When I was working on Kate and the Horses, I turned in my draft to my developmental editor and began to think of what I would write after that. I imagined I would write a book about a girl who loves musicals. I myself have loved musicals ever since I was a child. They were incredibly important to me. When I was a child, I was afraid to go to sleep. It seemed to me that, once you closed your eyes, death was there waiting for you. So I had a bedtime ritual. One of my parents would stretch out on the carpet outside my doorway and read. How could a force of evil sneak past my parents and books? I would also listen to musicals on my record player. Somehow I believed that nothing horrible could happen as long as I could hear singing. I imagined that the dancers could successfully vanquish any death demon's agenda.
For this next project, I watched musicals and took notes. Then I heard back from my developmental editor. She advised me to consider taking a mulligan on this draft. I thought about what she said and concluded she was right. So I put aside these notes and contacted a friend who worked at a stable and asked if I could volunteer there that summer. I worked around kids and horses and, when it came time to rewrite the book, I wondered, “Maybe the horses shouldn't talk. Maybe the horses should just be horses.”
Then I remembered Lili, a movie I had watched during my study period. It was a film that I originally saw as a child, something I've always loved, but that isn't really a musical. There are two dance sequences in it, but there is only one song, a great one, in my opinion, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.” It's a coming-of-age story, where a naive young woman comes to a village seeking work. Her father has recently died. She had been told that a friend of her father's, a local baker, would help her, but when she arrives in town, she learns that he has also passed away. She ends up at carnival, smitten with a magician, and working at a puppet show. In her act, she walks up to the booth and the puppets engage her in conversation. It is all spontaneous. Through this work, Lili is able to start making connections with people—the puppeteers, the audience, the carnival community. The puppets provide a way for Lili to grow up. At the close of the film, you see the puppets celebrating the happy ending. This last time I saw it, I had a critical voice come up, “Wait a minute! I know where the puppeteers are right now, and they're not behind this booth!” Then another thought shushed that one, “I do not care. I love these puppets. I'm happy to celebrate with them.” I thought of that film and went back to writing talking horses.
I told a friend about this decision and my process and she said, “Why is it so important to you that the horses talk?” I said, “Because as a child, I talked to animals. I listened to them. They comforted me. They taught me things.” And all of the above is still true. We live now with a trio of cats. We can bore you to tears with their photographs and tell you stories all about them and the cats that came before them. I often still prefer to hang out with animals than to engage with the rest of the world. I feel that they, along with musicals, have made me a better person and a better writer. And you never know where your research will take you!