In early April, because of a flight delay, I spent two unexpected hours in the Seattle airport. With comforting traveler noise around me, I sat at a sunny table and tried to figure out a beginning, middle, and end to “Friends for Frances” – dividing a picture book’s 32 pages into thirds.
I ended up with rough paragraphs and some details: Wolsey and Cromwell arrive (the only image I’d had in my head to begin was of Wolsey and Cromwell outside our garden gate), then something happens, and there is resolution. An arc so conventional that it doesn’t sound like it should have been a discovery – but if felt like one.
By the middle of April I had grappled mightily with the demons of doubt – not good enough, can’t draw them, dumb story (familiar drill). I also reread in an old textbook about the distinctions between storybook and picture book. True picture books tell the story with few words or none, but Lady Baby and I love words when we read and myriad variations on the form exist.
So I kept at it and made what I thought of as a fat draft, writing the story in too many words but with some flow. One morning before our walk, I read it to my husband, saying I was having trouble with what exactly happens at the point where the story should get interesting – the action that brings Frances, Wolsey, and Cromwell together.
Part of the original idea had the newcomer cats protect Frances from a danger. Perhaps raccoons. But that meant demonizing the raccoons, and required much suspension of disbelief about who could climb a fence and who could not.
So on our walk I outlined some book plots I recently read to Lady Baby and wondered if maybe Cromwell and Wolsey just help Frances with something – like friends do. My husband asked if I remembered when we first got her, just before Christmas one year. We had a party – and somehow she got outside in Alaska winter cold.
That did it. By later that day I had a little story, which I have pared and polished, and now made too big a deal about here. It’s the simplest, most familiar possible narrative.
To begin (while also doing the studies you’ve seen), I made a storyboard – a grid of squares like these but representing the whole book in miniature.
To keep working with the story, I glued typed-on scrap paper together for pages, stapled the side into a rough dummy book, and taped words from the fat text version to appropriate pages. That cobbled together book has now passed through many iterations with pasted on drawings and text, as I figured out the scenes in the story. (Below is the very first page when the dummy was skinny.)
In the next weeks I want to share the story as I work along. Mostly I want to say that your comments and encouraging messages have been wonderful – posting here has definitely kept me on track – thank you!