Anyone who creates has some sort of influence that has stuck with them from childhood. Game developers remember their first time playing DOOM or Super Mario Bros. Musicians recall their first time hearing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or U2 or Ludacris. Writers look back to any book they picked up from their local library’s kids section.
I remember five distinct pieces of media – two books, two book series, and a video game – that have stuck with me to this day and have influenced much of the characters in my personal canon. I’ll share those with you now.
Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne (1992-present)
I love that Mary Pope Osborne is still writing the Magic Tree House series. My nephews and nieces have read the newer books in the series while I have fond memories of the first ones. If you went to elementary school in America, chances are that you read the Magic Tree House books as well, and maybe you loved them as much as I did. But for the uninitiated:
Jack and Annie Smith are two kids living in the quiet town of Frog Creek, Pennsylvania (which doesn’t exist, although you can replace it with just about anywhere in Pennsylvania.) One day, they discover a tree house in their backyard which is operated by Morgan le Fay, the enchantress from Arthurian legend. The treehouse is full of magic books, and every time the kids open a book, the treehouse takes them inside the book’s world. Often, Morgan – and later on Merlin – will leave clues hidden in these books to get the kids to solve a mystery.
The Magic Tree House series still goes strong today because it’s a masterpiece of children’s literature. It mixes history with fantasy, fun and danger, and kid-friendly simplicity with more complex themes from throughout the literary and historical canon. I like to consider the series as the base that shaped my imagination; the other pieces of media on this list more fully shaped my specific interests, but without Magic Tree House, there’s nothing.
Ghost Twins by Dian Curtis Regan (1994-1995)
As I explained in my post about the imaginary friends, the Ghost Twins series influenced Robbie and Beka Stevenson, two of my oldest characters. Regan’s books follow Robbie and Beka Zuffel, twins who drowned in Kickingbird Lake fifty years before the series begins. The lake becomes part of a resort, and as visitors start to frequent the site, Robbie, Beka, and their ghost dog Thatch get involved in all sorts of hijinks.
Ghost Twins was the first piece of media that really stuck with me. I clung on to the supernatural tones, mostly because I read the books during a formative time in my life where I started to wonder what happened to people when they died. The idea of ghosts moving around in the shadows and causing all sorts of trouble interested me, and so I started to write more about paranormal events and dark fantasy. You’re going to notice that the other books on this list follow this theme. I credit my fourth and fifth grade teachers for this.
Stonewords by Pamela Louise Conrad (1990)
With all due respect to Ms. Conrad, Stonewords absolutely messed me up.
Stonewords introduces readers to Zoe and Zoe Louise, two best friends who have grown up together since childhood. Zoe lives with her grandparents, while Zoe Louise is a ghost who has haunted the house for over a hundred years. Zoe and Zoe Louise can visit each other’s worlds through the unused back stairs in the house, and as Zoe grows up and learns more about her friend’s demise, she becomes obsessed with finding out how to save Zoe Louise. But both of them fear that if Zoe meddles in the past, she’ll destroy the friendship that they have in the present.
This book got me into the ramifications of time travel, as well as the idea of everyday objects or liminal spaces acting as portals to other times and dimensions. It was also the first young adult novel that I read with well-crafted female characters. Not only are Zoe and Zoe Louise major protagonists, but Zoe’s mom and grandma each have developed backstories and personalities that make them feel like much more than supporting characters.
The reason that this story messed me up is because it went hard with the gruesome details. No spoilers, but there’s a part where Zoe is watching the ghost of Zoe Louise kind of deteriorate in front of her, and I’d be a goddamned liar if I said that didn’t give me nightmares for a week.
Much like I did with Ghost Twins, I borrowed Zoe from Stonewords and crafted her into a new character for my own canon. She shares a tiny bit of the backstory – no dad, messed-up mom, grew up living with her grandparents – but other than that, she’s totally different. She didn’t have a ghost friend growing up, but I can neither confirm nor deny that she had an imaginary friend.
