Derek’s best friend is Andy. Andy’s parents never minded feeding Derek when he showed up at mealtime, but Andy’s dad hasn’t ever invited Derek to join them on a hunting trip. When they were in fourth grade, Andy helped Derek sneak in through his bedroom window, and that’s how Derek (and then Nate) got chicken pox.
I thought at first that Nate’s best friend was Russell, but when I realized Russ isn’t dependable enough to be a true friend, I found Hiram, known to his buddies as “Hi Ho Silver” because his last name is Silberman. One year Hi and Nate got into trouble setting up a haunted house for Halloween. When I find out what happened, I’ll write that story.
Rex Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe, lives in a luxurious brownstone on West 35th Street in New York, although I’ve never been there and can’t tell you whether West 35th Street has, or once had, luxurious brownstones.
Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series takes place on Pern, a planet so well described you may feel you actually live there. When I first read it, I almost started searching the sky for dragons and dragon riders. You may feel that way about The Hunger Games.
Mitford, North Carolina, is a completely mapped town you’d expect to find on a State map, but the Mitford books are fiction. Mitford is the setting for Jan Caron’s stories about Father Tim, the boy Dooley, the dog Barnabas…
I either choose places I know for my fiction, or I do extensive research with maps, photos, and reading what othershave written about that place.
You could find where Derek and Nate live by studying the text for nearby towns which I name, but there’s a reason why their home towns are not named. I may use maps of the areas and actual street names (how many towns have Fourth Street or Maple Street?), but you won’t find the Bradford’s farmhouse or barns by following Derek’s path to town, and the layout of the high school, while I could draw you a diagram, won’t match the building you would see. There is a park with a pond where Derek hides when he skips school, but I’m not sure about the cattails that screen him from the street. I start with a template based on a place I know, or knew in the years in which the story is set, but the story constructs the town.
An author’s first problem is where to begin the story. An author’s last problem is to find out if the story begins in the right place.
For Crossroads, I expected the story to begin and end with Derek and Nate standing under a street light and making the decisions that would start or complete the action.
By the second draft, I knew that would be as if the brothers dropped from outer space; where did they come from? Why here? Is this a chance meeting, or is there something behind it? Why weren’t they together in the first place?
So I backed up. First I backed up too far and added stuff that didn’t matter either to Derek and Nate or to you, the reader. Delete key.
But before Derek reaches that lighted spot, I must show you where he comes from and why he’s coming now.
Derek cut into his second pork chop. This summer of stacking hay bales and shuffling milking machines from cow to cow on Don Bradford’s farm—because that’s how the Bradfords keep their foster sons busy—he’d grown from men’s small to medium shirts and Jean lengthened his jeans twice. Food tastes great when Mom isn’t dishing it up with complaints about how hard she works to feed Derek and Nate, and now that she married Bruce, dinner is when they jump on Derek for cutting school, bad progress reports, and whatever he did or didn’t do.
Then Don Bradford turned the pork chop to leather. “You guys ready for school? Bus stops at 7:40.”
Derek’s stomach cramped up tighter than when Jean bought school supplies last week.
One more try. “If I quit school I could change your corrugates all the time. You know I work good.” Don and Jean shook their heads.
Derek had to eat the chop he’d taken—a rule that didn’t normally bother him—but he chewed one small bite at a time to get it down and make it stay there. Jean raised her eyebrows but kept her mouth shut until the others boys scraped their plates and piled them in the sink. She sent Billy and Bob upstairs to put on pajamas before Monday Night Football—Cowboys vs. Rams tonight.
“I need you to give me a hand, Derek—just a couple of minutes. James, see if Don has the pre-game on.” When she didn’t scold Derek for leaving too much meat on his chop, he knew he was in for it.
“I used to hate the first few days of school.” Jean squirted dish soap into the pan of hot water. “New classes, new teachers. But you got through sophomore year even when things were falling apart at home. With all that, you passed. You can do it, Derek. We’ll help.” Her voice lowered, slowed. “—at least as long as you’re with us.”