Friday, July 18, 2014

Guest Post by Kell Andrews— The Lost Squirrel: Losing a Character and Gaining Depth

When I first had the idea for my middle-grade fantasy/mystery Deadwood (Spencer Hill, 2014), I knew it was about a cursed tree with messages carved in its bark. But one of the challenges of this scenario is that trees are not the most active characters. Sure, they’re great at photosynthesis, removing pollutants from the air, and providing the oxygen we breathe, but they’re terrible communicators and they tend to be, well, rooted. They don’t get around much.

So when I began writing the story, I introduced a talking squirrel character who acts as the tree’s representative – its Watcher. That makes sense, right? A squirrel is much more likely to be able to talk than a tree because they actually have mouths. They are scrappy little critters, able to leap from tree to rooftop in a single bound, probably excellent at eavesdropping, which is handy in a mystery. And who doesn’t love talking animals?

Apparently, many people do not, beginning with my agent at the time. When I told her about the story I was working on, she was lukewarm. Lose the squirrel, she said.

But but but. How could I lose the squirrel? Without him, the story seemed so drab, so colorless, so rodent-free.

And then I came up with a better way for the tree to communicate – through the carvings on its bark. It couldn’t talk, but it could light up the letters to write text messages. And once the tree had a voice, the story – and the Spirit Tree itself as a character – came into focus.

Then in honor of my cruelly deleted squirrel character, the town high school mascot became the Black Squirrels. About 25% of the Eastern gray squirrels in the Philadelphia lower Main Line suburbs are actually black, and Haverford College also uses the nickname Black Squirrels for some sports teams. So the black squirrel helps place the story in a very specific geography.

But was my former agent right? Maybe. She closed off one avenue, and I had to rethink the entire story. And that made it better – tighter, maybe scarier, with more focus on my main characters Hannah and Martin and on the tree itself as a living entity. I like having the tree speak for itself – it may be a plant, but it still has agency.

Then again, a squirrel character didn’t hurt Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses, or Daisy Whitney’s Ben Fox, Zombie Squirrel Hunter, another middle grade book from Spencer Hill.

You can judge for yourself whether the squirrel deserved a place in the story before I so brutally wrote him out. Here’s a deleted scene where the squirrel first showed up.

First Draft: The Squirrel

Crack! Splintered branches and wet leaves rained down on them, and Martin was engulfed in a whirlwind of sharp claws, white teeth, and wet fur. He beat the animal off, screaming manfully, until his arms were beating at empty air.
“Stop, stop!” Hannah cried, taking his arm. “It’s just a squirrel.”
Martin peered through his arms. A small black squirrel stared back, twitching its tail.
“I never saw a squirrel fall out of a tree. Maybe the lightning or fire hurt him.” Hannah bent down, moving in slow motion, to take a closer look. “Easy, little guy.”
Martin jumped behind her. “Watch out! It could be rabid. I think it even bit me!”
The squirrel sniffed banefully. Then it said, “I most certainly am not rabid.”
Hannah leapt to her feet, stumbling backward into Martin.
The squirrel worried its hands and continued creakily, “I wouldn’t have bitten you if you had been more polite. This is my home, you know.” The squirrel chewed its words, spitting them out with great concentration.
Hannah reached out again, looking as if she meant to pass her hand straight through the little animal. The squirrel hopped backward. “You … you talk.”
“I do now. I didn’t until that lightning struck. Pardon me if I’m a little hoarse, but. I understand English well enough after listening to you humans jabbering on for the past twenty-five years. You all talk entirely too much.”
“What are you?” Hannah asked, wide-eyed and unsure. Martin couldn’t bring himself to address the pointy little creature yet. “You can’t be a squirrel. You can’t be talking.”
“What else would I be? In fact I’m the animal watcher for this tree. You call it the spirit tree, I believe, but its spirit has existed far longer than your destructive school traditions. Violent creatures, you are. Stomping and crashing, slashing with your knives and shouting with loud voices. All the same.”
Angry, Martin found his voice. “I’m not one of them. I tried to help!”
“You’ll have to do better than that.”
“Me? Some watcher you are. I was trying to stop those kids from carving it. You should have bit them!”
“I watch. I don’t guard. The curse will bite them harder than I ever could.”
“The curse?”
“Yes, the curse. The moment this tree was defaced, this town was cursed. The curse follows all who are complicit.”
“You cursed them?”
“Not I. The witch. I was cursed along with the tree to be its watcher. And not them.”
Hannah waved her arms. “Hold on. Talking squirrels, a curse, now a witch?”
“Yes. A witch cursed the town, and the curse remains until the tree is healed.”
“You mean my brother is cursed? We’re cursed?”
The squirrel paused. “Unless you can heal the tree. The tree has spoken – maybe you’re the ones meant to lift the enchantment. And I’ll help you. Twenty-five years of acorns is far too many. I am as cursed as the rest of you.”
“No.” Hannah closed her eyes and shook her head. “This can’t be happening. I must be dreaming.”
“Then I’m dreaming too,” Martin said.
“This can’t be real. I’ve got to get out of here.”
“You can’t leave me with this creepy little thing!” Martin called after her, but Hannah had already swung a leg over her bike. She hurtled down the hill in a spray of mud. He lost sight of her in the trees and driving rain before she reached the bottom.


