“Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground . . . part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”   On Writing, by Stephen King

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY by Author Elle Thornton

I believe twelve-year-old Gabriella, the African-American Marine Hawkins, and the murdered youth Emmett Till were all “part of an undiscovered pre-existing world” waiting to be found beside a tidal river. It took a while before they would emerge fully from the shimmer of summer heat enfolding them. But each day as I wrote, who they were and their story became a little more clear.

This process included its share of unpromising starts. For example, at first I wanted Gabriella to be a bold, contemporary young person, and I thought Hawkins ought to be an angry man. These experiments failed, though, and after wearing myself out and using up a lot of paper, I stopped trying to force them to fit my idea of how they should be.

Instead, I began to listen to them. In this way I learned what was on their minds. Even more important, I learned what was in their hearts. And when I’d come to know Gabriella and Hawkins as deeply as my emotions would go, at that point the dialogue between them came to life, and I saw them fully: Hawkins, tall and proud, had just cast his fishing line into the water at the tidal river. Gabriella was looking up into his scarred face, the wind in her hair.

I had no idea what would happen to Gabriella and Hawkins, except I knew it would involve friendship, longing, love, and loss.

After Gabriella and Hawkins, Emmett came to me. This happened when a student of mine from Chicago mentioned Emmett and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. I knew I needed to learn everything I could about him because I knew next to nothing. I read books and articles from newspapers and magazines. In each, and rightly so, there was the horror of his savage slaying and the terrible injustice that followed. But as I wrote of him, over time I began to feel that Emmett was alive, that he knew of Gabriella and Hawkins, and that he wanted to be with them. He wanted friends as much as Gabriella did. All three of them loved the beautiful tidal river.

I took it slow, finding my way to them. They graciously let me into their hearts for a little while. But they are spirits and have since gone back to that pre-existing world Stephen King wrote about. I like to think, though, that I left them whole as possible.

With an ache in my heart, I think about Gabriella, Emmett and Hawkins every day. And every day I think of the gift they each gave me: learning to listen with my heart.

A big thank you to Elle Thornton for contributing this article about her thought process in writing “The Girl Who Swam to Atlantis” – a great read and truly delightful first novel. Listed as YA but suitable for all readers.


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  1. Melanie July 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    I loved Swimming to Atlantis by Elle Thornton. Her story affected me deeply. Her heroine could be any American girl who is struggling to know herself, love her family and understand the world around her.

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