The Origins of “The Gift of the Puzzle Box” Story


A few years ago a friend told me for his entire life all he ever wanted was “to be of use.” The youngest of five children, his older sisters and brother constantly said he was too young, too small, too weak or not smart enough to handle just about anything he was interested in doing. He spent years thinking up ways to show them he was smart enough, and big enough.

Being a bigger sister, my friend’s perspective fascinated me. I thought about how a kid might prove them wrong, and what lessons he might learn in the process. I thought it would be cool if some mysterious member of the family gave him something to help accomplish the job. Maybe that person would just show up on the kid’s birthday with this really incredible gift. Maybe it would have some great stuff inside.

I figured it also needed to have some intrigue – it couldn’t be just a shoebox full of stuff. I remembered a puzzle ring someone gave me many years ago, and that gave me the idea of a puzzle box.

It seemed likely the kid wouldn’t know how to use his gift and get everything right the first time, but if he was someplace besides home he could practice a few times before he proved his siblings wrong. It seemed like he ought to be close enough to home that he could walk there. Then I got the idea that if he ran away from the older, teasing and taunting siblings he could take all the time he needed to practice and develop his skills.

I loved C.S. Lewis’s books that included fantasy with the common everyday aspects. I thought if my character went through a portal he’d be out his siblings’ sight. I decided to write the story with some magical creatures; I didn’t know what or who they would be when I started. The only character I knew from the start turned out to be a minor character, Sirod.

For me, it seemed it would be easier to write a believable story if the setting was in the past. I chose the 1940s.

Next, I needed to imagine a place where my kid would live. Once I lived near York in southern Pennsylvania. We rented a small house on what our landlord called an estate. Their large stone home edged the Mason-Dixon Line; built on land that had been deeded to the family by William Penn. It was surrounded by carefully tended gardens and a spacious lawn that swept down the hill to a pond. On the north side of the pond was a spring house. A large weeping willow tree anchored the side opposite the house. In my imagination, this is where I thought my character should live.

When I first started writing the story I called my hero by a different name. One of my early readers had the same name and it soon became apparent that it would be easier if my kid found a new name. This is how he became Michael, my buddy and my pal.

I never plotted out what was going to happen, I simply started telling the tale. Sometimes I’d take a break from writing. After a few days, in the dark shadowy hours before sleep, or just before dawn, Michael would whisper to me about a new adventure. I’d turn it around in my mind, solving a few technical difficulties. Like yeast causing the bread to rise, those thoughts would grow until I felt I needed to put it down on paper, so I could print it out, and share it with my writing group.

Other times I’d find I’d written myself into a corner and it looked like Michael was a goner. I’d walk away from writing and let it simmer on the back burner of my mind. Soon enough I’d wake up some morning and I’d know what smidgeon of magic would give us enough boost to save the day.

It’s been a joy to share time with Michael and his old pal Laddie. So much fun, in fact, that before I finished The Gift of the Puzzle Box, I knew there would be another Michael story. Shortly after, I attended the first Wisconsin Writers Association’s Bookcamp, and I decided to give Michael the chance to tell us about one year of his life.

I plan to write four books, each taking place in one season, and always on the night of a full moon when Laddie’s magic would help transport Michael to Kroy, the opposite of his home in York. Miz Bates became a central figure in the series when she told Michael about a character her father described. He is called The Nightwinder.

These are tales about bringing order to times of confusion, and touched with evil. The Nightwinder calls out for a hero to set things to right. In these tales Michael does his best to respond, with a little help from his friends.

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