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January 21, 2011

Sara Zarr: On Writing ONCE WAS LOST

Posted by jordana


ONCE WAS LOST by Sara Zarr is one of this month's Special Features. We asked Sara to contribute to our blog, and here she is, talking to us about the writing of ONCE WAS LOST. 

Most questions and comments I get about Once Was Lost have to do with things like faith and doubt, depression, being a pastor's kid, and the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, which inspired the story. That makes perfect sense, of course. Those are major parts of the book, after all. But what I want to talk about is Sam's crush, Nick Shaw. Nick is a recent high school graduate, with a long-term girlfriend, and he's way more outgoing and popular than Sam. He's a regular in her youth group, so technically they know each other, but for Sam he's more the kind of guy you admire from afar.

Then, the kidnapping of Nick's little sister, Jody, brings Sam and Nick together in ways they didn't expect. And ways I didn't expect.

I never planned on there being any special connection between Sam and Nick. However, I've found that in all my books, stuff I “never planned” somehow becomes important in the final versions. That's the magic of writing—the stuff you can't plan.

The scenes with Nick were some of my favorite to write. I remember sitting in a coffee shop with my notebook and pen. Normally I write on the computer, but I was struggling with the question, “What happens next?” And when I'm struggling, I'm easily distracted. It's a lot easier to tweet or answer email than to work through the hard bits. So I made myself go out with only paper and pen, no phone or computer. And as I wrote, suddenly Nick and his silver mini-truck were turning up in places I didn't expect.

I also found myself worrying about Sam when she was with him. Just a little. Then I'd think, Oh, stop worrying. He's a good guy.

Or is he?

During the time Elizabeth Smart was missing, everyone was a suspect. Every day in the paper there was speculation about someone. There were a lot of crazy conspiracy theories about Elizabeth's family members having something to do with it. Throughout the book, I wanted to bring in that sense of nothing feeling safe, of doubting what you know even about even the people you know best. So I couldn't let Nick off the hook or out from under “the umbrella of suspicion,” as police were calling it at that time.

Well, I don't want to give too much away if you haven't read it.

I'll just give you a little teaser from a scene very early in the book, where we first see Nick and Sam interacting, while they're in youth group. His sister, Jody, has just kicked him in the shin:

Nick reaches to rub his shin and catches me staring. “It does kind of hurt,” he says, sheepish. “Don't let Jody make you think I'm not nice to her. It's her. Ever since she turned thirteen it's like the sister I knew has been taken over by an alien. A very emotional alien.” Then he smiles.

It's hard to explain how it feels when Nick Shaw smiles at you. No butterflies or blushing. It just feels good.