This is What Keeps Me Awake At Night

Want to know the hardest thing about writing for kids? Coming up with fake curse words.

Let’s face it, most kids swear from time to time. You did it, I did it. It’s totally natural. It would be weird to write a kids’ story that didn’t have some kind of cursing. But to use an actual four letter word? Nah, I could never do that!

Instead, I come up with “fake” obscenities. Words that possess all the power and energy of real swear words, but that aren’t remotely offensive.

Coming up with a good fake curse is like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. You snatch it up and stuff it in your pocket, hoping no one else noticed your discovery.

Kara with the bubble gun

My neice Kara (above) is the master of the fake curse word. She gave me a couple of good ones last summer. BUTT KNUCKLE is my favourite. Don’t you just love the way that rolls off your tongue? Butt knuckle! There’s just something about those 3 syllables tied together. All those hard consonants: the B, T and K. Say it with me: Butt Knuckle!

(Question: what is a butt knuckle? Do we actually have such a thing, somewhere in our derrieres? I’ll ask Kara.)

Kara also gave me the classic phrase, POOP NUGGET.

What, you don’t like Poop Nugget? Blame Kara, not me!

I kinda like Poop Nugget, though it’s maybe a bit goofy. There’s nothing worse than a goofy fake swear word.  Kids’ll throw your book at the wall if the fake swear words are too goofy. Hmmm. I’ll admit I’m on the fence with this whole Poop Nugget thing. It skews a bit younger; toward kids with a more scatalogical sense of humour. Maybe I’ll let one of my younger characters use it. Minnow. Yeah, Minnow would say Poop Nugget for sure.

Speaking of characters, I’ve almost finalized the names of the characters in my next book. There’s Finn, Minnow, Brody, Skyler, Deena, Grac and Gwen. The villian, who’s plotting to cut down an old-growth forest, is the Tree Weasel.

I’m having trouble with one character though. She’s a fifteen year old girl with blue-green hair and scuffed-up knees and she likes to wear a Fidel Castro army cap and reflective aviator sunglasses. She started out as Sal, but that got problematic. Names starting with the letter ‘”s” are awkward in novels. In dialogue scenes, every other sentence ends with “Sal said.” 

So I changed her name to Dia. But that didn’t feel right either. So I changed it to Will, short for Willa. Then to Dal. And now Mel.

It’s getting frustrating. Butt Knuckle! Poop Nugget!  There, I feel much better now.

The Weirdest Miles I Ever Ran…

Kids often ask me, what’s the weirdest thing you ever saw while running a 100-mile race?

Easy one! The 75 mile turnaround at the Haliburton Forest Trail Race.

dave stretching before 100 mile race

I got there around midnight, after 18 hours of running. 2 women volunteers were there. They were cooking lasagna and chicken noodle soup over a Coleman stove. They’d hung a disco ball from a tree branch, and a lantern was burning right above it, and the fractured lights from the disco ball swirled across the backdrop of trees. It was freaky and beautiful.

I was about to sit down in a camp chair, but one of the women said “DON’T DO THAT! BEWARE THE CHAIR!

Beware the chair?

‘If you sit down after running 75 miles you’ll never get up again.”

So I kept standing. One of the women asked to see my feet. I took off my shoes and it was a horror show down there. Seriously, it was like I had trenchfoot or something. Trenchfoot times ten. The woman was totally cool about it though. She cut my blisters open and drained them, then squirted krazy glue into the skin flaps to seal them up. After that she wrapped duct tape around and around my feet, and put my shoes back on.

“Good as new!” she said.

I started running again. I only had 25 miles left to go. That’s nothing, right? Just the distance from Toronto to Hamilton. It was a hard grind. I was tired, freaked out, my feet were killing me, and I was having trouble keeping food down. It felt like that race was NEVER going to end!

And then, at 2 am, my phone rang. It was my neice Caelan, calling from Edmonton.

Caelan lounging

There she is. She knew I was running the race, and she’d asked her dad (my brother) to wake her up, so she could call me to cheer me on. I don’t remember much of what she said. But I do know that she told me a knock knock joke. A knock-knock joke that she’d made up herself.  It went like this:

Knock knock / Who’s there?

Banana / Banana who?

Banana had to go to the hospital…

I knew where this was going. I’d say “Why did banana have to go to the hospital?” And Caelan would say “Because he wasn’t peeling well!”

So I did my bit.  I said, “Why did banana have to go to the hospital? And Caelan surprised me. She said: “Because he had puke in his lung.”

Yeah, I didn’t really get the joke either. But it was such a weird punchline, it made me laugh. Believe me, when you’ve run 84 miles in 20 hours, and you’ve had your feet sliced open and krazy-glued back together, you’ll laugh at anything. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard as I did in that moment. Caelan’s crazy joke got me to the finish line.

So as a thank-you present, I put Caelan in my novel. Except I changed the spelling of her name to “Kaylin.”

Here’s another character in my book:

Kara with the bubble gun

Any guesses who she is?

Believe it or not, it’s Kara (the 40 year-old cop)!

The real-life Kara (above) is tough and fearless and deadly with a bubble gun. That’s how she came to inspire that tough-as-nails character.

I should mention that Kara is also my neice. And she’s not too shabby with the knock-knock jokes either.

How “Sydney” and “Ollie” Came to Life

first copy of Ultra

“Ultra – the novel”

There it is. It’s 192 pages long. Weighs 396 grams. And it costs less than a fancy Starbucks coffee.

Talk about a bargain! You might enjoy your Starbucks coffee for 20 minutes. This book, on the other hand, will warm your heart forever.

