- by Flo Fitzpatrick
A few weeks ago I was invited to speak to a local Girl Scout Troop about ‘being a published author.’ Let me first say, scouting is a whole new world nowadays. These bright young ladies aren’t just camping in the woods and selling cookies. Merit badges are given for projects such as grabbing professionals and enticing them to meetings. I love talking and I love kids so my immediate response was a big ‘Yes! Let me know when and where – and if cookies are part of the deal!”
Cookies were indeed part of the deal – the girls gave me a cute little box filled to take home. At the meeting, all was business. Five questions had been prepared by the scout leader and my job was to hit the high points of what it’s like to be a writer and hopefully answer those five questions.
First question: “what does it take to become a published author?” I bit my tongue and did not answer with “A #@%*load of luck – or possibly indulging in an affair with the CEO from one of the Big Six.” I did mention that luck enters the publishing picture to a degree that’s annoying at best and frustrating and depressing at least. But I didn’t want to discourage any budding authors so I also explained that one needed to be an avid reader first, learn all those pesky rules of grammar in school, do whatever research is required for the particular novel one is writing then sitting down and actually writing the book.
A few more questions, then “Where do you get your ideas?”
“Well,” I responded, “My first book came about because of a ghost.”
That did it. “Ghost? You saw a ghost! Tell us!” Even the little brother of one Scouts wanted in on this. So I told them the true story.
“I used to do a lot of performing at a local theatre. Also choreographed and taught dances classes there. And I loved doing the summer melodrama because of Bob Schmidt, one of the best actors I’ve ever known and a very nice, very funny, very brilliant gentleman. Bob would play the villain costumed in black stovepipe hat, black long tuxedo coat, black pants, black string tie and white sneakers. He’d stick a giant twirly Snidely Whiplash moustache to his face, then head onstage to toss ad libs and popcorn at the audience. I’d also performed with Bob in a few plays and musicals but whenever I thought about him, it was as the villain.
Bob died in the mid-1990s . And the melodramas at the theatre stopped for several years. Eventually, the children’s theatre began holding classes in that space. I was living in New York, but would try go back summers and teach dance to the kids. We used the stage as our classroom. In 1998, the theatre manager decided tone redo the lobby – which meant taking down all the pictures from all the shows from fifty years or so including my favorite photo of Bob in his villain’s garb. (‘There’s a point to this,’ I told the Scouts.)
One afternoon as I was teaching a dance class for seven-year-olds, about five kids suddenly stopped kicking and tapping and began pointing to the balcony.
“Who is that, Miss Flo?”
“Who is what?”
“Him! That man up in the balcony.”
I took a look. Nothing.
“What’s he look like?”
I expected a description of one of the techies, including long ponytail and clipboard attached to hand. What I got was a bang-on description of Bob Schmidt in his villain costume.
“See?” One child shouted. “What’s the matter with you?”
I looked up again. Nothing.
My little dancers obviously thought I was blind.
I told the director of the children’s theatre, a close friend of mine (who’d also performed with Mr. Schmidt) what the children claimed to have seen.
She blithely stated, “Oh. That’s Bob. He’s haunting the theatre. Loves your dance classes. Always did.”
Those children had never seen a picture of Bob Schmidt. Didn’t know about stovepipe hats and Snidely Whiplash moustaches and white sneakers yet they’d described him perfectly.
I never did see Bob. But I always felt strangely comforted to know he was watching class and apparently enjoying it. I knew I had a the beginnings of a story. I wrote it and lucked into having an editor read it. It became my first published book, Ghost of a Chance.”
Applause from the Scouts.
I’ve told this story before – Bob as ghost and inspiration. But for some reason sharing it with the Scouts and one little boy that night got to me.
We forget, with the business of queries and rejections and editing and putting up e-books and trying to figure out how best to promote ourselves that we do sit our bottoms down in front of the computer everyday and angst because we are storytellers. We have no choice. We have tales to tell and we must deliver those tales. The light in the eyes of an eight-year waiting to hear about a ‘real live ghost’ brought me back to that realization.
“Tell me a story!”
That’s why we write. We link back to a tradition started around campfires when some cave dweller entertained his family with how he fought – and beat – the big bad dinosaur that day. Storytellers. It’s a nice thing to remember.
Flo Fitzpatrick www.flofitzpatrick.com