by Kathi Macias
Ever since I was a child the call of a locomotive wailing in the distance as it headed for parts unknown has tugged at the strings of my heart—and I imagine I am not the only one who has had that experience. There is just something about that plaintive cry that woos us to drop what we are doing, run as fast as we can, and hop aboard for a serendipitous ride. And, of course, that is exactly what we want to accomplish for our readers as we invite them along on our journey of words.
If you have been following along with these articles, you know we have already learned how to “eat an elephant” (lay our track/focus for our writing) and “herd cattle” (snag our readers with a cow catcher). Now it is our responsibility to give those readers a fairly clear idea of where we are taking them. What can they expect to experience on this trip? Will it be a romantic ride through pleasant scenery, a frightening one through dark and unknown territory, a humorous journey with colorful fellow passengers, or maybe all of the above? Will it be a learning experience, or simply an entertaining diversion? Will it challenge their intellect, their values, or maybe even their sense of safety and security? Is it a journey they will want to take alone, or should they consider sharing it with a companion? All of these are valid questions, and we need to give our readers enough answers early on so they can make a decision as to whether or not they want to continue on the trip. And that, of course, is why we must make our locomotive as appealing as possible.
Now this doesn’t mean that before we have even pulled out of the station we have to reveal all that will take place during the entire journey; there is always room for surprises and even an occasional detour (so long as it is relevant to the story and does not get us off track) as the trip progresses. But it is essential that our readers get a clear sense of what they have signed up for before we attempt to take them any farther.
With that in mind, let’s look at an example of a locomotive from one of my nonfiction books, Mommy, Where Are You? The opening paragraph is the cow catcher, snagging the reader; the following nine paragraphs complete the locomotive, establishing the direction and pace of the journey.
Mother’s Day, 1954. I had just turned six. My palms were sweaty, my bony knees were knocking, and my heart was pounding in my ears, as I awaited my turn to stand up and announce to the entire kindergarten class, along with a sizable group of very proud mothers, why I loved my mom.
“I love my mom because she’s soft when I sit on her lap,” one little girl whispered shyly, as embarrassed giggles engulfed the other children.
“I love my mom because she bakes me cookies,” declared the freckle-faced boy across the aisle.
“I love my mom because she doesn’t make me take naps anymore,” added the curly-haired girl in front of me.
And then it was my turn.
“I…I love my mom because…” I stopped, horrified. I knew I loved my mom, and I knew there were a hundred reasons why I did, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of any one of them.
I turned and looked at the group of mothers seated in the back of the classroom. They were all smiling at me encouragingly, but my mom’s smile was the biggest of the bunch. And definitely the most beautiful. That’s when I remembered.
“I love my mom because she takes care of me when I’m sick,” I said, then added, “and that’s a lot!”
As I sat back down, I didn’t even mind the giggles sweeping across the room because I knew I had thought of just the right reason why I loved my mom. A frail, asthmatic child, I had already logged more sick time in my six short years than most people do in a lifetime. But no matter how sick I was or how long I had to stay in bed, I could always count on one thing: Mom would be right there by my side.
That was 1954. It was a lot more common—and a lot easier—for moms to be at their children’s side then than it is today. Kids growing up in that era were part of the “Donna Reed/Ozzie and Harriet/Father Knows Best” generation. We didn’t have to watch “Happy Days” on TV because we were living them. (Besides, we got only one channel on our black-and-white TV, and the most exciting thing that was ever on was wrestling or the test pattern.) When we called out, “Mommy, where are you?” we would hear her answer, “I’m in the kitchen, honey, making your lunch.” But when our children or our children’s children call out, “Mommy, where are you?” they are likely to hear a daycare worker inform them, “Mommy’s at work. She’ll pick you up at 5:30, just like she always does. Now go play with the other children.”
*Adapted from THE TRAIN-OF-THOUGHT WRITING METHOD: Practical, User-Friendly Help for Beginning Writers by Kathi Macias (AuthorHouse, 2005).