The spark of an idea and its creative evolution is slightly different from book to book. No matter how you hone your process, there’s a bit of a need to reinvent the wheel with each new piece. I enjoy that; I don’t ever want to feel stuck or refuse to try something new because “it’s not my process.”
Since I was a kid, I’ve loved the juvenile mystery series fiction of the early twentieth century. I grew up on Nancy Drew, as did most of my generation. That expanded to the Hardy Boys and the Dana Girls and The Bobbsey Twins and Cherry Ames and Sue Barton, and, of course Trixie Belden. I loved the Trixie Belden books because they were set about twenty minutes from my home town, and I knew the area well. I learned about the Strathmeyer Syndicate and earlier series books, such as Ruth Fielding, Judy Bolton, Beverly Gray, Vickie Barr, Dorothy Dixon, etc, etc, and kept collecting them. If you have any interest in these books, GIRL SLEUTH: NANCY DREW AND THE WOMEN WHO CREATED HER by Melanie Rehak is an outstanding book.
Anyway, I always wanted to write what used to be called “juvenile” mystery fiction and what is now called “middle grade” or “YA” fiction. A good story is a good story, but hitting the right tone was a bit harder than in adult fiction. I wanted it to reflect the books I loved, but not mirror the prejudices or have it be too black-and-white/good-and-evil, the way many of these older books are.
At the same time, I was writing a lot, mostly plays, and working full-time on Broadway. I’d expanded my writing to cover horse racing, and I was just getting back into ice hockey and starting to cover that. The dynamics of the behind-the-scenes and the relationships on the backside of the track fascinated me, and the way the life commitment (because a barn full of horses must have care EVERY day ALL year) affects the families involved fascinated me. I had no idea how it would all fit together. It was more a feeling I carried around in me as I attended the races (usually every week at that point in time).
The character of Rose appeared to me, and she started telling me about her annoying younger brother Simon (who she adores), her single dad, the horses, etc. I still didn’t know what kind of book it would turn into. I knew she had a story to tell, I wanted to write a mystery for this age group, but I wasn’t yet sure that Rose’s story was the mystery.
At the same time, I was playing with a character named Geri Baxter, of the same age, who’s a female hockey player. Different town, different school, different conflicts, different personality, same age.
I developed the two characters, not sure if I’d continue working on them in tandem, or put one aside and focus on the other.
Then, a situation occurred at the track where a jockey was accused of impropriety by someone who had about two articles to his credit. Of course, there was nothing to the claim, and the jockey was cleared. The pseudo-writer may have believed he was “cleaning up the sport” or he may have just wanted attention. I have no idea. Once the idea grabbed me, and I decided to write about it as a piece of fiction, I didn’t make any effort to get to know the actual individual who perpetuated the claim. I knew how my fictional character would handle it and wanted to keep the fictional character very separate from the real human being. I also wanted to change the details of the incident to serve the story better.
As all of this evolved, I also wanted to play with the idea of a mystery where no one is murdered. I don’t know if I could get away with it in an adult novel. I wanted to see if I could create a book with tension and mystery, but without a dead body.
The more I mulled everything over (during a period of months), the more I realized that these elements should affect Rose and her family — that the pressure should be on her trainer father rather than on the jockey — for this incident.
So, I knew the central conflict in the piece, but didn’t sit down and plan it. I pantsed my way through the book, putting aside Geri’s hockey story after a few days, because Rose was more insistent. She’s quieter as a person, but was more insistent as a character that her story be told before Geri’s! I knew where I started; I knew where I wanted to end; I wasn’t sure how to get there.
The tracks in downstate NY are in diverse neighborhoods, so reflecting that in Rose’s friends came pretty naturally. I didn’t sit down and say, “We need an Asian and a Latina” — it just happened that those were the cultural backgrounds of Rose’s two best friends. There are always cliques and conflicts in school, so it made sense that there would be reverberations of the accusations against Rose’s father towards Rose and her brother, especially by the kids who already didn’t like them. The arrival of Justin in the story was a big surprise — I thought there would be more conflict in the story between Ben, Libby, and Rose, but Rose just didn’t have much chemistry with Ben, nor would she put any attraction towards Ben ahead of her friendship with Libby. I tried to enhance that conflict, but it was untrue towards Rose’s character, felt false, and I changed it.
