A few years ago I sat down to start a piece of writing. It was a grey and dreary December here in Hertfordshire, England, so the view outside the window didn’t offer much in the way of inspiration. I sat at my desk for ages, the computer in front of me, and behind it I could see the neat little row of brick front houses and tiny, immaculate front gardens through the window. The trees were bare and brown, the colors missing. The idea of different seasons still threw me in spite of the years I’d lived in this country. I come from another part of the earth where the world stayed the same all year round, the months varying only by rainfall rather than temperature.
So I sat there not making much progress, but then I shut my mind from the view in front of me and went to a world of my longing. A world where the sun shone bright and the trees were a riot of different greens. As I wrote I added more and more details that took me from the reality in front of me. To another time and place. A stone-built mountain-top royal palace, with chattering monkeys in the trees and elephants on the lawn. A view of little villages nestled among lush greenery and strips of silver rivers, all bordering a verdant rainforest filled with jungle creatures. I wrote about a daring girl-thief, who steals the queen’s jewels during a feast at the palace and flees through the gardens from the guards, dodging swaying elephants and twirling dancers. And so began The Girl Who Stole an Elephant.
I wrote the first chapter in one go. When I finished I read through it and realized something: The place that I was describing was a real location that I knew. It was an ancient mountain citadel, now a ruin, in a place called Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is my home country, where I was born and raised, and which I’d moved away from ten years before writing this book. So in my moment of desperately seeking inspiration, my muse had taken me to the warm climes of my childhood.
Once I’d pinned down the location of my setting, the story flowed fairly smoothly after that. I knew early on that many readers wouldn’t be familiar with this part of the world, so I made it my mission to describe the landscape in as much sensory detail as I could. Mine was a fictional version of Sri Lanka of old, but still unmistakably Sri Lanka it was. I wanted my readers to feel the blistering sun on them, smell the leafy earth of the jungle and taste the tropical fruit. One of my most valued reviews ever came from a ten-year-old who said that this book made her feel curious to eat different fruits. I knew then that at least one little reader was so fully immersed in this world to the point that she wanted to taste for herself the fruit that Chaya and her friends ate.
I considered two main things in every part of the story as I wrote: have I described this place, and what’s the worst thing that could happen here?
This way I tried to ensure that every scene could be visualized by the reader, and something happened there to keep up the pace. In the first chapter, the setting was the compound of a royal palace and I imagined the worst thing to happen there would be the protagonist being pursued by guards for something she’d done. Similarly, the children get lost in the deep jungle, and the worst thing that could happen there was that they’d come upon a leopard. They later encounter a waterfall in running away from the guards, and at that point I thought the worst that could happen was that they’d be completely hemmed in and have no choice but to jump down the waterfall. This way I kept those two strands going—description and action. Some readers have told me that the setting has a strong presence in the story, and I can only imagine that it’s through this.
This is a useful writing exercise I’ve tried at school visits as well. I’ve given the children a picture of a setting and asked them to come up with their own story in it. I tell them to describe the setting, as their readers won’t be seeing the picture, and think of the worst thing that could happen to a character in that place. I’ve seen some brilliant stories with genuine peril and rich description through that. It’s such a simple and effective technique that I’ve carried it forward to other things I’ve written since The Girl Who Stole an Elephant.
As I write something new now, I’m still at the same desk but overlooking a much sunnier scene. The little front gardens of the houses opposite are bursting with the colors of spring flowers, and there are squares of bright green lawns everywhere. But the lure of my tropical world still holds strong, and another big animal awaits me in my imagination.
Nizrana Farook is the author of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant from Peachtree Publishing. She was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the beautiful landscapes of her home country somehow find their way into the stories she writes. She graduated from Bath Spa University with an MA in Writing for Young People, and lives with her family in England. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @NizRite, and visit her website at www.nizranafarook.com.
This giveaway is for a copy of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant. Many thanks to Peachtree Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 28th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 4th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – FAROOK. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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Congratulations to Margaret Simon whose commenter number was selected for the giveaway.