S. S. Taylor and I thought it would be fun to do a three-part blog post together, to discuss the writing and drawing process behind three scenes from The Expeditioners series. Today is Part 1 in the conversation, about the first scene in the first book, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon. Take it away, Sarah!
SARAH: One of the really fun things about sending The Expeditioners series out into the world has been seeing it go out with Katherine Roy’s amazing illustrations inside and her beautiful cover art on the front. It’s a strange thing for an author, seeing someone else’s idea of how your characters look when you’ve been carrying your own images of them around for so long. But I love Katherine’s work and I’ve loved seeing her illustrations of moments in my stories.
KATHERINE: And what a dream for an illustrator to get to help build the visual world of a new middle-grade novel adventure series, especially by working so collaboratively with the author! From the first scene of the first Expeditioners book I was hooked on the world that Sarah had created, full of danger and fantastic details, and saw in my mind so many possibilities for the images I could make.
SARAH: We thought it would be fun to take you “behind-the-scenes” of the process of writing and illustrating three important moments in the Expeditioners series. Let’s get started!
Amerigo Vespucci and I had gone out to try to find some flour when the Explorer with the clockwork hand caught up to me in an alley behind the market stalls.
SARAH: This is the way The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon begins. Kit West, the narrator, is thirteen at this moment in the story. He lives in a world where it’s been discovered that the maps of the world are all wrong and that there are new places to discover and explore. He and his brother and sister are trying to survive on their own after their father, a famous Explorer, disappears while on an expedition. As Kit cuts through an alleyway on his way home from the market, he’s attacked by a mysterious man.
I was halfway down the alley when the man caught up to me. I sensed him before I heard him running behind me, but there wasn’t anything I could do. . . .
“Quiet,’”the man growled . . .
“I don’t have any money, but you can have the copper in my coat pocket,” I whispered, trying to show him I wasn’t going to scream. We were all alone in the alley. No one would hear me over the noise of the market. There wasn’t any point.
“No,” he said, “I don’t need copper. Turn around. Slowly now.”
SARAH: Kit knows that the mysterious man is an Explorer of the Realm—one of the glamorous class expeditioners who go out to find new lands and resources—from his clothing. The man gives him a package. The book in the package will lead Kit to a mysterious half-a-map that seems to be from his father.
He was offering it to me. My hands were shaking but I managed to take it from him. It was heavy, about the weight and shape of a printed book.
‘What’s your name?” he asked.
“Christopher,” I whispered. “Christopher West.”
“How old are you?”
“Your dad was right. You don’t look much like him.”
SARAH: It took me a long time to realize that this was the scene that needed to open the book. I had experimented with lots of different ways of getting the half-a-map into Kit’s hands. In one version, the siblings happened to come across it in their father’s office, in another draft, they received it in the mail.
But as soon as I came up with the character of the Explorer with the Clockwork Hand, I knew this was it. He added mystery and tension to the narrative. Who was he? Had he known Alexander West? He raised more questions than he answered and I liked the way that affected my story. His reference to Kit’s father introduces, right off the bat, one of the central questions of the series – is there any chance that Alexander West is still alive?
I also used him to introduce the world in which the story takes place. The Explorer wears a leather jacket studded with gadgets and utilities; he signals to the reader that we’re in a different place, even before I provide background on this world where the computers have all crashed and people have gone back to older technologies – steam and clockwork.
KATHERINE: The explorer with the clockwork hand was such an amazing character to open with that it was immediately obvious that he should be in the first illustration in the book. To come up with his look, I highlighted the character details in my copy of the manuscript—his gear, his leather clothing, his hat, his unshaven face, etc.—and then began making pencil sketches on blank copy paper to try out different options. I also used Google’s image search as a reference jumping off point for specific “explorer” and steampunk details, and for examples of mechanical hands. I kept sketching and drawing until the images started to feel “right” and captured the mood and tone of the scene that Sarah had written.
SARAH: I wanted the encounter to be a little bit scary, and I wanted Kit and the reader to believe that the man might actually do him harm. This was an important detail because Kit and his siblings really do have to look out for some of the adults in this world.
A gadget on the Explorer’s jacket starts beeping and he disappears as quickly as he appeared. We don’t yet know what he’s given Kit, but we know that someone is after him and that he has taken a great personal risk to give Kit the package. I wanted that sense of danger to come through, so the reader will intuit how huge, how important this map must be for the Explorer to risk so much in giving it to Kit.
KATHERINE: After coming up with the look of the explorer with the clockwork, I need to decide how to pose him to convey that sense danger and risk for both him and for Kit in their brief encounter. Do I show the clockwork man from behind? Do I show him from the front? Is he standing on the left side of the composition, or on the right? I asked my husband Tim, who now has a default second career as a reference actor for my illustrations, to pose in a couple difference positions to help me think through the composition and stage direction of the drawing. Though the explorer is definitely more mysterious when turned away from the “camera,” or the reader, this pose was a little too creepy, too predatory for my taste. In the end I decided to compose the drawing with the explorer facing forward.
KATHERINE: I also thought about point of view when working on the image. Should we the readers be looking at the explorer as if we are Kit, in a first person point of view? Or should I include Kit in the scene, which would make it a third person point of view? My illustrations have the freedom to move in and out of first and third person voice—sometimes we are watching Kit, and sometimes we are looking at an object or a person as if we are him—and I think this freedom is a nice compliment to the first person narration of Sarah’s text, as it adds another dimension to the storytelling. In this case, for the very first illustration in the book, I thought it would be important to visually show both Kit and the explorer, because both characters needed to be visually introduced. In my final digital rough draft I put the explorer with the clockwork hand on the left and Kit on the right, so that the explorer could give the package to Kit in the direction of left-to-right. In the U.S. we read from left to right, so actions in still images like illustrations or comics usually happen in the same direction, with the action ending on the right side of the page. Then I added in a few other details—Pucci the parrot sitting in the upper right hand corner, watching the scene, and the market in the background—and then made the final drawing in pencil and ink wash.
SARAH: The Explorer was one of those characters who started out as a bit player and became something much more. He’s going to be an important part of the series from here on out.
KATHERINE: Which means that I’d better get used to drawing that hand!
SARAH: Thank you for reading! We’ll be back next Tuesday, December 9th, for the next installment of this behind-the-scenes discussion!
KATHERINE: Thanks, folks! See you soon! And in the meantime, if you don’t already own both of The Expeditioners books, please swing by your local book store or order them from Amazon.com. Next week we’ll be talking about Book Two!