Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Weaving Words

-- Or, How I Came to Write Up, Up, and Away --

"Where do you get your ideas?" is the question I always get from students during school visits.

Most authors would agree with me that ideas come to us in the strangest ways, sometimes from nowhere and totally unexpected, and they dangle and entangle us like a spider's silk thread, just begging to be woven into a book, poem, or magazine article.

Up, Up, and Away didn't happen over night, or even in a year... or two... or three. The idea of the book began because I have a pen pal friend, Edward Kanze, who lives with his family in the Adirondacks in New York. (I live 3,000 miles away in Northern California). Ed is an author and a naturalist. He writes a weekly nature column for newspapers in his area, which I get via email.

At least ten years ago, Ed wrote about spiders and ballooning, about when a spider, and often a newly hatched one, releases a strand of sturdy thread and sails off on the wind currents to find a home of its own. I loved the article and the rich images of spiders soaring here and there on little strings. One single phrase "eight-legged kites" stayed with me all day. So I printed out Ed's column and saved it.

And like most nonfiction authors, I am a saver of IDEAS. It is a joke in my family that when I discover something, everyone knows just what I will say. "Wow! That would make a great book. I can just see it now!"

My husband, Bill, might groan and shake his head. "Finish what you're working on first."

And he's right. Nonfiction authors can spend HOURS on the computer, doing additional research on whatever captures our attention for that moment. Some of my friends play Solitaire on their computers. Not me! I "play" research. And punching "print" is something I do every single day. That is why I have three file cabinets in my office overflowing with possibilities. Two closets in extra bedrooms house even more file cabinets, also stuffed to the brim with research materials related to other books. Like an alcoholic, I confess... I am a hoarder and saver of facts. The thought of moving to a smaller house is a nightmare.

Somewhere in this over packed house is Ed Kanze's delightful column about ballooning spiders, but currently, it is "missing." Even Ed could not find his original column, so he must be The Pack Rat of the East." I'll claim my title as The Pack Rat of the West.

One day the urge to write about those "eight legged kites" hit me like a tsunami. Maybe it was because of Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. I re-read the book from time-to-time. It's such a memorable classic with that heart-stopping first sentence. "'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."

I wrote Up, Up, and Away in lyrical, poetry-like prose. I had never written anything in this format before. I love it! It was magic to balance the words and scientific facts, similar to the ballet a spider performs every day as it dances across a wind-blown web.

I work in a wood-paneled office in my home that has one entire wall of books. Windows face my redwood tree-rimmed property. My golden retrievers, Willa and Scout, sprawl across my feet like two enormous slippers. We take "recess" in my half-acre garden, which merges into 300 adjacent acres of undeveloped open space that belongs to my community.

While working on Up, Up, and Away, I would step outside with spiders on my mind. Writing this book taught me to think and act SMALL. Spider and spider webs are everywhere, and now, I crawl under webs instead of damaging ones that span the winding brick path through my garden. Frequently I discover messy-looking webs as well as gorgeous globe-shaped ones.

Spotting the actual spiders is often challenging. They might hide under a curled leaf, to avoid a predator, or remain camouflaged by matching the color of something in their little world. A dot-sized spider might drift past me on a steely-strong strand, in search of a new home.

Unlike many of my friends, I am not afraid of spiders. They fascinate me. I have been trying to photograph them and some of the other critters--lizards, snakes, frogs, and more--that live in my garden. It is NOT easy.

As a result of writing Up, Up, and Away, I've written a draft of a book about a colorful California kingsnake I've observed in my garden, crafted in the same lyrical format. A future book? Who knows?

I hope that readers, young and old, will enjoy the story of Spider, a garden spider, and they will take time to walk slowly and look closely at the world beyond their backdoors!

Posted by Ginger Wadsworth, author of many nonfiction books for young readers, including Desert Discoveries, Tundra Discoveries, Up, Up, and Away, and more.

Watch the book trailer for Up, Up, and Away.

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