Weaving Tales with Childhood Memories

by Melissa Ann Goodwin

I know that my childhood memories strongly influence my writing, but it took a class of third graders to show me just how much.

Last year, North Andover teacher Cyndi Desmond read my book, The Christmas Village, to her class. Afterward, every child in the class wrote me a letter, telling me what they liked about the book and asking great questions about characters and setting and plot. The class invited me to meet with them in the spring, and I jumped at the opportunity.

As I prepared for this classroom visit, I began to realize just how significantly my own childhood memories had factored into the writing of this book.

The kids asked: How did I come up with the names of my characters? Are they people I know?

I did specifically name one or two characters in The Christmas Village for real people from my past. But all the other names were made up. Or were they?

The names for the book's hero, Jamie, and his friends, Kelly and Christopher Pennysworth, Reggie Van Dyke and Rusty, came from my imagination. But Gordon, Preble, Thompson and Carpenter are all names of long-ago neighbors and friends, and I was surprised to see how frequently I'd used familiar names to populate the minor characters in my story.

In the few cases where a character was purposely named after someone I'd known, it was because that person had an important quality that my character shared. For example, Miss Ida, who runs the boarding house, is named for the mother of my grade-school best friend.

But while Miss Ida in The Christmas Village is "as plump as a ripe pumpkin … with fiery red hair and hundreds of freckles," the Ida I'd known in real life was tall, slim, blonde and freckle-less. Miss Ida who runs the boarding house is not Ida, my friend's mother. But the two Ida's personify an important quality –kindness.

The kids asked: Is Canterbury really the town where you grew up?

My answer to this question is an unequivocal, "Yes and no." Growing up in Andover, Massachusetts is a gift for which I am eternally grateful. My memories of winter and Christmases in New England, though perhaps softened at the edges by the passage of time, are still vivid.

In my memories, it always snowed on Christmas Eve! But even more than the sense memories – the sights, sounds, smells and tastes – there was a special feeling about holidays in New England – a feeling that I've never experienced anywhere else.

The fictional town of Canterbury, Vermont, in The Christmas Village is actually based on my own miniature Christmas village, which consists of a hodge-podge of buildings from several different collections. And in Canterbury, the year is 1932, whereas I grew up in Andover during the late 1950's to early 70's.

Yet, that feeling of Christmastime in New England throughout my book is created by descriptions that come straight from my childhood memories. Which brings us to the last question the third-graders asked me.

The kids asked: How did you come up with your descriptions?

This one was easy. I closed my eyes and pictured myself at age 10. I saw the white clapboard houses on my street dressed with evergreen wreaths on their windows and doors and ropes of laurel twirled around their wrought-iron banisters. I felt my shoulders hunch against the cold and wind as I burrowed my chapped face into my scarf.

I heard a choir practicing Christmas carols as I passed our church. I inhaled the scent of pine from Christmas trees for sale in the Town Hall parking lot and wood smoke floating through the thin night air. I heard the laughter and shouts of my brother and his friends playing hockey on the ice pond behind our neighbor's house. I felt the warmth of a roaring fire in the hearth and tasted hot cocoa and frosted sugar cookies.

I closed my eyes and remembered.

When 12-year-old Jamie Reynolds comes to his grandparents' Vermont home for Christmas, he just wants things to go back to the way they were before his dad disappeared. Time and again he is drawn to Grandma's miniature Christmas village, where he imagines that life is perfect.

Late one night, his fantasy of escaping into it becomes very real indeed.

Jamie discovers that the village is called Canterbury, where the year is 1932. He becomes fast friends with Kelly and Christopher Pennysworth, and is taken in by Ida, who runs the local boarding house. But he also makes a dangerous enemy of the mysterious and menacing Jim Gordon, whose return to town is nothing but trouble.

As Jamie desperately races against time to find his way back home, he is suddenly faced with a terrifying choice: to go ahead with his plan to leave, or to stay and help his friends, at the risk of never going home again.

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Melissa Ann Goodwin grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, where she spent a happy and carefree childhood reading books, summering on Cape Cod, and living in her own imagination. It was just a matter of time before the stories in her head spilled out onto the written page!

Her work has been published in Guidepost's Angels on Earth, Caring Today, The Caregivers' Home Companion, Boys' Quest, Fun for Kidz and Hopscotch, The Martha's Vineyard Gazette and the Andover Townsman. Her poem, "Poppies", won 10th place in the 2010 Writer's Digest Annual Poetry Competition. The Christmas Village, for readers aged 8 and up, is her first book. She's currently working on a sequel to The Christmas Village and a historical novel based on her mother's experience as an evacuee to Wales at the start of World War II.

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