The Big Idea: Matthew J. Kirby
When in doubt, simplify. This is a piece of advice that has general application but particularly works for writers, who can get lost in the thickets of their own words and ideas. Just ask Matthew J. Kirby, whose middle-grade novel The Clockwork Three (which just received a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly) has it roots in a series of ideas, but which came to life when Kirby realized that the gears of his story meshed together on a more fundamental level. Kirby puts it all together below.
MATTHEW J. KIRBY:
Before I began writing The Clockwork Three, I thought I had three big ideas. I thought I had three separate books for young readers, stories that had nothing at all to do with each other.
First, there was the story of an Italian street musician. His name was Giuseppe, and he was inspired by a real boy the New York Times of 1873 named “Joseph.” During the 19th century it was a fairly common practice to buy or kidnap children from Italy and ship them off to Paris, London, or New York City, where they were forced to play music and beg on the streets for money. Many of these children endured years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their padroni, or masters. According to his later testimony, Joseph was regularly beaten, bound, starved, and he had a scar on his ear where his padrone, a man named Vincenzo Motto, had bitten him. Motto threatened to kill Joseph if the boy ever tried to escape, but one night Joseph did just that. He fled into Central Park, where he was eventually found by a park-keeper and taken to a woman who ran one of the cottages in the park (a building now known as the Dairy). This woman looked after Joseph, and he eventually took the stand to testify against the man who had held him captive. After reading this story, I knew I wanted to tell it in some way.
For my second big idea, I wanted to tell a mystery story, a secret history for young readers. I knew it would involve a colorful Madame Blavatsky type figure, and Spiritualism, and something hidden. I had an idea of the setting in which the story would take place, a grand 19th century hotel, and I knew the main character would be a young maid working in that hotel.
My third idea was for a science-fantasy in which an apprentice mechanician violates the edicts of his guild and attempts to create an artificial man. Looking back, I know I was overly ambitious, but in my hubris, I wanted to write a Viriconium for middle grade readers, something that would cause them to wonder and think about the technology they are growing up with and taking for granted. It’s an idea I may still return to if I ever feel able to take on something so large, which won’t be anytime soon.
So I had these three big ideas, and I was pursuing them all as independent stories. But at some point, I realized I didn’t have three big ideas. I had one big idea for a story that would bring all three characters and stories together. The stories of Giuseppe and the maid in the hotel fit naturally in terms of setting. The story of the ambitious mechanician went through the greatest changes, but he soon became an apprentice clockmaker, and the automaton he creates, with the help of the other two characters, became the central metaphor of the novel.
I know it was the right choice to bring them together. As soon as I began writing, it was as if the characters had wanted to meet and help each other all along. And as complicated as the plot is, I was able to write the majority of the book without an outline. Everything simply fit, page after page, scene after scene. The stories of Giuseppe, Frederick, and Hannah interlocked, like the turning gears of a clock, and they became The Clockwork Three.