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Whispers From Will

Story ID:9137
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Story
Location:Manhattan KS usa
Person:Will Jamison
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There’s an eleven-year-old boy who wears knickers, has blond hair and an engaging smile who whispers in my ear when I least expect it. His name is Will Jamison and I know him well even though he lived more than a century ago. But let me tell you how we came to know one another and why he thinks he can tell me what to do.

When I began writing, nearly twenty years ago, I had an idea for a juvenile novel but I knew I needed to start on a smaller scale. I wrote several short stories for children of middle grade age, even sold a few of them, but the novel kept popping back into my mind. Still, I went on with the shorter stories for kids and moved on to creative non-fiction for adults, where I had some success.

After a few years, I could wait no longer. Before starting to write, I needed to research coal mines in the late nineteenth century in Iowa. The boy in my story would be a miner like my maternal grandfather had been. He’d be taken out of school and forced to work in the mines just like Grandpa. He’d have a stern grandmother, also a brother and a father who toiled in the mines. My grandfather never finished school—a fact that bothered me from the time I heard my mother tell stories about her dad. In my story, the boy was going to work hard to get out of the mine and back to school. I’d write the happy ending that Grandpa never found. That was my dream.

I listened over the years to the attention-grabbing stories Mom told about her dad being only nine when he became a miner by necessity, not choice. About how he’d become a shot firer as an adult, setting off the explosives that loosened the coal. About how she often went to the mine late in the day and walked home with her dad when she was a child. She related her memories of what they ate when the miners were on strike and had no more credit at the company store. Her dad shot rabbits and squirrels to feed the family. Once, a man gave them an entire case of canned hominy which they ate meal after meal until they nearly gagged on it. She talked about the coal dust seeping into the men’s skin and nails and the fact that her father’s family had emigrated from England, bringing traditions from that culture with them. She said that gypsies visited their little mining town every spring, camping by a lake. I listened and absorbed those family stories.

At the beginning of this project, I wrote on an electric typewriter at my kitchen table. I had no outline, other than a very minimal one in my mind. I wrote chapter 1 not knowing what might happen in chapter 2. When chapter 12 was complete, I had no idea where chapter 13 would take me, but take me it did. The story evolved, bit by bit with Will Jamison running into one obstacle after another in his quest to leave the mine forever and get back to school. Two chapters before the end I still wasn’t sure how Will Jamison would make this happen. I shouldn’t have worried. He led me to the ending.

I got to know my main characters so well that sometimes I felt as though they watched me write as they stood in the corners of my kitchen. Once in awhile, I could almost hear them guiding me as the story grew. When I finished the first draft, Will, his friend, Emily, and Gran left my house, disappearing like an early morning mist when the sun breaks through the clouds. I couldn’t feel them anymore, and I missed them.

I read the novel, chapter by chapter to my small critique group. Encouraged by their positive response, I scoured market guides for publishers who dealt in historical fiction for children. I sent query letters and received a few replies asking to see part of the novel. It came to nothing other than some letters of encouragement. The story had merits but it wasn’t quite there yet. One editor suggested it would be a good fit for an educational publisher, and an educational publisher thought it a better fit for a mainstream fiction publisher. Frustrating!

Discouraged, I put the novel away and moved on with other writing. A few years later, I subbed it chapter by chapter to an online critique group. The women in that group had a positive response and some good suggestions. I worked on revisions, but I did no more than that, even though I still held onto the dream that the story would become a book one day.

I’d kept in touch with one of the men in that original critique group, and every now and then, in an e-mail, he’d ask if anything was happening with the Will Jamison book. I brought him up to date and finished by saying I doubted I’d ever see the story in book form. Several weeks later, I found a package from him in my mail box. When I opened it, I cried. This dear man had copied the chapters at the website and taken them to a printing place to create a book for me, and he’d even added a couple of pictures of young boys as coal miners. The tears flowed at seeing my story actually a book, even if it was a print run of one and I cried because of the thoughtfulness of a good friend.

With the advent of e-books, Will Jamison showed up at my house and started whispering little things to me. Maybe this is the way to publish the book. Why don’t you look into it? You never stopped dreaming that the story would be published one day, did you? The kid started showing up in my kitchen again! I told myself there was so much I didn’t know about e-publishing and Will answered that with You could learn! One day he hit me with You’re not getting any younger. The idea kept getting stronger but I didn’t take step one.

Meanwhile, I’d been selling a few of my children’s short stories to an ezine for kids that published a story per day. I noticed that the editor was sometimes publishing classic books for children, chapter by chapter. I wondered if he’d have any interest in my book. Write and ask him. Will Jamison started whispering to me once again. He’s most persistent.

Before I could act on Will’s suggestion, the same editor e-mailed to ask me to resubmit a few stories on a new submission form. He said he wanted to be sure I got them in soon as he was putting the ezine in hiatus for a few months and revamping. It was time to ask him about the novel. He answered that he was open to the idea, that it was on his long range planning chart to serialize juvenile novels. He asked me to send a synopsis and a few chapters.

Right now, I’m waiting for his answer. If he likes the idea of publishing Will Jamison chapter by chapter, I will be thrilled. If he doesn’t, I still have the option of seeing it as an e-book. It’s been a long-held dream, a project spanning a greater number of years than anything else I’ve ever written, but somehow it feels closer than ever to being realized. To honor my grandfather in this way would be one of the most satisfying parts of my life. And maybe it would keep Will Jamison from pestering me with those whispered comments.

Note: I have posted the novel about Will Jamison here at Our Echo, chapter by chapter. You'll have to go to my stories page and search for each one if you'd like to read it.