Why? Because it’s fortified with ten essential characters. Including one who was inspired by this young woman:

Sydney Watson Walters

Sydney, aka “Sydney Watson Walters”

Say hello my niece Sydney. She was five years old when this picture was taken (she’s grown since then, and is now in grade nine). She plays basketball and volleyball, and sings and plays guitar. She’s also, believe it or not, one of the world’s coolest aunts.

How did someone so young inspire a literary character? A character who bears a strong resemblance to Oprah Winfrey?

A couple of years ago, when I was still struggling with the book, I called Syd and asked her for some advice. “I’m going to read you a couple of pages,” I warned her.  “Tell me if the dialogue sounds okay.”

I started reading.  I got halfway though one page when Syd said: “Kids don’t talk like that.”

“Really?” I said. “How do they talk?”

“Like kids,” she said.

Syd offered all sorts of good suggestions. She also asked me a LOT of questions. She said: “What are you trying to do with this scene?”  And, “Am I supposed to like Quinn now? Because I don’t. He’s being a dink. Kneecap needs to tell him to smarten up.”

Re-writing a book is kind of like running on the same stretch of trail over and over. If you’re not careful, you’ll wear the trail down so much that you’re running in a deep trench, and you can’t see over the sides anymore. Syd reached into the trench and pulled me out. Then she sent me down a more interesting path.

Those conversations I had with Syd helped the book A LOT. And I’ll never forget the tough questions Syd posed. She reminded me a bit of a TV journalist. Which is why I borrowed her name for the Sydney Watson Walters character.

SWW

Here’s another family member who inspired a character:

Oliver posing

In the book, Quinn has a little brother named Ollie. Ollie acts as Quinn’s “pacer” during the race. He calls Quinn at all hours of the day and night, and recites crazy jokes to cheer him up. Most importantly, on page 171, Ollie utters a six-word sentence that literally saves Quinn’s race.

I based this funny and wise character on my real-life nephew, Oliver. That’s him above, doing his best Usain Bolt.

Years ago, when I was running the Sulphur Springs 100-mile race, Oliver called me on the phone to wish me luck. It was close to midnight, and I’d run 84 miles.  The moon was out, and I was feeling shockwaves of pain, which isn’t unusual when you’re that far into a race. Still, it was a tough spell, and I felt like I was going to throw up.

I can still remember exactly what Oliver said. He said: “Seriously, Uncle Dave? You’ve run 84 miles already? But it’s not even midnight!  You’re doing great!”

Be careful when you use words of kindness like that. You might just find yourself in a book.

You’re the Inspiration!

How do authors come up with their characters? We dream them up in our heads, right?

Sorta. But not exactly.

If you’ve read my novel “Ultra” then you already know that the main character is a 13 year-old kid named Quinn. But here’s something you may not know: I have a nephew who’s also named Quinn.

Quinn (age 4) and David

Quinn (age 4) and David

There he is. The boy who inspired the character. He’s just a tiny kidling in this picture, but he’s 12 now.

So – how did that adorable little kid inspire the tough-as-nails ultra-runner in the book?

Easy. He’s super-fit. He’s wickedly funny. And he’s determined as anything – just look at those clenched fists! Also, my nephew loves the outdoors, and is always chasing after animals. Which is why, in the book, Quinn is always running into frogs and turtles and, er, bears.

Illustration (by Shawna) from an early version of the book

Illustration (by Shawna) from an early version of the book

Unlike the character in the book, however, my nephew isn’t all that keen on running. (He’s far more interested in soccer and hockey.) And unlike his brooding namesake in the book, the real-life Quinn is most definitely NOT a fun vampire. He’s actually the opposite. More like a fun volcano.

20131126_074358

That’s an early version of the book. Back then it was titled “Quinn and the 100 Mile Race.” That’s Quinn on the right, and his big brother Kiernan on the left. And yes, Kiernan inspired a character too.

At the bottom of page 86, a tough old guy named Kern comes ambling down the trail. He’s what’s known in racing circles as a “bandit” – someone who runs the race illegally. But this bandit isn’t evil. Quite the contrary – he actually ends up saving Quinn’s race.

I wrote Kern into the story as a tribute to all big brothers and sisters. As annoying as they can be on occasion, elder siblings can be life-savers. My own big brother rescued me from near-death countless times. I don’t doubt that Kiernan has done the same for Quinn.

Also worth nothing – Kiernan is an awesome hockey player. So I decided to make the “Kern” character a former hockey great. Like my nephew, I made him a goalie. In my mind, he was a superstar with the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

The "Terry Fox" shoe

The “Terry Fox” shoe

This is the best thing about being an author. You get to put all the people you love in a book. I’m especially lucky, since I have 40 neices and nephews to write about.  Like the one below.  Any guesses which character she inspired?

Sydney Watson Walters

Love Your Genes!

Say it with me…  I LOVE my genes!  

If not for those little critters turning pirouettes in our DNA, we wouldn’t be able to run, cycle or swim.  (Or, for that matter, compose heart-lancing prose.)

So the next time you tap-dance across a finish line, or drop-kick a gorgeous metaphor into a short story, be sure to send a shout-out to your genetic gifts!

Or better yet, thank the person directly responsible:

MOM!

It’s your Mom you’ve gotta thank that your bones are so strong.  If not for her microscopic legacy, you wouldn’t be able to suck 6 litres of air in and out of your lungs.  Mom’s the one you need to thank for that finisher’s medal around your neck. And I’ll bet she helped pay for your first word-processor too.

Promise me you’ll call her this weekend.  Or whisper a prayer in her name. Promise me, ‘kay?

This is a video of me and my mom.  (I’m the little one, fyi)