Jan 19, 2024

KLC Podcast: Ep. 3 Opening Chapter (Transcript)

Anne-Marie Strohman: [00:00:00] Welcome to the third episode of the Kid Lit Craft Podcast. This season we’re doing a deep dive into Martine Leavitt’s YA novel, Buffalo Flats. Today we’re going to be digging into the opening chapter.  

I’m Anne-Marie Strohman and I write for children and young adults and also some short stories for adults.

Erin Nuttall: Hi, I am Erin Nuttall and I write mostly YA, and a little bit of middle grade.

Anne-Marie Strohman: On KidLit Craft, we look at mentor texts to discover the mechanics of how writers do what they do for one reason, so we can apply it to our own writing.

Erin Nuttall: And Martine Leavitt’s, Buffalo Flats is a fantastic mentor text.  It is the story of Rebecca Leavitt, who lives in Canada’s Northwest Territories in the 1890s, and Rebecca wants more than anything to have a piece of that land as her own. [1:00:00]

Anne-Marie Strohman: Erin, let’s start out today with some definitions. In our last episode, we talked about Rebecca’s desire lines. What are desire lines?

Erin Nuttall: Desire lines are the storylines, the story arcs that show what the character really wants more than anything else. And frequently there is an internal desire line, which is what’s happening on the inside the character, the character growth, you might think about it that way. External desire lines are usually something that is stated and is clear that the character wants. So for Rebecca, her external desire is to own a piece of land as her very own.

Anne-Marie Strohman: We’re also going to be talking about another concept today, backstory. Can you introduce us to backstory?

Erin Nuttall: Well, I do think that backstory kind of gets a dirty name sometimes. It is everything that happened before the book opened. Things that makes the characters who they are and the choices that they make. [2:00:00] And the reason that it gets a bad name is that sometimes people do what is called an info dump, which is where they just give a whole lot of backstory in one spot. Which can be distracting to the story and sometimes boring to the reader. But backstory is crucial. Without it, you don’t know why characters are doing what they’re doing. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: In the last episode, we talked about just the first scene, and that first scene did a lot of setup for the entire novel, but there’s more setup coming. First chapters have a really tricky job. They introduce readers to a character in their world, they set up what’s going to come after that, and the best ones have forward movement in them.

It’s not just a plain description telling you the state of the world. Something’s actually happening in the first chapter. And I would put the first chapter of Buffalo Flats in this best ones category.

Let’s look at what Martine does in the four scenes that make up [3:00:00] chapter one.

We looked at the first scene in episode two.  Let’s dig into the second scene. 

Erin Nuttall: In the second scene, Rebecca’s second desire is set out. In the first scene, if you recall her desire to own a piece of the land was set out. And now, in the second scene, her second desire is set out. It’s outlined in the first paragraph, the first sentence of the first paragraph in fact.

“Now that she’d had a sit with God, Rebecca supposed she would be expected to love not just the mountains, but love the people too.” It goes on to say, “She figured she might be able to love the World, or at least the general idea of it, if she didn’t have to love people in the particular.”  So that sets up, I will say… 

Anne-Marie Strohman: Can you relate to this, Erin? 

Erin Nuttall: Hey, now. Yes, I can. 

Martine is really good at humor, which we will get to later. But right here she sets up her desire [4:00:00] and immediately what’s going to be a little bit difficult for Rebecca to be able, why she’s going to have a hard time with this desire. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: So tell us a little bit more about that. If her desire were able to be fulfilled right away, the book would be over, so she’s going to have some obstacles. What do we know so far about the obstacles for Rebecca?

Erin Nuttall: Rebecca is a flawed character, which is what you want. If you had a character who was perfect the book would be boring and people would not be able to relate to your main character. And Rebecca is flawed and she knows it. Not only does she say that she doesn’t want to love people in particular,  she goes on to list some of her weaknesses. 

She says, “People were always unhappily surprising her by being just like her– scared sometimes, selfish sometimes, tired, and lazy and thoughtless and uncertain.” Martine does not leave it there. Poor Rebecca. [5:00:00] “She was, she had to admit, at times unlovely of temper, and thought a dozen unkind thoughts a day. At this very moment, she could think a dozen unkind thoughts about her brother Ammon alone.”

So we know that, again there’s a little bit of humor there. We know that Rebecca has a ways to go. She wants to love people the way God loves people. But she is human and will definitely struggle with that. And part of the joy of this book is to watch Rebecca  try and try and try to make this happen. And it isn’t easy. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: Hmm. So where does this scene end? Where does Martine leave us with this little scene?

