Anne-Marie Strohman: [00:00:00] Welcome to the second episode of the Kid Lit Craft Podcast. This season we’re doing a deep dive into Martine Leavitt’s, Buffalo Flats. We’re so excited to talk about the craft of writing for kids by looking at this excellent mentor text.
I’m Anne-Marie Stroman I’m a writer for children and young adults, and I also write short stories for adult readers.
Erin Nuttall: Hi, I’m Erin Nuttall and I too write for kids, mostly YA and middle grade.
Anne-Marie Strohman: On Kid Lit craft. we look at mentor texts to discover the mechanics of how writers do what they do, for one purpose, to apply it to our own writing.
Erin Nuttall: So we are taking the mentor text, Buffalo Flats by Martine Leavitt, and we are going to tear it apart and look at all of the different tools that she uses to make such a stellar book.
It’s the story of Rebecca Leavitt, who lives in the [00:01:00] Northwest Territories in the 1890s. She wants more than anything to own a piece of that beautiful land.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Let’s start at the very beginning to quote my, not favorite, movie musical.
Erin Nuttall: It’s not your favorite?
Anne-Marie Strohman: No. It’s not. I do love some of the songs and I very, very much wanted to be Liesl in a production of it, but
Erin Nuttall: Oh yeah, of course.
Anne-Marie Strohman: It didn’t happen.
Erin Nuttall: What would your favorite be?
Anne-Marie Strohman: Ooh, it’s such a toss-up. I’ve seen so many good ones because my kid is super into Broadway musicals, and so we’ve seen a ton in the last year and a half. I really love Hadestown, and Six, I think is my other favorite.
Erin Nuttall: I have yet to see Six, but I want to very much.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Beginnings are so important and they set us up for what’s to come. Even the first sentence creates expectations in a reader for what kind of world they’re entering, who this character is that they’ll be spending time with, and even what themes are gonna be coming up in the story; all in one sentence. And Martine’s [00:02:00] opening to Buffalo Flats is masterful.
On our last episode, you read us that first sentence and we’re gonna start there. So why don’t you read it for us and tell us how this sets up the rest of the story.
Erin Nuttall: Okay. “Rebecca had heard her father and others call this land God’s country often enough that she wasn’t as surprised as she might’ve been to come upon him, one warm spring evening, sitting on the tor overlooking Buffalo Flats.”
Anne-Marie Strohman: So question one, what is a tor?
Erin Nuttall: It is a rocky outcropping or maybe a craggy peak? I think it’s somewhere where Rebecca can have a really good view of the flats.
Anne-Marie Strohman: I interrupted you. Go ahead tell us, how does this set up the story? What are the things that show up here for you?
Erin Nuttall: Well the one thing that I find that is astounding is that God shows up. And Rebecca isn’t totally surprised and that tells you a lot about Rebecca, number one, because she is someone who believes in God, and also about the, [00:03:00] the Buffalo flats. That it’s an area that is a place where God would want to come.
It says she’d heard her father and others call this land, God’s country, so it was a feeling throughout her community. And while that is like an idiom it does give you the impression that the community believes in God as well.
And then God is a known entity to Rebecca. She recognizes him when she comes upon him. And, that is surprising because if you go to the next sentence, I mean, this is what he looks like. He’s not like a glowing angel like you might think, or a burning bush.
But this is what he is: “He was dressed in his work clothes, but you knew God when you saw him. A sparrow swooped over him as if everything were usual. An insect lighted on him and flew away, as if it hadn’t just landed on God.”
That’s the first paragraph, and that shows you the type of God he is. He is the God to people and [00:04:00] to animals, to insects, and to the land. And you get all of that in three sentences.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Something that strikes me too about this first sentence is that it really orients us in space as well, that she’s sitting on this tor and she’s overlooking and so we have not just a relational thing or a belief system, but we have like the actual physical directionality of what’s happening in the scene. And then when we get into the description of God, it’s also very concrete, very visual. We, can kind of put ourselves in the scene itself, kind of like we’re watching a movie or we’re in that scene.