The first draft itself went down pretty quickly — it’s short, and, even though I was working full time on Broadway (8 shows a week, only a single day off), I did a few pages every day. I had sports writing deadlines and book review deadlines, but I didn’t have business writing clients at the time. I just sat down and told whatever portion of the story Rose revealed that day. As I wrote, I saw a contest for the age group advertised by a major publisher, and used that as my motivational deadline.
I wrote the book, gave it a quick edit and sent it to the contest — not the right process, but the deadline was much earlier than my original vision for the pace, and I wanted to give it a shot. I sent it off, forgot about it, and worked on other things.
I didn’t win that contest and contract, but I got a lovely note back from the person who read the manuscript, with comments. The reader loved the characters, the story, the fact that there were no bodies in it, but felt too much of the action took place at the racetrack and that element was too complex for the age group.
At that point, I was caught up in a lot of other projects, including spending time with minor league hockey teams as research for a cycle of novels aimed at adults, still working on Broadway, but now taking on more business clients and starting the transition to full time writing. I wrote the reader a thank you note, put the book away and forgot about it.
About a year ago, I came across the manuscript when I was clearing out some stuff, and read it. I felt it had some good bones. I did a pretty massive rewrite, applying a lot of what I learned in the interim to it, taking the reader’s comments into account, and also trying a stylistic choice where Rose speaks directly to the reader in the present in certain areas, where she’s talking about the protocols and routines of daily backstretch life, to differentiate it from where she’s telling the story. Rose tells her story in first person, whereas Geri, my hockey player, tells HERS in third. That’s just what served each story best.
I put it aside again, not sure where I’d send it. I knew I had research to do on the market, etc. I’d met my publisher through The Muse Online Conference. I knew I wanted to work with her, because I really liked her, but wasn’t sure what to submit — FireDrakes had The Jain Lazarus Adventures, and I had projects “in process” while keeping up with the Jain Lazarus books, but nothing really submittable. The playwrighting commissions picked up, and I wanted to work with Vickie NOW, not in five years or something. They publish YA, so I thought, why not give it a shot? I prepared the submission package, sent if off, and it was accepted. It wasn’t a case of me sitting down and saying, “I want this in digital rather than print”. It was more like, “What can I send so I get to work with this person I really like and respect?” and DIXIE DUST was the right piece at the right time.
DIXIE DUST RUMORS was envisioned as a stand-alone, but, as I worked on the proofs, Rose and company had more to say. Also, since I’ve spent more time in Saratoga over the past years, the dynamics of the summer race meet are fascinating, and I want to explore this. I’m outlining DEAD MAN’S STALL, and yes, there is a dead body in this one! Also, Rose is maturing, both physically and emotionally. I’m taking that page from the Judy Bolton stories, where Judy grew up over the course of the series, rather than keeping her the same age, as Harriet Adams chose to do when she took over Nancy Drew. I don’t know if there will be any more books after DEAD MAN’S STALL. We’ll see what readers want. And I’m getting back to Geri’s story, too, and doing a massive rewrite on that. I’m outlining Geri’s piece, too. Now that I write full-time and I’m always juggling at least a half a dozen projects, the outlines are crucial. I save time, because I don’t have to wonder where I was in a piece or where I planned to go, and I stay within the world of the story. And I still have the space to go off in another direction, if I choose.
I’m also developing some YA fiction for older readers along the fantasy and science-fiction lines, and I’m excited to see where those stories take me. I’d like to write more short stories in the genre, but many of the publications geared to this age range buy all rights (and for not much money), rather than first rights, so I’m still researching markets. I’ve got some humorous ghost stories for which I’d like to find homes.
As far as the pseudonym, I’ve always liked the name “Jenny”. I heard of someone with “Storm” as a last name and thought that sounded really cool. I was pretty sure I wanted to use “Jenny” for children’s/middle grade/YA and “Storm” seemed to fit. Every name has a completely different evolution, and that’s the origin of “Jenny Storm”.
So much emphasis is put on the business end of writing, and, when you earn your living by your pen, that’s important. But without the creation process, without the product, there’s no reason for the business end. When you put the cart before the horse, you generally don’t get too far too fast. The horse’ll turn and go in the other direction. To me, the writing is the most important part, and everything else gets slotted around that.
Thanks so much for hosting me!
Jenny Storm publishes under half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She’s been a fan of horse racing since the age of 7, and collects YA mysteries from the early twentieth century.
Read more about Jenny Storm here, and visit her on MySpace here.
If you have any questions for Jenny Storm, please post them in the comments section, where she will endeavour to answer them as quickly as she can.