Erin Nuttall: It ends with Rebecca contemplating what she can do. And she says, “She suspected she had been born more naturally wicked than others, and a lifetime of humble reflection would never make her as good as Mother [6:00:00] and her best friend, LaRue Fletcher, already were. Considering everything, being as good as she needed to be was an appalling prospect, given her natural inclinations. But what else could she do? It was time to reform.” So Rebecca sets out with a goal; to become a better person, and that is the end of that scene.

Something that Martine does well is really clarifying the desire for the reader about what her characters desire. And so we have her desire at the very beginning, well, the entire scene really, but it’s clearly stated at the beginning, the first sentence, and it’s clearly stated at the end of the scene as well, the last sentence.

Anne-Marie Strohman: So you can even look to this not just for identifying desire lines, but how you might even structure  a paragraph that introduces a desire line too.

Erin Nuttall: Oh, definitely. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: Really nitty-gritty. 

Erin Nuttall: And we have a lot more to talk about desire in another episode, I think.

Anne-Marie Strohman: So how about scene three? What happens and how does it help us get to know Rebecca [7:00:00] and her story?

Erin Nuttall: So scene three is the dreaded backstory except Martine does it in such a beautiful way that you don’t, almost don’t even notice that you’re being drawn into the past. 

The first line pulls you right in. She says, “Rebecca had come to her parents a daughter after six sons.”  Then she goes on with a description of the family and what they’re doing in the Northwest Territory.

Anne-Marie Strohman: Talk to us about how Martine incorporates this backstory. We’ve talked about the dreaded info dump, or it being a big chunk. I start nodding off when that happens. How does Martine avoid this? 

Erin Nuttall: She does it a few ways.

One is she does tuck little pieces of backstory, I mean, you might wonder how when she’s so focused on desire in the first two scenes, how this is possible but she does tuck tiny pieces of backstory into the previous scenes.

Another way that she does it is with short quick sentences. So Rebecca, as we just read, [8:00:00] was a daughter after six sons. Well, not all six of those sons are going to come with the family to the Northwest Territory. And so Martine dispatches with those brothers real quick, just short sentences about each one of them. And so we know who they are, where they are, and they’re gone and we don’t have to worry about them anymore.

Another way that she develops backstory in an interesting way is unsurprisingly through humor.  This is about her own birth, “The way Ammon told it, when Rebecca came along, she was an afterthought, a shrug, after the straight-shouldered pride of all that male offspring, a concession to God that they must take the bad with the good.” 


Anne-Marie Strohman: Ouch!

Erin Nuttall: Mother said it hadn’t quite gone like that, but Rebecca tended to believe Ammon. So, not only does that give us our backstory, it’s funny, and it tells us a little bit about the relationship between Ammon and Rebecca. 

Throughout this book, Martine layers [9:00:00] multiple strategies in scenes and sentences. So these do heavy lifting. They do more than one job. So it’s not just backstory, it’s also funny and it also tells us about the sibling relationship.

Anne-Marie Strohman: And it gives us a little bit of insight into how Rebecca sees herself 

Erin Nuttall: There you go. See, we could probably think of five more things it does, but.

Anne-Marie Strohman: So how does this scene end? 

Erin Nuttall: So it shows how her family is actually a loving, like her home is a loving place to be and a place she wants to be. 

It says, “The house was made of logs hauled from timber and saw and dovetailed by hand. Father hadn’t used a single nail in the building of it. It seemed more beautiful than ever to Rebecca this evening as she rode up, lamplight glowing through the sugar sack curtains. … In her everyday voice as if her heart hadn’t landed on God.” She said, “I’m home.” 

And that again, we learn a lot about the family and Rebecca’s [10:00:00] place in it and how she sees herself in it. And we get beautiful setting information and details of how she feels about her home. That it is home, it’s where she wants to be. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: And that’s a beautiful scene closer. I could see that as the end of the chapter too. It’s such a glorious sentence and we get this circularity of, you know, coming from the tor all the way down to the house, but there’s one more scene. 

Erin Nuttall: There is another scene which,  again, Rebecca will be talking about her desire lines, and we also see a little bit more of that conflict between her and her family. So her family isn’t perfect, just like she isn’t perfect. So we get her walking in and her family is seated at the table already. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: Talk to us a little bit about how Martine orients the reader into this space. How does she introduce this new scene? I’d imagine since the whole chapter is only two and a half pages? [11:00:00] Correct?

