Authors & Illustrators
Marilyn Cram Donahue is the author of Straight Along a Crooked Road and its sequel The Valley in Between, as well as sixteen other books for children. She is also a regular school speaker and author-in-residence at writing retreats. She lives in Highland, California. Visit marilyncramdonahue.com.
When the Crickets Stopped Singing
A Conversation with Marilyn Cram Donahue
Q: How did you come up with the setting for When the Crickets Stopped Singing?
A: The settings for all of my books begin with an actual place. But the nice thing about being a writer is that I can change details to better support what happens in my story. For example, when I began to write Crickets, I took a big piece of paper and began to rough-sketch the town I grew up in. I am not an artist, but rough-sketching meant that I could recreate the streets, the sidewalks, the houses—and even some places on the edge of town, like the river and the cliffside where I actually played when I was a child.
I could choose what I thought was important to the book and leave out things that didn’t matter. In Crickets, I realized that two street names were a problem. In my home town, the business street was really named Palm Avenue because of all the beautiful palm trees that grew there. I changed the name to Main Street because that’s what most small town business streets are called. Then I let Angie live on Palm Avenue. The important thing to remember when you are creating a setting is to make sure it supports what happens to the characters in the story.
Q: Are there parts of Angie’s personality that are part of your personality, too?
A: Oh yes! Angie and I have a lot in common. We both love the beach, and I remember searching for moonstones, just as Angie did. There was a boy who helped me collect them, and I remember how happy I felt when he bought me some cotton candy. I also knew someone like Reba Lu, who always wanted to be the leader, and I remember how surprised I felt when I discovered that I could be a leader, too. And I loved the doctor in my small town, just as Angie loves Dr. Thomas.
Even though I have never testified at a trial, I have often been a juror and observed how people act when they pretend to be telling the truth. This helped me understand how Angie feels when she listens to Mr. Clement tell his lies. Then, when she takes the stand right after Mr. Clement testifies, I felt that I was sitting there with her, wanting to move away from the heat he leaves behind him in the chair. When I work on developing any of my characters, I always try to feel my way beneath the surface until I’m sure who they are. In Angie’s case, it was easy because I felt we were so much alike, and her actions didn’t surprise me.
Q: When did you realize you were a storyteller, and how does storytelling make you feel?
A: I come from a family of storytellers—people who were descended from pioneers and wanted to preserve the tales that were told around campfires on the journey westward. I can remember sitting around the table after dinner and listening to my grandparents talk about what happened to their parents in “the old days.” I still remember those exciting tales.
But I really started telling my own stories when I was in the second grade and so ill that I missed several months of school. An aunt gave me a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Lewis Stevenson, and I lay in bed reading about the land of counterpane. Before long, I was spreading my sheets and blankets into hills and valleys and filling them with miniature people and animals that my mother somehow found for me. Then, of course, the people and animals couldn’t just sit there. They needed to move around, to converse, to have adventures. So I made up stories for them, and they became my first attempt at character development!
When I start a new book, I am a little nervous at first, asking myself things like, “What makes you think you can write another book?” But, before long, I find myself completely involved in the story. I forget to water the lawn, or clean the house, or return telephone calls. And I keep a good supply of peanut butter in the house because one of my favorite sandwiches is peanut butter, mayonnaise, and lettuce with a glass of cold milk and some potato chips.
Q: How do you think Dodie’s story ends?
A: I have thought about this a lot, because I really don’t want her story to end in a hospital bed. She needs a chance to show what she’s made of. There is a glimmer of hope when Angie feels Dodie move her fingers. But a glimmer wouldn’t be enough for a character like Dodie. She is tough, and she is brave, but she is also sensitive in a way that few people beside Angie have seen. What if she opens her eyes? What if she begins the long process of recovery? What if she remembers . . . or doesn’t remember . . . everything that happened? What if her story isn’t finished? What if it is just beginning?
If I decide to write more about Dodie, I will have to do one thing first. I will have to listen for the sound of her voice. She will tell me how she feels and what she wants. Her voice comes first. Then, after I listen to her for a while, I will watch her and let her show me what comes next.
Q: Tell us about your writing process.
A: I sometimes create an outline if I am writing a nonfiction piece. But I never outline when I am writing fiction. For me, outlining is restrictive. I love to create a setting, drop a character or two into it, and watch what happens. The results, for me, have always been surprising and rewarding. This setting and these characters may have been meandering around in my mind for a while, but once they hit the paper, they become real for me. As soon as I begin to write, the setting expands and becomes the place where my characters will interact, grow, and change. They talk to each other, form friendships, or become enemies. I listen. I wait for the plot to grow. At this point, I try not to interfere. If something doesn’t work, I will fix it later. But in the beginning, I need this freedom—this letting the characters tell their own stories. Sometimes, a twist of plot will come as a complete surprise to me. This is when I know that I am on the right track.