I’ve written quite a few series in my career as a writer. Some focus on a group of kids, in a school setting, where each book stars a different character from the class. So my Franklin School Friends series celebrates each friend in turn: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star; and so forth. But other series have the same protagonist featured in book after book. My Nora Notebooks series – The Trouble with Ants, The Trouble with Babies, and The Trouble with Friends – features budding scientist Nora Alpers in each title.
For me, this second kind of series is the hardest to write. My challenge is to have the main character grow and change in each book, as a main character should – but not too much. If she loses too many of the flaws and foibles that made her distinctive as a character, she won’t feel enough like the same person as she moves on to new adventures in each sequel. In each succeeding book, I want my main character to be different (building on her growth in the previous books), but the same (endearing in the same ways to readers who have come to care about her). But it’s never easy to figure out how to do this.
I particularly struggled with the brand-new, third and final, Nora book, The Trouble with Friends. The first book introduces Nora as a young myrmecologist (ant scientist), who is trying to beat the Guinness world record for youngest person ever to publish an article in a peer-reviewed science journal, and also convince her ant-loathing classmates to love the tiny creatures who are so dear to her. The chief ant-loather is classmate Emma Averill, who dotes on her cat, Precious Cupcake, and squeals with horror at the ant farm Nora brings to school. So I knew that in the second book, Nora would need to get stuck with Emma as her partner for the schoolwide science fair. Book three would bring the differences between the two girls to a crisis point, and then to a resolution.
Alas, when my editor read the manuscript of book three, she pointed out one big problem. By the end of book two, hadn’t Nora and Emma already made their peace with each other? Hadn’t they surprised themselves by having their collaborative project carry off a prize at the science fair? Hadn’t they already come to realize that their differences could be complementary, rather than conflicting?
There went the plot I had planned for book three. How on earth would Nora grow and change in this book, how would her friendship with Emma develop further, without denying the ways she had already grown and changed in the previous two?
After a few weeks of despair, I finally had my break-through. Nora, who so prides herself on being an evidence-based scientist, would totally misread Emma’s invitation to their first sleepover. Because their fourth-grade teacher, Coach Joe, has given the class an assignment to do something completely new over the course of the next few weeks (new sport, new musical instrument, new food, new friend), Nora jumps to the unscientific and mistaken conclusion that Emma’s new project is . . . her. And who wants to be someone else’s project?
In the course of writing the book, I also gave the kids a new class garden and a new poetry-writing unit in language arts. I love writing poetry, and especially love writing poetry in the voices of a group of kids, where each poem expresses the poet’s personality with all its humorous quirks. So I had tons of fun writing haiku “by” each kid in Coach Joe’s class, as well as ant-themed poems in many forms from Nora (whose love of ants continues in each book – some things never change).
I also had the pleasure of taking a scene I had witnessed in my own real life and inserting it, suitably altered, into this story. I enjoy writing in all kinds of places – friends’ houses, bookstores, buses, trains, planes, cafes. One day I was scribbling away at a table in a café near my home in Boulder, Colorado, when in trooped a group of fifth graders, attired in tie-dyed 60s T-shirts or Parisian berets. Their teacher told me that they were having a class trip to sit and write poetry in a café, while sipping (or rather, gulping) cups of chocolat and nibbling (or rather, gobbling) croissants. I knew I had to put this scene into a book someday.
So I did that here: my reward to myself for finally figuring out how to make this third Nora story the same but different, in, I hope, just the right way.
Love this peek into your, to me, seemingly effortless process. And how much do I love Precious Cupcake? I may steal that cat's name for one of my own cats one day, if I ever get a cat that isn't a scavenger/raccoon/Lab in disguise and actually is a precious cupcake of a cat.
Congrats on this book! Love Nora and you (and Elizabeth!), but, Lord, I don't know how you write in that position. I have a crick in my neck just looking at that photo!
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