Track 1: Yeah, and Martine is really good at that with images in a foreign place. This is not the country that I grew up in, it’s not the country that most people grew up in. The Northwest Territories is not heavily populated. And this is a time period that we are not in currently. And yet, like you said, she really grounds [00:05:00] us through these images in where and when we are. Not as much when yet, but you do get a little bit from the style of language that she uses.
Anne-Marie Strohman: So let’s expand a little bit to that whole opening scene. You’ve read us the opening paragraph. What are things that show up in this scene?
Erin Nuttall: Well, like I was just mentioning, there’s a lot of really great imagery.
When God is with Rebecca. “The sun perched on the peak of Black Bear Mountain, burning like a candle, it’s light filling the valley like honey, golding up every solid thing: cows, cabins, barns, fields.”
Like that is an image of like, it’s just so complex and yet so simple too because we’ve all seen the sun come out and she is using this golden light. And again, putting God on the plane of man and animals [00:06:00] and yet also as the sun. And she’s not saying that God did that or that that is him. She’s just describing this image of what is happening when Rebecca is sitting with God.
Anne-Marie Strohman: I noticed the verbs in there too. She’s got: perched, burning light, and my favorite one is golding up.
Erin Nuttall: Yeah.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Like that’s such a unique, interesting verb, and it really makes that scene come to life, that image come to life.
Erin Nuttall: Well, it tells you the type of light because there’s all sorts of types of light. You know, there’s a harsher light, there is a dimming light, there is a light that’s just beginning, but this is a light that is making everything it touches more beautiful.
And the other really cool thing about this, this is the thing with Martine, everything has multiple layers. So you’re gonna hear me say this a lot. The other cool thing about this is that ‘golding up’ is not a phrase that we really use that much anymore. And so to have it, have Rebecca use it, then we can [00:07:00] recognize that Rebecca is not in our current time period.
Anne-Marie Strohman: And really like, this is third person. Right. So Rebecca’s not speaking it herself, but that is from her point of view.
Erin Nuttall: Correct.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Right, so the way that we see the world, the way that she’s seeing the world. We experience the world the way that she experiences the world. Which, nerd term, is limited omniscient.
Erin Nuttall: As we mentioned before, we’re kind of nerdy about the craft of writing.
So if we’re sticking with images, I’m going to go back to this because I still wanna talk about Martine and images and this opening, what she’s setting up.
She has these two mirror images where we see the sun. When God is with Rebecca, we see the sun golding up everything, and then when God leaves the sentence is, “She had only gone a few steps down the slope when the mountains snuffed out the sun and filled the flats below with shadow.” And so again, beautiful sentence.
I [00:08:00] feel like every sentence, well, maybe not every sentence, that would be really overwhelming, but so many sentences are just outstandingly beautiful. But we have God and the sun and gold, and then we have no God and “snuffed out the sun” and shadow and these opposite ideas and they’re images that we can all clearly see. If you haven’t seen the mountain snuff out the sun, you’ve probably seen it on TV or a movie.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Tell us a little bit more about the land and how that shows up in this section.
Erin Nuttall: So the land is Rebecca’s big motivator. She loves the land, as you can tell from the first sentence where she talks about God’s country. And that is where God visits her. He doesn’t visit her in church. He doesn’t visit her at her home. He visits her when she is sitting on the land and enjoying the beauty of the land.
And so one of the sentences that Martine uses to [00:09:00] describe the land and to let you know again how Rebecca is feeling, is this, “The land looked less lonesome this way, but Rebecca loved it in all its ways–its winds and weathers, its rocky bones jutting out of the earth in places, the long-limbed prairie that stretched one soul out of shape to see its distances.”
