Dandi Daley Mackall is the author of more than 450 books, many of them for children and young adults. In 2012, she won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult Mystery for her novel The Silence of Murder (Random House/Knopf). Her most recent novel is The Secrets of Tree Taylor. Many will also know Dandi’s work through the TV dramatization of her novel My Boyfriends’ Dogs, the most-watched original Hallmark movie of 2014. The multitalented author will make her EQMM debut in our September/October double issue. In this post she talks about a vital source of inspiration for fiction writers. —Janet Hutchings
I steal. And I’m not alone here. Every author I know steals—from faces glimpsed on a city bus, to names heard at dusk when suburban moms call kids in to supper, to the smell of a dusty barn, sunlight slanting through cracks in just the right way to make the dust dance.
But my most fruitful thefts come when I steal from myself. I’m a firm believer in capturing our own powerful and emotionally-charged moments and holding onto them, only to pull them out and let them morph in our fiction. My best scenes, and I suspect this is true for most writers, contain appropriately disguised moments I’ve lived through, intense memories that are frozen in my mind.
Sometimes nations, and even the world, have things happen that people will remember for the rest of their lives. Anyone who was alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated can tell you exactly where they were, what they were wearing, and who else was in the room with them when they heard the news. For another generation, it’s the space shuttle explosion that’s frozen in memory, with all the emotions of that day. And for most of us, the vision of the World Trade Center disaster comes back to us with strong emotions and details that won’t fade.
We all have our own personal frozen moments too—the trepidation of the first day of school; that first kiss; first heartbreak, first child, first family death. And when we call up those moments, we get details that don’t go away like other memories. They’re frozen, which can be a good thing, or a bad thing. For a writer, those moments are gems, gold to be mined at just the right time, in exactly the right scene.
There are a lot of ways to create suspense, but for me, the most effective way is to re-create suspense stolen from my past. I’ve purloined my own panic, experienced on a back street in Krakow, Poland, during the communist era, when the Curtain was Iron and I was hopelessly lost, driving well past the city’s curfew, an illegal printing press on the floor of my unreliable Renault. I’ve also stolen the less grounded, but just as intense, feeling of panic when I was lost a few years ago driving through Cleveland with a sick child in the passenger seat.
For years when I did school visits and Young Author programs, I stressed the importance of being a good observer, both for personal safety and for sharpening descriptive skills necessary for good writing. Dramatically, I told the (true) story of the dreadful month when I was the victim of a stalker. I’d spotted a white pickup at several points on my daily jog and hadn’t thought much of it, though I could see a man sitting behind the wheel, watching. Then came the phone calls, the omnipresence of that infernal pickup, and the final confrontation, involving a police rescue and capture. Awful stuff—but wonderful frozen moments.
During a Q and A session with seventh graders, one student asked, “Have you ever used that story about the white pickup truck?” I hadn’t. But the following week, I brought the moment out of the freezer and wrote a scene into my novel The Silence of Murder. Since then, I’ve used that angst in a scene where the narrator believes something terrible has happened to her best friend. And I’ve thawed the moment again for another novel, when my main character says yes to a marriage proposal, then seriously reconsiders. Tapping into suspenseful frozen moments can take us most places we want to go in our fiction.
Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’ve tapped into a frozen moment and stolen from ourselves until it’s too late to take it back. In the first chapter of The Silence of Murder, a mother delivers a slap to her son, and the son never speaks again. I had no idea where that slap came from until the first time I did a pubic reading from the book. I was so overcome with the memory of an event I hadn’t consciously thought of in decades that I had to take a break before finishing the reading. When I was a freshman in college, one night I ventured to a little market for munchies. The place was deserted, except for a young mother and her perhaps two-year-old son, who sat in her shopping cart and made faces and noises. As I recall, I made faces at him too, when Mom wasn’t looking. Mostly, Mom was yelling, screaming at him to shut up. As I stared at the shelves, debating crackers or cookies, crackers or cookies, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman’s hand sweeping backward, then hauling off to slap her son. The sound of hard hand on soft cheek echoed in the aisle. Then that silence, the air sucked from the building before the cry. And what did I do?
Nothing. I took crackers and cookies, and I left. Even then, I knew I should have done something. Said something. Given her a dirty look. Something so she’d know she didn’t get away with it.
I don’t know if I even gave that moment a thought the next day, the next month, the following years. But it was there, frozen like a brand to my cerebral cortex. Waiting.
I have one last frozen moment that came to fruition when I received the cheerful message that my story would be included in an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I can picture a Thursday when my parents returned from shopping in Kansas City, about an hour from my small country town. I can see my dad’s grin when I, in fuzzy PJs, met him at the front door. It was the grin that told me he’d bought the latest issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and that it would be okay, even on a school night, for us to stay up and read.
And now, one more imagined frozen moment. A girl in a small town waits for the September/October issue of EQMM, sees my little story, and . . .