Jehan’s story began with an image. When I was researching the 2010 Pakistani flood for Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll, I found an incredible photo of a boy living in a tree. The photo is by Waseem Qureshi (EPA) and was titled: ‘A boy looks out from his temporary shelter in a tree in Muzaffargarh, Punjab, Pakistan’. The photo was published in The Guardian, Friday August 13, 2010. See it here.
This fired my imagination and when Phil Cummings suggested a companion to Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll with a male protagonist I thought of the photo. ‘He could be living in a tree,’ I said. ‘Maybe his charpai gets caught in the branches when the water is high and he secures it with rope. Maybe there is a monkey, a dog or toy bear with a quest.’
‘A dog sounds good,’ Phil said. When the publisher asked for a sequel to Kelsey, I said, ‘How about a companion book?’
I showed the photo of the boy in a tree when I visited schools, and students said it would make an interesting story. A boy from Kapunda Primary School, SA said the flood would have forced the charpai into the tree. I agreed with him. That is what happens early in the book. Mrs Prior even ran a writing competition: Living in a Disaster. I gave the awards.
In July and August this year I was on holiday with my husband. We followed the Rivers Cooper, Darling and Murray. Stayed at the Dig Tree where supplies were left for the fated Burke. We had little electricity so I wrote the draft of Jehan entirely by hand. This is a holiday for me, writing with my fountain pen and not turning on a computer. The rivers were flowing and even though Cooper Creek was first named a creek because it didn’t flow, it looked like a river this year. It all helped me to think of a flood, to see what Jehan would see as he woke the morning after it hit. It rained when we camped beside the Darling and we had to leave early one morning – there were eight kms of red sand between us and the main road. More rain would turn it in a quagmire. Hogwash Bend on the Murray gave me the peace to finish the zero draft.
I got busy on mind maps first of all. A mind map for Jehan’s character, what is he like? What does he want? His fears, talents and flaws, his problems? He can’t swim, I realised, he’s lonely, hungry. How will he survive? He learns to race up and down the tree and to go underwater for mangoes. He finds a tin bath to scavenge with. Then he hears a dog bark. Lala has a story of her own which she tells. Every sniff for her produces a story that she gleans from every smell, especially poo. She has a quest. So does Jehan. He must find his little brother who slipped from his grasp as the charpai was swept away. And why don’t his parents come?
I drew story boards too, probably not ‘proper’ story boards that picture book writers use, or author Carol Wilkinson does as she plans, but more like a story map. Showing the events that could happen. I use mind maps for this as well in the beginning. I tend to use the story maps once the story starts rolling to see if the events are causing other events to happen.
Many things change once I rewrite drafts. The story becomes deeper, I think of more details to add. I try to find the inconsistencies, like Jehan can’t say this he doesn’t know it. Or Lala’s chapter can’t go here, the reader hasn’t discovered that yet; it will give the secret away. Now the relationship between boy and dog is deepening. The secrets are thickening. There will be surprises I hope. I’ll submit it soon.