Guest Blogger: Cynthia Leitich Smith
I set my sights on the neighborhoods that border Austin’s Congress Avenue and started walking. It was the most obvious place to begin.
After all, the heart of my YA Gothic fantasy TANTALIZE (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) is a fictional vampire-themed restaurant set on that street, and most of the characters’ homes are drawn from the surrounding area.
In the forward to GOTHIC: TEN ORIGINAL DARK TALES (Candlewick, 2004), anthologist Deborah Noyes writes: “. . . think of gothic as a room within the larger house of horror. Its décor is distinctive.” Essentially, I was shopping for that décor.
I literally plunged into my fantasy world to find sensory and scenic details that would help build a more resonant story. The lens of the camera forced my eye to focus -- on the band fliers stapled to light poles, the leather-clad bikers and spandex-clad bicyclists, the neon glow of signs. The pen in my hand begged for details -- the smell of a backyard barbecue, the wheeze of the city bus, the crunch of rock beneath my feet.
I ducked into the local real estate market -- explaining my ulterior motive only to find myself showered in floor plans and model bedrooms for a make-believe seventeen-year-old girl. I visited local boutiques and second-hand stores to “outfit” my cast.
“No,” I said, “vampire novel.”
She jumped in place, held up a finger, and told me to “wait right there!” while she found help in back.
For the next couple of hours, I had not only all the customer service I could’ve wanted but two live models with plenty of ideas for my plot.
When the time came to draft the companion book, ETERNAL (Candlewick, 2009), I found my story largely set in Chicago. I’ve lived in the Windy City before, for three years in fact, and it’s my husband’s home town. But I had to return when it was -15 degrees wind chill, so that I could record the music and profanity and intensity of the city, the way the chilled air ached in my lungs.
I’ll never forget standing on Navy Pier, dutifully scribbling, when the ink in my pen froze. But--like with my Texas walkabout -- that experience brought me inspiration and material to bring the setting to life.
This kind of prewriting (or side-writing) results in scribble-filled notebooks, napkins, plane tickets—even notes on my hands. Only a handful of references make it into the final novel. They’re usually nothing splashy, nothing that will linger in the reader’s mind. But each detail supports of the overall gestalt of the piece, the authenticity amidst the monstrosity. And, besides, hunting them down is horrific fun!