Danika Dinsmore is a poet, filmmaker, educator… and accidental novelist. She has been working with children in a variety of settings for 20 years. In 1996, she co-founded the Northwest SPokenword LAB and began Washington State’s first youth poetry slam.
She worked as an artist-in-the-schools for Learning Through the Arts and has taught writing courses at Vancouver Film School, Capilano University, and Creative Writing for Children. She accidentally became a novelist when she adapted an original feature film script into a middle-grade fantasy adventure called Brigitta of the White Forest.
I recently reviewed Brigitta of the White Forest and had the opportunity to ask Dinsmore about her “accidental” path to publication. . .
Tell us about your path to publication and how you became the accidental novelist.
Brigitta was originally a feature screenplay. I hadn’t actually planned on becoming a novelist. Oh, I had romantic notions about it as a teenager, but it was a daunting thing to attempt. A fantasy adventure movie, however, is cost-prohibitive, and a huge risk for a studio if it doesn’t contain a known element (i.e. a known book, a known director, a known actor, etc), so I thought why not create a built-in fan base by turning it into a novel first? As well, writing a novel version would mean that no matter what a studio did to my script, my original story would live intact.
So, my original intention was quite practical. I wanted to make the story more marketable. The magical thing that happened in the process was that I ended up loving novel writing! The story became deeper and richer and darker and just more wonderful to hang out inside. At an earlier stage of the novel I found a fabulous agency, but they couldn’t sell the manuscript to any large publishing houses and we parted ways. I workshopped it and ended up doing two more full drafts and I’m really thankful that I did. Those early rejections not only toughened my skin, they forced me to create a better book.
By that time I had become a) far too attached to the book and b) really impatient to get it out into the world. I then turned down two offers of representation, because I decided I wanted to go the small press route. Something the agents weren’t too keen on. It had to do with wanting to be more involved in the process and wanting to release it sooner.
What was your inspiration for Brigitta of the White Forest?
I honestly wrote the screenplay to do something more commercial. My previous screenplays were primarily low-budget character-driven indie dramas and I wanted to do something completely different. A genre film, something really big, with commercial and merchandising potential. I wanted to show my diversity as a writer, that I could actually write a “bigger,” more commercial film.
One day I was baby-sitting a friend’s store. This store is full of magical items, tarot cards, renaissance wear, statues of dragons and other fantastic creatures. She happened to have faeries everywhere at the time, so that was when the idea of writing about faeries came to mind. And these two faerie sisters just dropped into my head and I knew I had found my main characters. I feel like I actually “channeled” the main storyline. It’s a great feeling when something just drops into my head complete like that. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to get down on the page! I still had to write it all down.
Again, from a practical intention came the magic of loving the project. The characters and the world all became very dear to me.
I find it fascinating that you wrote a White Forest world book so you could navigate your imagined world. There are just so many details throughout the book. How long did it take from idea to publication and what challenges did you face creating this other world?
I wrote my first draft in 2003 while I was working on a film set on location on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. It’s a beautiful wooded landscape, with plenty of places for faeries to hide. It was completely serendipitous that I booked this gig and that I had so much spare time on my hands. So I wrote the first draft that month while I was out there. While I was out there I met an artist who was working on a series of faerie sculptures. I went back to visit on several occasions and we would have late-night discussions about the faerie world I had created.
I had already started a glossary of all the imagined flora and fauna, just so I could keep them straight, but I wanted to know other things like, How did the faeries get to this protected realm? Are there faeries in other parts of this world? How long have they been around? What kinds of magic can they do or not do? How do faeries procreate? What ELSE lives in other parts of this world? I wanted to know the entire history, so that I could confidently proceed with my rewrites. Some people might think it’s easier to work with an imagined world, because you can do anything you want inside of it, but that’s not true. You can’t do just anything. You have to have a set of rules and a history or else it will be inconsistent and unbelievable. There’s no way to write about an imagined people without knowing who they are and where they have been and what motivates them.
I came up with a personality / physical trait guide to the elemental faeries. I drew maps of the continents on the planet and made up the stories of the residents of each continent. I came up with a faerie diet and the names of all their festivals. I drew a chart of all the rulers back to when the White Forest was created. I knew a lot of this information would never appear in the story, but I had to know for myself. I think the biggest challenge was that it was simply a huge can of worms. There was no end to the things I could create about this world. It dawned on me during writing the world book that there were more stories to tell inside this world.
I finished a draft of the World Book by the end of 2003 and then continued my screenplay rewrites. I finished the first draft of the novel in 2005. I took the screenplay off the market so I could continue developing the novel series. I had my first bites in 2006, rode the roller coaster of hope and rejection, and finally settled on en theos in 2009.
What else can readers expect from this series, Faerie Tales from the White Forest?
The series is shaped more like the original The Chronicles of Narnia rather than, say, the Harry Potter books. We’ll definitely follow Brigitta and her companions on more adventures, but the series also goes back in time to tell some of the other characters’ stories, as well as all the way back in time to the Valley of Noe (the ancient faerie lands) to find out why and how they escaped to the White Forest in the first place (squee! Sometimes I get over-excited when I think about it as I’m the only one who knows what really happened! It’s so hard to keep this a secret!). Brigitta will grow into a young woman as the series progresses with more and more responsibility.
You’ve been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years, and you’re a screenwriter and poet. What do you like best about writing novels?
The freedom! What originally seemed like such a burden has become my favorite thing about it. As a screenwriter, I’m only meant to create the blueprint for the actors, director, cinematographer, set designer, etc. You must allow people to do their jobs. It’s the mark of an amateur screenwriter who writes in all the camera angles and micro-manages the actors. But as a novelist, all the responsibility is the writer’s. From costuming to set decorating to every character’s gesture. And you can even get inside their heads if you’d like! I don’t do that much because that’s a no-no as a screenwriter. I’ve been trained to only write what you can see on screen, so it took me a while to feel safe enough to do that. But, whee! – how freeing!
To learn more about Brigitta of the White Forest, please visit TheWhiteForest.com
Reading Level: Ages 9-12
Publisher: En Theos Press