Ahh! My mind! I mean, okay, on a sentence level, ahh! There’s so much alliteration that is just like, is fantastic. But also there, the, the imagery of all of that even. I have never seen long-limbed prairie that stretches my soul, but I can imagine it nonetheless, because of the way that Martine has written this. And I’ve definitely seen rocky bones jutting out of the earth from the mountains and it is, it is soul moving. And so I’m not there, but Rebecca is. If this [00:10:00] sentence is moving me, then we know how much being there is moving Rebecca and how much the land means to her.
Anne-Marie Strohman: And it really establishes Rebecca’s desire for the land and helps us experience that desire so that when we come to the point where we find out that she wants to own some land, it makes sense to us.
Erin Nuttall: Oh, for sure. Yeah because we don’t know the desire yet. But I mean, the first scene is all about the land and all about Rebecca’s love of the land. She loves the land so much that God comes to visit her. I cannot think of a way that shows the love of something more than that. Right? The person who created the land comes to enjoy it with you. That is the first scene. It is how much Rebecca loves the land, it’s her visit with God and how much she loves the land.
Anne-Marie Strohman: So we’ve talked about [00:11:00] landscape, we’ve talked a little bit about Rebecca and her desire. Talk to us about how character comes through in this section.
Erin Nuttall: So yeah, you learn so much and I’m gonna tell you it is two and a half pages. That’s how long this opening scene is, and yet, and yet we learn so much. And that is because of the way that Martine layers things.
But the first character that Rebecca introduces us to is God. We’ve talked about that. He’s been there. And we read that first opening paragraph where we talked about the sparrow and the insect. She’s standing there recognizing this, and the next thing that happens is he saw her and smiled and said, “Rebecca.”
So in this first paragraph and one sentence we know that God is the God of people and animals that he’s dressed in work clothes, so he’s relatable. He smiles at Rebecca, knows her name, they have this conversation and while they’re speaking, he [00:12:00] nods with interest at her, he seems sad to leave her, and in fact, she’s the one who instigates the departure
And so this tells us a lot about who God is to Rebecca and what role he plays in her life. And this is going to be important, as important as the land because one of the other desires that Rebecca has is to be the person that God wants her to be.
And so if he hadn’t come and actually visited her, we might not understand her desire as much because, you know, she isn’t perfect, she has a lot of growing to do but because we know that sitting with God is a comfortable thing for Rebecca then we can understand the driving force. Just like the beauty of the land that’s described, we get to know God’s character and how she feels about him and how he feels about her.
Anne-Marie Strohman: If I’m remembering correctly, in the story, it’s [00:13:00] very clearly this is God, he looks like a person. But it’s God. And Rebecca doesn’t have any questions about that.
Readers might think like, oh it’s just some old guy sitting on the mountain. It feels like this scene really invites us into Rebecca’s perspective and invites us to believe that this is God.
Erin Nuttall: I will say, I did read the first sentence several times before I was like, oh wait, this really is God coming to sit with her, coming to be with her when she says, “she wasn’t as surprised as she might’ve been to come upon him” that him, that him is God. So I read that a few times before it actually sunk into me or for me that that is who Rebecca was actually then later having this conversation with.
Anne-Marie Strohman: And It feels like Martine’s so intentional about inviting us into that space that Rebecca’s in and inviting us into this belief system so that even if you’re not a religious person, [00:14:00] you can still enjoy this book.
Erin Nuttall: Right. You might open it up and be like, oh, well, you know, God’s not my thing. But if you keep reading, if you read just even the first scene, you’ll recognize that God doesn’t need to be your thing.
He’s Rebecca’s thing. And he’s important to her, he’s important to her family, if you read a little bit further, you’ll see that he is a guiding force in the community.
We do get to know a little bit about Rebecca’s mother because at some point she’s been sitting with God having this conversation with him and then it says, “Rebecca recalled her mother’s admonition not to be long on her wander. She hesitated, and then decided it would go harder on her to displease Mother than to dismiss herself from the company of deity. So she said, ‘Guess I’ll go home now.'”