Erin Nuttall: Not the whole chapter, just the first scene was two and a half pages. The first chapter is 11 pages. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: 11 pages for a chapter is still quite short, and I would imagine that she gets us into that scene really quickly and orients us to where we are, who’s there, and what’s happening. How does she do that?  

Erin Nuttall: She also introduces us to a bunch of new characters, which is kind of a tricky thing to do. Yeah.

So she comes home, they’re seated at the table.  And, “Father glanced up from his bushy gray eyebrows and she knew he was unhappy that she hadn’t been home to help mother.” So right away we know a little bit about how her father looks but we also know how he feels about what Rebecca should be doing and it’s not wandering the tor, it is helping her mom.

We know Ammon already and he’s there to, you know, stick a little pin and Rebecca. “Late as usual,”  he says.  And then, “Father resumed [12:00:00] talking to his sons, as always about land and livestock and weather and their prospect as settlers.” We get a little bit right there about homesteading and what it is, what it entails, that you have to live on the land for three years and put a house on the land and also farm the land. And if you do that, then you can keep the land.

But then, and so we have that talk of the father and sons leaving the women out. And then we have her desire. “She had never dared to think of having a homestead of her own, but now she would dare.”  So we knew before that she loved the land and wanted the land and here we are hearing exactly what she wants. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: Martine has set up the obstacles even before we get the desire too, right? That the women are left out of the talk, and that we get the background of how hard it is to homestead, you know, the rules of homesteading, and then we get her stated desire. [13:00:00] And for me, that endears me to Rebecca, that she’s committed to this, even though she knows it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Erin Nuttall: She is very committed to it. And it’s worse than uphill battle, it’s almost impossible. The very next sentence is, “She personally didn’t know any women homesteaders.”  But she is, she is committed.

As the family continues to have a conversation we get a little bit more of Rebecca’s character traits. As the men were talking about the wolves and, how they were a pest to farmers, a neighbor is bringing in Wolfhounds and she says, “Rebecca thought the wild animals deserve their dinner as much as people did, but she glanced at Mother and decided not to say so.” So she is working on her desire to be a better person by being like her mother. But we also get a character trait there that she not only loves the land, she loves the animals too. And also she is a just person because she feels [14:00:00] that the animals are justified in wanting to eat. 

And after that she sets a goal, “Now she decided she would emulate her mother in all womanly virtues, and say only the most ladylike things or nothing at all.”  That is a false solution, in case you’re wondering. Rebecca does not have the same temperament as her mother. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: Why do these desires matter to Rebecca? What are the stakes here? 

Erin Nuttall: Well, so the desires are definitely what she wants. And they speak to her soul, and I think they both stem from the opening scene of meeting God because it’s God’s land and God’s people. And so those are the two things that she  already loves and wants to love. And so that is where her desire stems from.

But we do have some really big stakes for her. Really big, well, big obstacles that women aren’t homesteaders.  And that she herself  is not personally inclined to [15:00:00] always love people. So those are her two big obstacles to her, two big desires.

Stakes-wise, Martine does this in a super interesting way because you might look at it and think that the stakes need to apply to Rebecca’s endeavors. But what she does is she has a whole paragraph about how the cows die easily where they are, and then a little bit more about her father and brother’s dreams of homesteading because all three have their own homesteads.

“It seemed a fool’s dream sometimes, but to fail would mean Father and her brothers would have to return to work in the coal mines in Utah. It would be the end of their dream to have their own land, and to make their living aboveground.”  So we know that, nobody thinks women can be homesteaders and  it’s super hard for the men to be homesteaders and if they fail, then they have to go back to being coal miners, which is probably [16:00:00] one of the worst jobs in the world. It’s such a hard, hard job and they would have to leave the beautiful land. I just found it fascinating that Martine used the stakes of her dad and her brothers to, underline the stakes for Rebecca. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: And we know from that opening section how much she loves the land and having to leave would be such a cost to her, 

Erin Nuttall: Right.

Anne-Marie Strohman: It would wreck her life.

Erin Nuttall: Right. And you know, we’ll have an episode where we talk more about stakes, but it is, I think, important to recognize that Martine laid out stakes here in the first chapter. She laid out the desires. She laid out some character traits, you know, she introduced the main characters, introduced some of their character traits, and then she laid out the stakes of Rebecca’s desires.

Anne-Marie Strohman: So a lot of times when characters are pursuing their desires they’re kind of on their own, but often [17:00:00] they’ll have allies. Does Rebecca have any allies here?

Erin Nuttall: She does. She has an ally in her mother. Her mother’s character so far as we’ve seen is an angel, and that is definitely how Rebecca sees her. She sees her mother as the embodiment of what she would like to be. 

