Friday, April 22, 2011

Writing Middle Grade - Tapping into Childhood Fears of a Shoe Wolf. EEK!

Imagine a partly open closet door in a dark room and a child huddled under the covers watching that door to see if it creaks open. In the shadows it’s hard to tell if it has moved a fraction. Is there a soft noise from inside? Who or what could be in there? Monsters? Ghosts? Aliens? How about a furry shoe, a living wolf shoe from some twist on Little Red Riding Hood? That was what kept me awake at night, that and the belief there was always a gorilla outside my window as soon as it got dark.

Now I was a fairly smart kid and I knew wolves couldn’t be transformed into shoes. I also knew gorillas didn’t roam free in my small Iowa town, but that didn’t stop me from the horrors of imagination. On nights when my imagination raced out of control, I feared the gorilla was actually in my room under my bed. I also knew as soon as I stretched my legs out, it would reach out from the end and grab me, so I would lay there all scrunched up, determined to thwart the creature one more night.

I have no idea where these fears came from, except my mother did have a lot of shoes, but no furry ones beyond a pair of faux cheetah pelt high heels. (Note-I am not my mother’s daughter. I will never own faux cheetah pelt high heels.)As an adult, I have the whole array of normal adult fears of worrying about loved ones and illnesses and finances, but nothing as heart-pounding as those irrational childhood terrors.

Good thing the memories of those are there though, because writing for middle grade means bringing up as many memories as you can, not for the specific incidents, but for the feelings that came with them. In my books, I’ve never been trapped by a forest fire like the President’s son in Wildfire Run or caught in a blizzard like the actors in Wolf Storm, but I can call up the fear of disaster looming over them by remembering how I felt in less life-threatening disasters of my own.

So I’m curious, what fears or memories could you or do you use for writing? And how do you call them up? If I want to remember mine, I absolutely have to be away from people, away from all the chores of everyday life and away from the internet, as much as I love it. Sometimes I even do something I’m afraid of now to bring back the memories of those sorts of fear. After my children were born, I developed a fear of heights, so if I want to call up terror, I go out on a high place and look down. That does it. I’m also afraid of giant squid, though that’s a little harder to experience them first hand. With those giant creepy eyes they have, I don’t even have to run into a squid to get into that fear. It’s heart-pounding just to think about them.

Here’s your chance to confess and to help other writers realize the weird range of kid fear. Spill your childhood terrors!

~ Dee Garretson


  1. Spiders are a reoccurring nightmare in my life.

    As a kid, I feared having my name on the board. The ultimate punishment. My first time: first grade. And then I got a checkmark for trying to defend myself. Swine teacher. I lived with the fear till Jr High.

    And then in Jr High a girl made fun of me because my white socks were not matchers with my outfit. After that I had to have color matching socks till the end of HS. My poor mother.

  2. Great post. For me, one of the fears I had as a child wasn't a traditional fear, like spiders, or monsters, or anything like that. No, I was afraid that when I went to sleep I was going to miss something special, so I'd stay up as long as I could to make sure I didn't miss anything. I think this came about because I was the youngest of three boys and my bedtime was the earliest. I remember being in my bed at night while my brothers would be laughing up a storm somewhere else and I'd think, "Why do I have to miss all the good stuff?" And yes, I have used this in my writing.

  3. As a kid, I was horribly afraid of vampires while in bed. Finally, my mom (poor woman was probably exhausted...I am the youngest of five crazies) told me vampires couldn't get me if my neck was covered. I slept with a sheet on my neck until I was like 25.

  4. These are all so great, and nothing I would have thought of! Anita, very clever of your mom.

  5. For some reason, I dreamed a lot about falling into water when I was a kid. And sharks, lol. I wonder what a dream-interpreter would say about this :)

  6. Great article. Ghosts and partly opened dark closets scared me to death as a kid. Heck, this article scared me to death. Good job and great advice.

  7. When I was a little girl I was so afraid of volcanoes and earthquakes. I completely blame the media coverage of Mt. St. Helens and watching a movie about the Great San Fran Earthquake for this one. I can still picture this image of the road splitting into a giant crack. Terrifying!

    Later on, I have this memory of lying awake late one night hearing a mosquito buzz in my room and worrying about getting AIDS from a mosquito bite. This was the late 80's when that nonsense was going around, and I'm sure I had read some article in the ladies' magazines at my mom's hair dresser.

    All of this has made me more compassionate of my little ones - my oldest went through a period of being absolutely terrified of balloons for unknown reasons, and a good friend's little boy was so, so afraid of cows. Fear is such a powerful emotion. I think the trick is to tap into that without creating new fears for kids to have to overcome - so they can have that delicious sensation of being scared while they're reading without staying up all night worrying.

    And those shoes are scary.

  8. I was terrified of Frankenstein when I was a kid. My mom (who was a nurse) assured me that it was impossible to reconnect all the nerve endings in a severed brain to a cerebral cortex, and that made me feel a little better. :)

  9. I had a cupboard in my room that the door was always ajar. It didn't matter how many times I closed it, it would always pop open. That little slit of darkness freaked the crap out of me. My eyes would play tricks on me and I would swear I'd see it widen. A pretty typical fear for a kid I guess, but it was definitely a biggie for me!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!