The Big Idea: Sharon Short
Sharon Short made a name for herself as an author of mystery novels — but sometimes an idea comes to you from outside the usual places. In the case of her mainstream novel My One Square Inch of Alaska, that idea came from the northern wilderness… and the 1950s… and a cereal box. Here she is to explain how all three came together.
At a book club gathering, one of the women asked if anyone remembered the deeds to one square inch of Alaska that used to come in cereal boxes in the 1950s. (The question wasn’t related to the book we were discussing.) The 1950s were before I was born, but I was immediately taken with this compelling concept… the desire for a deed to one tiny bit of land in a vast frontier, and what that could symbolize. Almost immediately, the shadowy image of a young woman and her little brother (Donna and Will), standing together and holding hands, appeared in my imagination. I couldn’t ‘see’ them yet in sharp detail, but I could ‘feel’ them saying, “tell our story.” I had no idea what their story would or should be, but by the time I returned home, I’d written in my head one of the closing scenes, which narrated itself in what would become Donna’s first person voice.
Frankly, it took a while for me to firmly grasp “the big idea” that’s the driving force in my first mainstream novel, My One Square Inch of Alaska.
First, I had my doubts about an entire novel kicked off with the concept of a kid longing to get a square inch deed in a cereal promotion. (In real life, the promotion was for a deed to one square inch of the Yukon Territory, but interestingly, everyone remembers the promotion as being to Alaska, which I think says something about what Alaska represents in the collective imagination, so I went with the way the promotion was remembered. Besides, “My One Square Inch of Yukon Territory” doesn’t quite flow off the tongue.)
Yet, the story wouldn’t let go of my imagination. So I kept plowing along, writing draft after draft, trying to figure out just who Donna and Will were. And why their story was important. And why I had to tell it.
For a while, I thought the novel might be suitable for a Young Adult audience, since Donna is 17/18 in most of the novel. I’d written a draft of the opening chapters that was good enough to win a local literary arts grant, and I invested that money in going to a conference that focused on writing for children and young adult readers. That conference happened to be in New York City… and coincided with the big snow storm of January 2011.
My flight was cancelled. So, I tossed my luggage in my trunk and started driving east. On the drive out (10 hours of boredom followed by 30 minutes of sheer terror), I thought, hey, look at me! I’m off to get advice on this YA novel I’m writing.
But at the conference, an editor (not mine!) told me that YA fiction set in early to mid-20th century America never, ever sells. (That afternoon, it was announced that a wonderful novel set in the late 1930s Midwest America won the Newbery Award.) On the other hand, that same editor told me that she thought my novel’s concept and theme were better suited to an adult audience, with crossover appeal to older teens—if I’d think more carefully about my protagonist’s story goal.
On my drive home–30 minutes of sheer terror followed by 10 hours of… well, not boredom, because I realized that on this point she was right. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, I pulled off the highway to a rest stop and re-thought my novel, then went home and revised (again), feeling much more on track when I finally realized I was writing an adult mainstream historical novel.
But… I still hadn’t quite tuned into The Big Idea of my novel. Then I started writing what I thought was the opening to Chapter 18, with Donna (a wanna-be fashion designer) describing how she’d discovered her mama’s suitcases full of costumes and beautiful clothes. And suddenly, I realized I’d actually just written the opening lines to my novel. (Fortunately, I didn’t have to toss out Chapters 1-17… just revise… yet again.)
I’d also discovered my novel’s Big Idea. Not about suitcases and clothes and mamas… but about dreams. About the power of embracing, believing in and following one’s dreams…. even if the odds are long or everyone else is saying ‘you can’t do this!’ And about the danger of ignoring those dreams.
And I realized that’s what Will’s quest for one tiny square inch in all the vast Alaskan Territory represents: the life-affirming importance of embracing one’s dreams, even surrounded by the vastness of the challenges life can offer. Will himself represents the wonderfully innocent belief of the very young in chasing dreams simply for the joy of the chase. Donna represents the journey from not believing in one’s dreams to embracing them. Other teen characters find themselves under pressure to ignore exploring their own dreams in order to follow others’ expectations, while many of the adult characters have denied their dreams or followed a dream that’s really an illusion. Two of my favorite adult characters, though, are the exceptions to this; they understand and embrace their dreams, and encourage Donna and Will in theirs.
I’ve always believed in following one’s dreams and working hard to achieve them, balancing that belief with realism. (For example, it’s a good thing that being a world class diver wasn’t my dream; I’m terrified of heights and deep water.) But I think this novel was important for me to write to reaffirm my own writing dreams, as well as to find the courage to tell a story that, in a way, is very personal—Donna’s emotional coming-of-age journey tracks very closely with my own, although the details of her background are different than mine. Additionally, my children were transitioning from being teenagers to being young adults, so this also influenced my attraction to exploring the Big Idea of the impact of affirming (or denying) personal dreams.
I hope readers, whatever their dreams are, enjoy going along with Donna and Will on their journey in My One Square Inch of Alaska.