Rebecca tells her family that she wants her own homestead and her brothers laugh at her and her father’s like, hmm no.  Here’s the little bit of the scene, “Father shook his head, ‘Single women can’t homestead, Rebecca. … The law says so. You will have your own land by way of your husband when you marry.'” 

And Rebecca says, this is her solution, “‘I will go to the land office and make inquiries.’  This almost constituted back talk, which was forbidden. But Mother saved the day. ‘I believe I have enough butter and eggs to sell in town in a couple of days,’ she said, ‘I shall come with you.’  All heads turned to Mother. ‘I am sure your father is right,’ she said, [18:00:00] ‘but I’d like to hear what the land agent says about it. … Perhaps things have changed.'” So Mother is supporting Rebecca right away in her dream, and she’s still remaining an angel. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: So far.

Erin Nuttall: So far. Yeah.

Anne-Marie Strohman: Erin, what are you taking away from today? 

Erin Nuttall: Desires, obstacles, and stakes need to be all laid out in the first chapter. And I will say, I don’t know that I’m always great at that. I remember Martine telling me to do that and I don’t know that I always understood what she was talking about, but to see it in her book laid out so clearly really helps.

Another thing that is important about the opening chapter is that we get a piece, little pieces of character and it sets a tone for the book. We know who Rebecca is right now, we know who she is.  We know that she is clear-eyed, that she’s just, that she wants to be better in all the ways [19:00:00] that she is not good in her own mind. Also she’s kind of funny. I think she’s funny without always knowing it. You can write in and tell us what you think. Is she funny without knowing it, or is she intentionally funny?

Anne-Marie Strohman: I am taking away to just include the backstory that we need for the desire lines, the stakes, the obstacles. I think I’m tempted in my first chapters to just give a whole lot of backstory that provides context and beautiful sentences and great settings that isn’t necessarily tied to the desire line or to the obstacles or to the stakes. 

Erin Nuttall: Well, and that makes a lot of sense too, because I think we are also tempted to use backstory to do a little world building and Rebecca’s world is very different from our world. And yet, Martine does not put world building per se in her little chunk of backstory that she has. She just drops you in the world  and [20:00:00] she uses the language, and the interactions with people, and some of Rebecca’s internal dialogue to build the world. And it makes for a more interesting world building experience than if we were to just stick it in the backstory because then you just get overwhelmed and bored. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: Make your book not boring. This is our subtitle on the podcast. 

Erin Nuttall: That is our key. That’s yes.  Episode three: How to make your book not boring. 

Anne-Marie Strohman: Erin, what one beautiful sentence have you chosen today?  

Erin Nuttall: I really love this one. So we have Amman’s perspective of when Rebecca was born, that she was a concession to God that they must take the good with the bad and then this is the next sentence, “But their beloved mother bent over that bit of flesh as if it were her own heart lying in the cradle, and the boys had to go along with it.” I just loved, because mother plays a such a big role in how Rebecca sees herself [21:00:00] and who she wants to become. I loved that Rebecca also knew how much her mother loved her, that her mother “bent over that bit of flesh, as if it were her own heart.”

Anne-Marie Strohman: I love Mother already. 

Erin Nuttall: Oh, so she did a good job! Because Mother, as a, okay, so this is a little digression, but as someone who is seen as perfect, she could be annoying, but Martine gives us that little piece right there.  And as someone who doesn’t act, maybe always as feminist as we today might want someone to act. She might be someone we dislike, but, by giving us little windows like that into mother’s heart she is someone that you can love from the first time you meet her.

Anne-Marie Strohman: Yeah, and we might expect if she’s this angel figure that she’s, Rebecca idealizes her, we might expect her to behave in a way that’s very compliant with social norms and, you know, living up to that ideal. [22:00:00] And yet one of the first things she does is ally herself with Rebecca to go to the land office, which seems like maybe its own little rebellion in a way, and we can see that the way that we might expect Mother to be is not how she actually is. There’s more depth there.

Erin Nuttall: Exactly, so it’s a little bit of intrigue.

Anne-Marie Strohman: All right. That’s it for today. We’re so excited to take this journey deep into craft with you. If you’re excited too, you can find more content like this at kidlitcraft.com. Find us on social media at KidLit Craft and you can support this podcast on Patreon.

We’ll be sending out KidLit Craft stickers to the first 20 subscribers. 

Erin Nuttall: Please download episodes, like them, rate and review us and let your writers friends know about the podcast. We’ll see you next time. We can’t wait to nerd out with you. 



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