Having her father away in Vietnam wasn't easy for Bets, but she soon discovers having him back home comes with its own set of problems. When a letter from her friend Emmie arrives along with a ticket to the Woodstock Music Festival, Bets has a tough decision to make. Should she stick it out back home or leave her problems behind for a cross-country adventure? There's a lot happening in 1969, and figuring it all out is complicated. The people Bets encounters all have their own perspectives, each changing the way Bets thinks about the war in Vietnam, the problems America is dealing with, and her own problems at home.
When I work with students, I like to use this passage as an example of why, as a writer, you need to know your audience. I ask students, "How many of you know how to drive?" If I'm in a middle school, there are usually one of two kids who jokingly raise their hands. In a high school, many more hands go up, but then quickly go back down when I ask a follow-up question. "How many drive a car with a manual shift?" I knew when writing this chapter that I would be describing something that most of my readers had no experience with. I wanted to convey the complexity of working the gas and clutch pedals in unison and the feeling a driver has when you get it just right... or totally wrong. I wanted to put them right in the driver’s seat with Bets, so they could feel her frustration and anxiety. At the same time, I needed to make sure this chapter didn’t end up sounding like a driving instruction manual. Mixing in some calming dialog with Emmie, and Bets’s ever-present inner monologue is enough to keep the story moving and make this scene a lot of fun.
Miss E. doesn't really have a villain. Bets was struggling with her father being away, issues at school, and her feelings, but no antagonist. So I decided early on that Cross Country would have a villain, a bad guy, someone readers would love to hate. But I had to be careful. Bets is leaving on a cross-country trip with Seth and he turns out to be a really horrible person. Since this is YA lit and a lot of readers would be Bets's age, I wanted to be sure I wasn't sending the wrong message. Getting in a car with Seth (or anyone you didn't know) would be a bad idea under any circumstances, and I needed to make sure the reader understood that. Bets needs to go on this trip or there's no story, but I wanted the reader to know from the start that she was making a very bad choice. So Seth is rude and creepy and horrible from the second he enters the scene. It's a lot like a scary movie. We're sitting there watching and saying silently to the character on the screen, "Don't go in there. No, don't open that door. Don't go into that dark house." But they go in anyway... that makes for a pretty good story.
Being the new kid in town is a way of life for Bets, but moving to California in 1967 is different. Her father leaves for the war in Vietnam, her history teacher gives an assignment that has the whole school searching for clues, and the town’s most mysterious resident shares a secret with Bets that has been hidden away for decades. When a peaceful protest spins out of control, Bets is forced to reconsider how she feels about the war her father is fighting and her own role in events taking place much closer to home.
Like most high school students, music is important for Bets and her friends. Their teacher has other reasons for taking the class on a field trip to San Francisco, but for Bets in 1967, the trip is all about the chance to catch a glimpse of some of her favorite singers. They drive right through the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, where people like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and Jerry Garcia were not only performing, they were living and hanging out. Music was an important part of writing Miss E. as well. When I found myself humming the melody to "San Francisco" or quietly singing the words to "Long Time Gone," I knew it was time to write! Working with a story that takes place in San Francisco of the 60's, it was the perfect way to put myself in that time and place. And my earbuds were in my ears before my fingers ever touched the keyboard, playing a selection of music that Bets and her friends would certainly enjoy.
Ending up in the spotlight is a theme that pops up throughout Miss E. Like many high school students, Bets would rather make it through her days at school without attracting too much attention to herself. Early on in the book, she's glad her time in the spotlight doesn't last very long, but as her character evolves, Bets eventually turns the spotlight on herself and takes advantage of the attention she gets to start shaking things up in her small town.
As a former English teacher who always tried to find creative ways to teach research skills, I enjoyed imagining Mr. Flynn's students working on his assignment. And in this age of Google and smart phones and information at our fingertips, it was fun to consider how their research methods in 1967 would be different from ours today. Bets and her friends head to the bibliography section of the library and sift through their parents' old magazines. We might have flashier research methods today, but Mr. Flynn's assignment remains just as challenging - identifying someone by only their picture, and somehow summarizing their importance in only twenty words. One teacher remarked after reading this chapter, "I'm totally stealing this assignment and doing it with my class!"
Bets discovers a lot about herself through her friendship with Miss E. She finds opinions she didn't know she had and learns to consider different sides of issues that she thought were black and white. But in this chapter, Bets gets an entirely new prescriptive - literally - by putting her trust in Miss E. and taking to the air.
I think everyone has a favorite teacher who they will always remember. That one teacher who turns a boring subject into something interesting and makes you wonder what's going to happen in class each day. The sort of teacher who makes you think and who often leaves you with more questions than you had before you came to class. For Bets, Mr. Flynn is that teacher. He answers questions with more questions and challenges his students to find their own answers while they learn something about themselves in the process. Most important, he shares who he is with his students. From his anti-war poster to his raised peace sign, Mr. Flynn's students know him, not just as a teacher, but as a person. I secretly hope I was just a little bit like Mr. Flynn when I was a teacher.
As Bets settles into her new home, Miss E. is a puzzle for her to solve. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why is she so interested in Bets? Once Bets discovers the answers, she realizes the questions she had about Miss E. don't really matter. The important questions - the ones she really needs answers to - are the questions she has about herself.
Miss E's red pickup truck finds its way into many scenes. This is it's first appearance and Bets' first encounter with Miss E. The town and Miss E. exist at a distance from each other, not talking or interacting. In writing this scene, I wanted Bets to be drawn in from the start, so that while her friends choose to ignore or gossip about Miss E, Bets immediately feels a connection to this strange old woman.
Most of Miss E. was written sequentially, one chapter after another. Sometimes my motivation for writing a chapter was to find out what happened next, and I was often pleasantly surprised by the turns the story took and the events that unfolded themselves around the characters. But this excerpt comes from a chapter that I skipped ahead to write. I had replayed it many times in my mind, I knew is was an essential part of Bets' story, and I was excited to write it. But I admit, I also used it as a way to take a break from a section I was struggling with. Once it was written, it became a goal to work toward, and each time a wrote I could feel the story winding its way closer to Bets standing on the steps of City Hall, watching things catch fire.
People say, "Write what you know." I'm not sure how that applies to me writing about a teen-age girl growing up in a military family in California during the 1960's. I was born in 1972, I've always lived on the east coast, and my father was a carpenter, not a soldier. While I might think that having a daughter would give me some insight into the teen-age mind, she would likely argue that I'm hopelessly clueless. But I had fun getting to know Bets as I wrote her story, and whether you're a parent or child, daughter or father, this scene is universal. We can all understand what it feels like to say goodbye.
This is the first page of Miss E. so it seems like a good place to remember my first ideas for this book. Driving home on a Friday afternoon, looking forward to the weekend, letting my mind wander, and an idea drifted into my head. I turned off the radio, afraid of losing the thought! A young girl moves to a new place and meets an extraordinary person, someone no one in her small town seems to know much about. And who that woman is... well, the idea gave me goosebumps, and I nearly had to pull over to the side of the road. I didn't start writing that day, but the idea stuck with me, and over the next month my thoughts kept coming back to the girl, the small town, and the mysterious woman,.
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