home, her friends, her school—everything she’s used to—in order to live with her steamboat captain father aboard the SS City of Atlanta? And what if Piper believes her father doesn’t want her there?
What if her favorite teacher gives her a diary so she can continue her creative flair for writing? And what if Piper begins to think of the diary as her closest friend, the only one she can confide in?
What if, in the fall of 2015, a 12-year-old boy, Garrett, has to leave his home, his friends, his school, and travel with his mother to his grandparents’ logcabin home in Maryland to be closer to his Army sergeant dad who has been injured in Afghanistan? What if Garrett slams his door in anger at all the sudden changes in his life, and a loose panel falls off the door? What if he finds a diary hidden in the hollow of that door for eighty-six years and starts reading?
The questions go on and on, but I will stop here, so I don’t give the entire story away. I will say that the story didn’t come together quickly. In fact, I have worked at it, off and on, for ten years and have written three completely different drafts of the manuscript. Of course, much time was spent researching life aboard a Chesapeake Bay steamboat in 1929, which eventually involved buying a home in the area I was researching. I was also caring for my aging parents, teaching in Spalding University’s MFA in writing program, working on another novel-in-progress, and living life, in general, with all its family activities, and so on.
But now, I am happy to say that the publisher, BeaLu Books, shared my vision of the book, and a special “museum” edition of That Smudge of Smoke will be released at the end of June. The official release is still slated for the fall, but the special “museum” edition will be available at the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, Virginia, on July 1st, for purchase either in person or by online order.
Please join me for a book launch party at the Steamboat Era Museum on Saturday, July 1st, beginning at 10:00 AM, where I will be signing books, giving readings, and premiering a video book trailer of That Smudge of Smoke, produced by Mica Hemingway and Caleb Jones.
And if you have an idea for a story, why not start asking yourself the “what if…” questions? It’s the best way to get your plot rolling.