Anne-Marie Strohman: That tells us a lot about the mother and Rebecca’s relationship with the mother, just in that very brief thought.
Erin Nuttall: Yes, it it does [00:15:00] for sure. And so she stands and she goes to leave God.
And then I also really like what we learn about Rebecca herself. Because after she leaves him, after the sun is snuffed out behind the mountains, “She turned back. What had she done? Anyone with any sense would’ve asked a thousand questions, and others who had no sense at all, would instead introduce God to her father’s cows.”
Which is what Rebecca had done. So you can see a little window into how Rebecca feels about herself. That she is not necessarily a person with sense and that she makes wrong decisions and maybe wastes some of her opportunities.
So we have that, but then we also have where she says, “But he was gone and it’ll be full dark soon.” And so she also has a practical piece of her nature. That I find really [00:16:00] endearing about Rebecca.
Anne-Marie Strohman: That opening scene sets us up for so much. We have character relationships with Rebecca and God, and with Rebecca and her mother. We see evidence of what we will find out is her desire line through the land and through wanting to be who God wants her to be. We’ve seen gorgeous language, we’ve seen amazing verbs, we’ve seen tons of great images and metaphors and language that we haven’t gotten into. We will definitely be doing an episode on language, right?
Erin Nuttall: For sure.
Anne-Marie Strohman: What are you taking away?
Erin Nuttall: This opening scene, I think is what really sparked my interest in taking apart the rest of the book. And I think as writers, especially unpublished writers who want to get published, this is how you hook an agent.
You set out the desire line or multiple desire lines right away. You set up the expectations and [00:17:00] you introduce some character traits. You know, she does that in, like I said, two and a half pages. So that’s my challenge. Redo that, redo my first scene and and set that up. Make sure the desire line is clear.
And I will say, Martine told me that lots of times when she was my faculty advisor, and I tried to do better. But having this mentor text that I can look at and see specifically what she did, how she caught hold of my imagination is really helpful to me.
Anne-Marie Strohman: I think it’s often true, at least for me, that I can’t really write the beginning and shape the beginning until I’ve written the whole book. I need to write something to start with and then I. write the whole thing and then, go, oh, that’s what my book is about. Like these are the things I need to set up in that opening chapter.
If you’re at a point where you’re just starting, don’t worry about it too much. Take some of these ideas. Go with it. Write your whole draft [00:18:00] and then come back and see what you can do to revise.
Erin Nuttall: Well, for sure, and you can take this idea that you need really clear desire lines, which will be a topic that we cover later. But have a clear point of view, clear desire, and clear character traits.
So no matter where you are if you’re drafting, if you’re revising if you’re polishing, those are things that you can take away from this and try out in your own work. I’m definitely going to do that.
Anne-Marie Strohman: So, Erin, let’s end with one beautiful sentence. What did you pick this time?
Erin Nuttall: I picked the last sentence of the scene and I’m just going to say, remember back to when God was with her and the sun was golding everything up, and then he wasn’t with her and the mountain snuffed out the sun, and this is what she says, “At the bottom of the tor she untied Tiny from the lone tree and rode slowly toward home, the taste of honey light still in her [00:19:00] throat.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Hmm. That is lovely.
Erin Nuttall: It is, and I’m really tempted to ruin this beautiful moment and nerd out about the honey light and the golden up.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Don’t do it, don’t do it!
Erin Nuttall: I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to do it!
Anne-Marie Strohman: That’s it for today. You can find more analysis of mentor texts at kidlitcraft.com, and you can find us on social media at KidLit Craft.
And you can support this podcast on Patreon. We’ll be sending out kid Lit Craft stickers to the first 20 subscribers.
Erin Nuttall: Please download episodes, like, rate, and review us, and let your writer friends know about this podcast. We would love to nerd out with you.
Anne-Marie Strohman: Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next time.