First, I had to decide what the book was about.
Hmmm....well, when I first headed out with him to find the bear, Larry gave me lots of survival infomation in case we got separated or had an emergency. Things like-
- What I could find growing that I might or better not eat
- How to find my way back in a storm
- How to make a shelter from pine tree branches if I could not make it home
I decided that I would create a main character who knew all about the woods, just like Larry. Then I thought again about how much young Robert had wanted to go with us....and the dog, too. Then it came together for me:
Beginning- A homesteader dad takes his son on the boy's first hunt to find food for the winter and the dad gets hurt;
Middle-The boy doesn't know enough about the wilderness, but realizes he must listen to the dog;
End- The boy listens to the dog, who leads the boy to where they can get help to rescue the father
Then I had a great idea: The book would show how the boy learned from the dog!
I needed to kow everything I could about my main character. So I wrote a complete biography- of a dog. I wrote about when he was born, what he liked to do for fun, what he liked to eat, and where he liked to sleep. Then I began drawing and painting pictures of him so I would always know exactly what he'd look like, from any angle.
At first I thought I might show the dog Swift peeking out the cabin door, ready to go.
But then I decided the scene was too static. I needed more energy for my opening page. So I decided to show Swift and Johnnie and his dad all starting out- and I'd show them at dawn, so it felt like a real beginning.
I'd let my readers know right from the start that Swift was smart. I'd write that he knew they'd be going hunting a week before they left.
I needed to have just the right colors to make it seem early in the day, so I went outside and painted at dawn. I didn't feel like getting up that early, but it was important that I get the look just right.
I put Swift himself in the foreground and left Johnnie and Dad in the back ground because the dog is the main and most important character. Swift is who we most need to see.
To begin the story I needed to lay out the ground rules- who was who and what role they had and how serious hunting is. I also wanted to make it clear that Swift, Dad, and Johnnie only hunt because they have to- for food. It is not a game to them. That's why Swift won't play when Johnnie wants him to.
I also wanted to create a calm page so that the attack on the next page seemed even more active.
Originally, I had a leaf falling down by the dog to show that something had moved (the bear). But my editors found the idea very distracting. I took the leaf out in the final version, but to this day I disagree.
Showing the first bear attack was tricky. I wanted the scene to be exciting, but not exactly scary. I did not want to frighten some readers out of my book. It was also tricky because there was no way I could pose this scene- or even see it in real life. So I had to entirely make it up. I tried many different versions.
When I had a line sketch I liked, I decided to make a painting like it. I did not want a bloody scene, that would be too obvious. So I used very active stokes of paint to provide energy- and did you see that a tree is getting broken in the back ground? That is all done to create a threatening feeling.
This was an interesting page to make. My homesteader friend Larry had told me the things that I had the dad tell the boy, like how to splint a broken leg and how to make a shelter under a tree. But I made up the idea for the father to say, "...listen to the dog." Because the dog would know the way back.
One critic did not like the way I painted the dad and boy on this page. The boy did not look cute enough for the person- cute enough! Johnnie's dad is in horrible pain and the boy has to pull his leg straight to set it! Ow! It's not like he'd say, "Gee, daddy, isn't this fun?"
One last thing- originally when I sketched this page and did the painted illustration, I had the bear on the page. But then I decided it would create more tension if the bear got away- and followed the boy and dog as they went for help. So I painted out the bear and you can see the direction he left by the broken brush along the ground.
Oh, and then I had to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more.
I had to decide just how to show Johnnie almost running off the cliff. Should I show him running? Should I show Swift tackling him?
I choose to show the boy and dog up close at the edge of the cliff because it gave me an opportunity to have them visually connect with each other. That is why Johnnie's and Swift's eyes are so expressive in this picture.
I did several sketches for the painting of Johnnie climbing the tree. I wasn't sure if I wanted to come in close, be far away, focus on Swift, or begin to give each character equal weight. I decided to look down on Johnnie and Swift while they looked down off the ridge.
When you read the book did you understand what I meant when I wrote that Johnnie thought Swift "..was going to leave his scent."? The boy thought the dog was goning to go to the bathroom on the tree. When he realizes that he was mistaken, that Swift's message is more than that, Johnnie begins to understand that he must really listen to the dog. He must not just assume that he knows what Swift is saying.
I wanted the scenes in the deep woods to be very spooky. I made the trees bristly and made Swift's hackles stand up.
I wanted the page in which Swift is gone and Johnnie is all alone to be very, very eerie. I tried many different ways of doing this- by having Johnnie standing alone, by seeing him behind three....and finally, I thought of how, when I was small, I'd sometimes hide under my bed. Perfect. I showed Johnnie hiding under the tree on the bed of pine needles.
I used eerie colors to enhance the feeling of disorientation and fear, too. Here you see the painting in its beginning, middle, and end stages.
When Swift comes back, Johnnie gains his courage. The boy finally can take a shot at the dangerous bear. But he misses this time.
Johnnie is still so wrapped up in his own world that he does not see that Swift has injuries from his fight with the wolves.
This shows the progression of one of my favorite paintings in the book. I wanted to show how Johnnie and Swift were running from one danger right into another. I used the landscape to create that feeling. Behind them, the landscape is autumn-like but outside the thick woods, snow has fallen. This was a tricky painting, but a very fun painting to create.
My homesteader friend Larry told me that he'd often fallen through ice and gotten wet in below zero weather. He told me that you can survive it, but you have to keep moving. Do you remember how he said that when his feet got wet they first felt itchy, then they hurt- a lot? I decided to put that idea into my story.
In the story SWIFT I have Johnnie get just a little wet- because he does not fall in the beaver pond, but in the shallow runoff below it.
Funny thing is, a reviewer named Kristen Cutler wrote that, (in SWIFT)"Some of the events are not fully credible. At one point Johnnie falls into the "icy" beaver pond....it seems somewhat unbelievable that he can survive the cold and snow despite his frozen feet and frozen clothing."
I wonder if this reviewer read my book? Because I never said that Johnnie fell into the "icy" beaver pond, or any beaver pond- I wrote, "Loose wood, frozen mud, and I fell into the runoff below." And the runoff only has a few inches of water. Plus, Larry and other Alaskan homesteaders assured me that he would survive this incident. And hey, I was there. Like Johnnie, before understanding his dog, perhaps she assumed what I meant, and did not hear what I said.
At first I thought I might show Johnnie reacting to getting wet (first sketch). But then I realized that I needed to show not only Swift coming to his side, but I needed to show Johnnie's awareness that the dog was vulnerable, too- but that Swift would not give up no matter what happened to himself.
I started a painting showing Swift coming to his side. but it lacked power, somehow. Then I knew I had to come in close to get the feeling that I wanted.
On this page I wanted to show space and distance. Johnnie is cold and worn out and beginning to show signs of hypothermia. It's all up to Swift now- and the dog comes through. He finds Geezers broken-down cabin which can shelter them both.
But there is danger even in the cabin. Swift hears the bear outside. He wants to get Johnnie out of the cabin- you never want to be caught in a small space with an angry grizzly (do yuou remember that I learned that from Larry?).
But Johnnie won't leave the room- what would Swift do?
At first I had Swift bite him to get him going. But then I didn't want Swift to be a dog who would ever bite.
Next, I thought it would be interesting to see the scene through the old broken roof.
Then I realized that would be too distracting. Why would we suddenly be looking through the roof and how did it get broken?
I decided to show Swift pulling on Johnnie's trouser leg, showing the snow blowing into the room, and putting a dramatic shadow on the floor.
Finally, Johnnie understands – and takes control of the situation.