Down at the Depot with Children's Author
Karen Kulinski

Fun History (Coming Soon)

The Year of Ivy -- In Writing What You Don’t Know, You Can Strike Gold

May 17, 2014

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers. I think, in large part, this is because writing is such a solitary, confounding, and frustrating experience. It’s also because I have found writers, especially writers for children, to be a very helpful group, and when one of them finds something that works, he or she wants to share it with others.

One piece of the advice routinely given to new writers is “write what you know.” Mine your life, your experiences, your childhood, your highs and lows, you are told — then write about it. This is, obviously, good advice, since it can bring authenticity and deeper emotion to your book.

But with RESCUING IVY, I was doing just the opposite, writing about what I didn’t know and, thus, had to mine other people’s lives, experiences, and highs and lows. Plus, I knew little about elephants, and even less about early-20th Century circuses. So where does a writer turn to discover all this information? To books, of course.

I read avidly for several months, taking copious notes to make sure the world I was creating in my book would be historically correct. How did a circus function 100 years ago? What was involved in setting it up, taking it down? What was the day-to-day life in a circus like back then? What kind of work did they do, where did they eat and sleep? How were the elephants cared for?

Obviously, I was discovering a lot of important whats and wheres and hows and whys, but I never imagined that these books would gift me with a who, as well — a who that would become a pivotal character in my novel.

When I started my reading, I had a broad idea of what my book was about — a young girl sneaks out at night to be alone with Ivy, the circus elephant she loves, and sets into motion a chain of events that results in the accidental death of a circus worker, and the elephant being condemned to death for killing the man. Only the girl knows Ivy is innocent and, when no one believes her, she sets about to save the elephant herself, with the help of her brother and a couple of hoboes.

I figured that my cast of characters was complete, but as I mentioned in previous blogs, the joy in research is discovering things that you never knew you needed. Once I read the word cageboy in one of my research books, I felt I needed such a boy — and that was before I even learned what a cageboy did in the circus. After reading what his job was — cleaning the animal cages — I was sure I had found gold.

I immediately knew a cageboy was going to be part of my book, and so Jayse was born. Who he was, what his backstory was, how he was going to fit into the story, all of that was yet to be determined. But I knew he was going to be an important character, and that was all that mattered.

Many of the whats and hows and whys I learned through my reading became pivotal parts of my book as well — among them, why circuses only traveled six nights of the week, and how circus elephants were able to sneak about when no one was around without anyone discovering what they had done.

Each of these nuggets of information was important to my story, but finding each of them was also an affirmation that I was on the right path with my book. They all fit so well in the story, it was as if the universe was decreeing that this book must be written and I was the one born to write it. And that’s the best advice a writer can get.