About Kell Andrews: Kell always wanted to be a writer, but before she rediscovered her love of children’s books, she mostly wrote and edited trade magazines, websites, textbooks, and marketing copy. That was fine except that magic is frowned upon in math textbooks and business press. Today she writes fiction for children and nonfiction for adults. Her first novel, Deadwood (Spencer Hill Press), was published in 2014, and her short fiction will appear in an upcoming issue of Spider Magazine. A member of SCBWI, Kell holds a humanities degree from Johns Hopkins University and a master of liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she now lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.

Contact Kell here. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Goodreads.



Deadwood, by Kell Andrews
Spencer Hill Press
Ages 9 and up

Sometimes a lucky ritual becomes a curse.

Seventh-grader Martin Cruz hates his rotten new town, Lower Brynwood, but with his mom fighting a war in Afghanistan, he has no other choice but to live with his crazy aunt. Then he gets a message from a tree telling him it’s cursed—and so is he.

It’s not just any tree either, it’s the Spirit Tree, an ancient beech the football team carves for good luck before the season opener. But every year they lose.

Now the Spirit Tree is dying, and the other trees in the park are toppling around it like dominoes. The town is plagued with unexplainable accidents and people begin to fade, drained of life.

Martin must team up with a know-it-all soccer star, Hannah Vaughan, if he has any chance of breaking the curse. If they fail to save the Spirit Tree, it could mean the destruction of Lower Brynwood and a permanent case of bad luck.


Order from Deadwood, Barnes and Noble, BAM, or from your favorite independent bookstore.

* * * 
Thanks so much for a wonderful guest post, Kell! I loved getting to meet this plucky little squirrel. =) 
Wishing you and DEADWOOD much success!

22 comments:

  1. I adore this cover. Congrats to my fellow SHP author. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. And a fellow Kelly too! Thanks for hosting me, Leandra.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for sharing some of the background of your story, Kell! Personally, I think black squirrels are pretty cool; there are tons of them near my brother's house, but I'd never seen them before that...and I find them just a teensy bit creepy...

    ReplyDelete
  4. They are so elegant! Their tails are much less fluffy though -- most of the volume of a gray squirrel's tail seems to be from the white hairs, which the black squirrels lack.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I do love squirrels ... but I must say I gained a new appreciation for plants once I began studying plant defense mechanisms. Before, I'd admire them and eat them, but didn't know what interesting lives they led.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Yes, Vijaya! Plants don't just sit and vegetate. :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love squirrels! I'm glad you found a way to make your story what it needed to be, but I totally know how hard it is to lose a character. I have one poor guy sitting in a file all by himself because I had to cut him. lol!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I adore squirrels - they're so cute!! Kell's book looks fabulous! Wishing her much success! :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Squirrel! It's a shame the furry cousin had to be cut, but at least it worked out. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's too bad about the squirrel. But it's always helpful to hear that a book can not only survive but thrive after something major is cut.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Aw, poor Meradeth's character, sitting around waiting for a book. Your book will come someday!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I love squirrels but I love talking trees more. Awesome cover and great premise!

    ReplyDelete
  13. That's a great cover and premise! I love the mystery of the tree. A talking squirrel would definitely make me laugh. Maybe he'll have his own story some day! :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. I love the squirrel! You'll have to work him into another novel :) Great scene and congrats on Deadwood!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm not a fan of talking animals myself. I'd probably change my mind if I met one though.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't know, Patsy. I'm not sure if I REALLY want to know what my dog is thinking, for example. If he made his point any more clearly, I'd probably have to wear earplugs.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I'll bet it's even stronger without the squirrel, although he did have some great lines. You've got me curious to read it now. Beautiful cover!

    ReplyDelete
  18. aaw I too am team squirrel! I think they're adorable!! one got in my basement when I was about 9. I was playing and came face to face with it. The sweet thing was pregnant, but we called someone who set her free in the woods. They're just so cute!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I loved hearing the background of your story, Kell, which just sounds amazing! I like the change you made to the tree talking through carvings on its trunk. Love that idea of how the tree communicates! I love it when a major change (even cutting a character) turns into a major ah-hah!
    Congrats!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great insight into the difficulties we face in losing those characters/story elements close to our hearts. I sometimes tend to resist changes like that at first (in my head), but once I start making the changes, I realize the story is much, much stronger for them.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Glad it all worked out, despite losing the squirrel. Maybe the little guy can have his own story sometime.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I have some pretty wacky characters that I've had to cut out of my manuscripts. Maybe they can hang out with your squirrel? :-)

    ReplyDelete

I love comments! And appreciate the time it took to leave one, so THANK YOU!!!