Sunday, January 10, 2010

Gone but not exploited

One of my goals in writing Vanished: True Stories of the Missing was to include a diverse range of experiences.

Here are the capsule summaries of the seven tales in the book:
  • 2002: a resourceful second grader was kidnapped in her poor Philadelphia neighborhood
  • 1925: a British explorer vanished while searching for a fabled city in the Brazilian jungle
  • 1997: an outdoorsman in British Columbia never arrived at his trial for cutting done a rare golden spruce
  • 1969: an accomplished jazz musician went missing after selling his beloved, damaged double bass
  • 1934: a 20-year-old free spirit, seasoned hiker, and avid correspondent lost contact with his family and friends while exploring the Utah desert
  • 2007: a 5-year-old survived a river boat accident only to find herself stranded alone in the woods
  • 1944: an internationally renowned children's book author went down over the ocean in his self-piloted military plane
This group struck a good balance of gender, ages, races, settings, time periods, and circumstances.

And since it was to be a book for all ages, but marketed primarily to kids ages 8 and up, another of my goals was really more of a responsibility.

Any story about a person who vanishes is going to have a certain level of creepiness. But in this case, none could progress to the worst-case scenarios of sexual abuse, torture, or murder. And that was more than fine by me.

Here are some (often unpleasant) things I learned, confirmed, or inferred in trying to choose which stories to include:

  • Few women and children who disappear (and are then found) escape unmolested. (Note: This and the next bullet are based only on the stories I came across; I didn't do any actual statistical analysis.) In Vanished, two of the seven stories focus on females and two focus on children. Curiously, they are the same two. (No other stories of vanished children that I came across were usable, most for reasons already stated—either they involved molestation or the children didn't survive.) The only case I found in which (a) a woman disappeared, (b) the woman was not victim of abuse, and (c) the story was otherwise appropriate for my audience was Amelia Earhart, and I didn't want to include her since she is already widely known.
  • Few children who are missing for more than a couple of days are found alive. Both of the children with stories in Vanished (the girl survivors mentioned in the previous bullet) were gone for under two days.
  • Few adults who are missing for more than a couple of days are found alive. However, this does not mean they are dead. It means only that they haven't been found. Unlike most children, adults sometimes disappear on purpose—they want to start new lives. Generally speaking, the longer someone is missing, the more captivating the story about his rediscovery. But in the time I had to research, I found almost no stories of people missing more than a week and then found alive. Only one story in Vanished fits this description. Most missing persons stories fall under one of the other categories: people who are missing for 1-3 days and are found alive, people who are missing for 1-3 days and are found dead, people who are missing for longer than 3 days and are eventually found dead.
  • Stories of people lost in the woods or going down in planes, while all deserving of individual respect, do start to seem the same. These seem to be two of the more common ways to vanish, but in terms of narrative, they often follow similar courses. If every story in Vanished involved one or the other, the book would likely become monotonous.
  • Stories of people disappearing in the wild seem more common than stories of people disappearing in cities or towns. Somehow, they also seem more nerve-racking. Perhaps this is because it seems as though it's harder to find someone in the wild. Only two stories in Vanished took place in urban areas, though I would've liked to have found more.
  • The topic allowed for drama more easily than I expected. Yes, "missing people" is a grabber—upon first hearing it. However, when trying to execute it, I anticipated that it would be hard to build suspense because the focus of the story is, well, missing. If that person was never found, I would not be able to set any scenes from his point of view once he vanished. And I anticipated that the grief patterns back home would start to read the same. Yet I realized that it was natural to create tension in the buildup to a disappearance and I was (from an authorial perspective) happy to find how many forms the grieving took.

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