Guest blog by Sue Whiting on writing her latest middle grade novel, Missing.
Why are you doing this to yourself? Why write such a sad story? Why set it in a country you know nothing about? Have you taken leave of your senses?
These questions and more plagued me during the two and half years it took me to write Missing, my contemporary middle grade novel for readers 10+. But there was something about Mackenzie da Luca’s tale that I couldn’t let go of. I simply had to find a way to tell it.
The first tiny seed of inspiration came when researching “missing persons” for my YA novel Portraits of Celina. The tragic discovery that each year in Australia around 38 000 people are reported missing totally threw me. And even though a large percentage are found within a week or so, about 1600 people are considered long-term missing, which is just plain gobsmacking. Search the Internet and you’ll find scores of tales and all are absolutely heartbreaking.
Those troubling statistics and the stories behind them haunted me. But was I brave enough to write about this? Writing about such a tragically sad circumstance for the middle grade comes with many challenges. It involves many complex emotions and much of the “drama” is played out in the adult world, not the world of the thirteen-year-old girl whom I wanted to write about. But kids are involved when family members go missing. They are affected. Embroiled in the same grief and sad realities as the adults around them. So I set out to explore this and to nut out a way to tell a story that, while inherently sad, was also relatable, suspenseful and page turning. And, yes, it was challenging!
I started researching and collecting ideas in April 2015. It was Easter and I ended up with five days R&R in Brighton in the UK, on my way back from the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna. It was here, alone in my tiny hotel room, with the gulls circling outside my window, and a thick fog rolling across the sea and swallowing up the iconic pier and boardwalk, that I searched the world (via the Internet) for where my mother character would go missing and decided upon Boquete, Panama. So while I took in the tourist sites of Brighton, ate fish and chips, and walked along the shingle beach with the chill biting my cheeks, my mind was in the heat of Central America, trekking through jungles and worrying about snakes and leeches and big cats. (Writers are a weird lot.)
I continued to research the book for probably close to a year. And I did wonder at times of the wisdom of setting a large chunk of the novel in a country I knew little about and had never visited. I took solace in the fact that the story was being told through the first person narration of a traumatised and confused thirteen-year-old girl. When depicting Boquete through this foggy lens, I realised that while I wanted the town’s depiction to feel authentic, it was always going to be a little skewed because of Mackenzie’s state of mind, lack of experience and her youth.
The Internet was key in helping me bring Boquete to life. Boquete is a tourist town with a large expat community – many who are keen bloggers and who provided wonderful glimpses into the way the town worked. But the best break came when I discovered that Boquete’s local council had CCTV cameras in the main square that provided 24-hour live feed on the Internet! I spent many long voyeuristic hours watching the comings and goings across the square day and night. It felt creepy and stalkerish, but too good an opportunity to pass up because of squeamishness. (I was actually blocked from the site for a while – too much strange activity from across the globe perhaps?)
The other really lucky break was making contact with Dianne Heidke, the sister of Australian author Lisa Heidke, who has lived in Boquete for more than ten years. We started a terrific email exchange where I was able to ask all the questions that only a local would know the answers to. She also kindly checked the final manuscript for me.
There is no denying that Missing was a tough story to write and a sad one to read, but I believe it is also an important one. Because it is as much a story about resilience and human endurance as it is about grief and loss. And it’s a story to remind us of the human faces and personal tragedies behind the statistics.
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