Time for Andrew by Mary Downing Hahn (1994)
I read Time for Andrew at the same time that I read Stonewords. This was because my fifth grade teacher was trying to introduce us to the idea of synthesis essays, and she figured that the books were similar enough that we would get the idea of how to write a good paper. I loved both of these books so much that I got an A+ on the assignment, but I got in trouble because I read ahead of the rest of the class. (I don’t actually remember what grade I got, but the getting in trouble definitely happened. I was a bright kid! Sue me.)
Time for Andrew follows Drew, your average mid-Nineties middle-class soft boy, who’s visiting his great-aunt for the summer. During his stay, he receives a visit from Andrew, a more aggressive kid who has materialized in the present from 1910 and is technically Drew’s great-great-uncle. Andrew is dying of diphtheria, so Drew agrees to switch places so that Andrew can get better through modern medicine. For a time, Drew explores 1910 and learns about the past, his family, and the trials of growing up at the turn of the century. Andrew, meanwhile, reaps the benefits that the 1990s have to offer. Of course, Drew wants to return to his own life, but Andrew’s not going to go back to the old times without some sort of price.
This book stuck with me because it had similar themes to Ghost Twins and Stonewords, which I already loved. But it also played with the theme of alternate selves, another concept which has wormed its way into some of my writing. This also messed me up a little bit; I started to wonder if the people we meet are really from this timeline or if they’ve switched places with folks from different times or universes. I also started to think about the idea of a multiverse, or at least the fickleness of our universe. If Andrew and Drew didn’t switch back, what would have happened to Drew’s family? Would the whole world have become different? Would – could – such a thing happen in the real world?
Anyway, it freaked me the hell out. While I didn’t borrow any characters from Time For Andrew, it got me into reading more YA and adult historical fiction. I already had an interest in historical fiction from reading the Magic Tree House series, but Time For Andrew acted as a bridge between the kids’ section and the adult section of the library.
Eagle Eye Mysteries (1993)
Back in the 1990s, Electronic Arts (known today as the infamous EA) spun off their children’s software division into EA*Kids and published all sorts of DOS games for a younger audience. One of these games was Stormfront Studios’ Eagle Eye Mysteries, a point-and-click whodunnit game with dozens of different mysteries for kids to solve. (Old gamers will recognize Stormfront Studios as the developers of famous pioneer MMORPG Neverwinter Nights, the early 3-D fantasy adventure Stronghold, and of course, Tony La Russa Baseball.)
Eagle Eye Mysteries featured Jennifer and Jake Eagle, two kids from the fictional suburb of Richview who ran their own private investigation business out of a treehouse in their backyard. (Man, the Nineties really was all about treehouses, huh?) It was one of the first games to feature full voice acting, which was huge because the game featured so many challenges and all sorts of different characters. It made the game that much more immersive, and at a time with limited technology, that was a massive feat to pull off.
From Eagle Eye Mysteries, I learned how to worldbuild. Richview wasn’t a big place, but it felt like one because of the characters and places featured in all of the Eagles’ mysteries. So much goes into creating even the smallest of towns, and before playing the game I had no idea how much detail went into developing a location to make it feel real. I also learned how to build suspense, as while the mysteries featured in the game weren’t terribly complex, they were written in such a way that really made you wonder who actually did the dang thing.
The game influenced my writing in that my earliest stuff featured a lot of sibling pairs, many of whom are still part of my character canon to this day (Monica and Lee Marrows, Robbie and Beka, Jimmy and Adrianne Finkle). But it would also sneak back into my writing later on, as I developed Mallory McAllister into a mystery-solver who runs her own agency out of her old house in Brooklyn.
Wrap it up
So that’s a little dip into the media influences from my childhood. I don’t think it’s strange at all that these works about solving crimes and ghosts and time travel and death have stuck with me more than, say, Sesame Street or Mister Rogers. But then again, I was a weird and curious kid. I went to the library to look through the periodicals. I would spend my time reading through translation dictionaries. By the time they started teaching us about sex in school, I knew everything already because I’d often sneak into the romance section of the local Barnes & Noble. And folks, I’m happy to say that I still managed to turn out as a well-adjusted, totally normal adult with no messed-up traits whatsoever.