Following the Thread The story behind The Door in the Mountain by Caitlin Sweet

Once upon a time… 

… my father told me stories in the dark. Some of them were about a pair of adventurous rabbits named Jimmy and Louise—and I got to tell those right along with him, giving the rabbits wackier and wilder adventures every time they “came to a part of the woods they’d never been before.” Many of his stories, though, were Greek myths. I didn’t speak, as he told me these; I curled up and listened with my eyes closed, trying to imagine one-eyed giants, a god turning into a sunbeam, a monstrous bull at the heart of a maze.

That last one really stayed with me. The Minotaur. Minos, King of Crete. Theseus of Athens, the hero; Ariadne, the princess who loved him, and gave him the thread that helped him find the beast and slay it. I loved the heroism. I loved the love, and was incensed every time my father said, “But Theseus left Ariadne behind”—because really: how could he? How could he dump the girl who’d helped him become the hero?

Years passed. I read bedtime stories to myself now, silently. I wrote stories too: all fantasy, because I wanted to re-capture the sense of wonder I’d felt as I listened to my father’s voice. This fantasy was of my own making—worlds, characters: everything created by me, from scratch. (Or as “from scratch” as I could make it, anyway, considering no story is ever truly new.)

In 2003, my first published novel was on bookstore shelves; my second joined it in 2005. At this point I stumbled, somewhat like Jimmy and Louise, into a writing place I’d never been before: The Maze of Fruitless Ideas, with its associated Quagmire of Despair. I started a new book, which died a year later. I started another book, which died a year after that. At last, in fall 2007, I hauled myself out of the marsh and followed the thread of a concept into a strange and wonderful labyrinth that turned out to be a book I could finish. It came out in 2011.

“So,” I thought. “What’s next?” And then I panicked.

I’ve never been very good at coming up with ideas. I felt like I’d never have another one, after my third book was published. I was totally blank. A fairy tale retelling, perhaps? How about a fantasy with historical elements?

I was already nearly there; I just didn’t know it yet.

Okay—so not a fairy tale: a myth. That was more up my alley, anyway. A reimagining of a Greek myth, maybe set in a high school. Yes: this would be my first attempt at a young adult novel with a contemporary feel! Persephone trapped in the boiler room…Theseus lost at the mall….

I panicked again. Because there was no way: I’ve never felt comfortable writing anything contemporary, and I couldn’t see that changing.

Almost the moment I acknowledged this, I decided I would write about the Minotaur—but not a modern-day version. He’d be a boy who could shapeshift into a bull—and other people would have powers as well, “godmarks,” and I’d set the whole thing on a semi-authentic version of Crete during the Bronze Age. Whee!

In a headlong rush, I wrote this:

All of them were chosen for their godmarks – all, except for Chara. Phoibe could conjure light from darkness; Melaina could bring the darkness down when things needed hiding. Adrastus could feel no fear. Kallias could stop men and beasts in their tracks with the beauty of his face, and Theseus could make those same men and beasts obey him when he raised his sword and his ringing voice. Thirteen youths with thirteen powers – and Chara, who had none.

“Prologue,” I thought feverishly. “Now onto the chapters.”

I wrote two, in which Ariadne was five and six years old. Then the fever passed, as suddenly as it had hit. Something wasn’t right. My sweet little princess and her shapeshifting half-brother were going nowhere.

Months went by. No writing; no way into the Cretan labyrinth, because the one in my brain was full of dead ends.

Finally, finally it occurred to me: I’d been following the wrong thread, and that wrong thread was Ariadne. She wasn’t a sweet little princess—no—she was a manipulative bitch who deserved to be left on an island. Now, some part of me was indignant and/or leery about this: the part that still longed for the kind of “happily ever after” closure of my childhood bedtime stories. The rest of me rejoiced. It had, after all, been a very long time since my own stories had featured happily-ever-afters. And this new direction felt right.

I went back to work, and this time the story flowed. It still took me nearly two years to finish what turned out to be volume one of two, but I managed to avoid getting stuck again.

Character, plot, chapters and parts and timelines: at any given moment during the writing of a book, these can all be mazes and threads. Finding my way through The Door in the Mountain’s labyrinth has been a dizzying rush of a journey—and it’s not over yet. There’s still book two to write, before I reach…

…The End.

Caitlin Sweet
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