The Big Idea: A.R. Rotruck
Do you remember what you were like when you were a kid? You think you do, of course, but do you really? After all, it’s been a while for most of us. For author A.R. Rotruck, the question had relevance: in creating her new book, Young Wizard’s Handbook, she was aiming to inform and entertain an audience of young people, so making that connection to her younger self seem to be a good way to proceed. Did she raise her younger spirit? And how did the younger self guide her? Let’s find out.
One piece of writing advice I’ve heard is that you should write a book that YOU would want to read. When I was working on Young Wizards Handbook: How to Trap a Zombie, Track a Vampire, and Other Hands-On Activities for Monster Hunters, I decided to write the book that a ten-year-old me would not only want to read, but would treasure as my favorite book. That became my focus, or “big idea,” when working on the book: what would the ten-year-old me and kids like her want to read?
When she wasn’t reading, the ten-year-old me (we’ll call her “Tamie”) spent a lot of time playing in the woods and making crafts. For all the books she read, she never found one that would help with this particular hobby. Most of Tamie’s ramblings involved imagining various fantasy scenarios; grand quests and adventures. Tamie made a burlap sack to carry into the woods because it seemed like something the fantasy version of Tamie (maybe call her Fatamie? No, that’s getting a bit ridiculous.) would carry. It was bulky and scratchy, but it also, to Tamie’s ten-year-old brain, seemed authentic. Tamie would cobble together bits and pieces of crafts from books on Native American and colonial/pioneer folk art. Tamily only had one children’s book in this genre; the rest of the crafts were far too advanced for a ten-year-old. With Young Wizards Handbook, I wanted to write a book for the children like Tamie: fantasy fans who want to make things to help their imagination come alive with physical tools.
I envisioned Young Wizards Handbook as a scouting guide for the fantasy world. What would a young wizard interested in monster-hunting need to know? What activities would prepare a wizard-in-training for a career in monster-hunting? I researched scouting guides and modeled many of the activities in YWH after them and even got a few ideas from some guides. The monster-hunting pack came from a line in my old Girl Scout manual that “you can make a backpack out of old jeans.” No instructions were provided, so I developed my own. Tamie would have really liked that one, as denim is a lot less scratchy than burlap and a backpack is easier to carry than a sack.
I wanted all the activities in the book to be something that a child in our world could either create or play with to help bring the imagination alive. Games, crafts, recipes: all of it had to be things that a child could do. All materials had to be readily available and, if possible, inexpensive. This created some challenges, such as how to explain something that is typically not found in a fantasy world, like aluminum foil, that is an easy to find and easy to use craft material in our world. I knew that Tamie would not like finding aluminum foil mentioned in a fantasy book, so I HAD to invent something that would make it palatable to fantasy sticklers like Tamie. The challenges gave rise to some really fun ideas to write, such as how the great wizard Alum Foilbach created a spell for “thin metal.”
While there are plenty of things for kids to do in Young Wizards Handbook, the activities are only about half of the book. This book was to also be a field guide to monsters. As I was writing the book for Mirrorstone, I had to make the information I provided about monsters concur with other Mirrorstone books, such as Practical Guide to Monsters and even the Wizards of the Coast Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manuals. I noticed that a lot of scouting guides use recurring symbols and bits of information, so I came up with the “Sight, smell, and sound” identifiers for each monster. That was a fun mix of both imagination and researching the monsters as, while most of the monster books would be fairly detailed about what a monster looked like, they didn’t always mention sounds and description of odors were very rare. I didn’t just want this to be a book of activities that one could use when pretending; I wanted the book itself to conceivably be a tool that Tamie would take to the woods and consult when pretending to hunt monsters.
Other information I thought wizards hunting monsters would need was basic survival skills. Tamie loved camping so I added basic survival information that works in pretty much any world, such as how to construct a quick tent. One part of the book that I admit is lacking as a scouting guide is the section on “how to keep warm.” Normally, that section would have instructions on how to construct a fire. However, as this book is intended for kids just out having fun for an afternoon, likely without adult supervision, I opted NOT to include instructions on how to make fire and instead encouraged wizards to use a “warming spell” (and thus encourage kids to use their imaginations).
When the book was finished and I had a chance to see the final copy, I fell in love with it. If I ever get a time machine, I’m traveling back in time to give this to Tamie so she can make a monster-hunting pack instead of carrying a rough burlap sack, dry some fruit to take on her adventures, and construct a lantern to keep away the monsters when it’s time to sleep.