As a lad, I read a novel about a family of traveling magicians in the Old West. It wasn’t one of my favorite books, but it was entertaining, and parts of it stuck with me. Just not the name of the author.
Until I heard Sid Fleischman speak at an SCBWI New England conference, and he mentioned that his first novel for kids was about a family of traveling magicians in the Old West. The book’s title is Mr. Mysterious & Company.
Sid, who died this month at the age of ninety, went on to write many books that have gained bigger audiences or more awards, such as The Whipping Boy (Newbery Medal), Humbug Mountain (Boston Globe-Horn Book Award), and Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini (Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor). He even has an award named after him, given by SCBWI for the best humorous book for kids.
At that same writing conference, I heard Sid say what he finds necessary to start a story. He’s stated this advice elsewhere, including his memoir The Abracadabra Kid. This formulation is from Tracy Barrett’s website:
The author Sid Fleischman says that one idea is like a stick: you can’t do much with it. But two ideas are like two sticks: you can rub them together, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a fire.For example, Mr. Mysterious & Company might have been the cross-pollination of Sid’s memories of working as a young magician, his experience as a young father, and the milieu of the classic American western. The Ghost in the Noonday Sun plays off our understandings of both pirates and ghosts. The mix makes resonant but familiar (i.e., potentially cliché) ideas fresh.
I’ve found that advice to be very helpful in developing story ideas. Rather than try to squeeze more out of a single idea, I try laying it alongside another and see if they mix well. Living in a magical world with no magical powers? Kids’ caper with Wodehousean plot twists? Washing out of espionage training? Satire of common classroom projects? Knight who wants to be an inventor? Tale of dual narrators, both with secret identities? The right combination, however arbitrarily generated, sparks off more ideas.
At one SCBWI conference, Sid sat down with a pile of his books to autograph for volunteers. He started to sign The Whipping Boy for me and then got pulled away, so the book came back with half a signature. That evening, Sid heard what had happened and promised me he’d finish signing the book if I’d send it to him. I never got around to doing so because I rather liked the distinction of having a half-autographed book. After all, Sid must have autographed a lot of books in his long career, but I bet he only half-autographed a few.
In a decade or so I may even improve my story and hint that this was the last book that Sid ever started signing. “A writer to the end,” I can murmur, and let people draw their own conclusions about my copy. Somehow I think Sid would get a kick out of that.