“The real magic is when someone creates a world you’re able to walk through and become part of while you read,” he said to a group of sixth-graders encouraging them to read all kinds of books and also to write their own stories.
Stricklen is the author of middle grade books including the Blackwater Pond three-book series “Beneath and Beyond,” “Through the Eyes of the Beast,” and “The Heart of the Swarm.” Each of his books feature mystery, fantasy and adventure.
Stricklen, a retired Grand Rapids Airport police chief, said his creativity was nurtured at an early age by his grandmother. She would make up stories from pictures and as he grew older, she showed him pictures and he would make up stories. He used the same kind of prompt with the sixth-grade students. Selecting one picture, he asked them to quickly help him build a story.
Choosing a picture of a pair of muddy boots Stricklen asked, “What do you think happened here? How did these boots get all muddy? What could have happened? We’re going to stack up our ideas and build a story about this picture,” he said.
Instantly, nearly every hand in the room shot up with eager students willing to share ideas. “He got stuck in the mud and he couldn’t get out and he just kept sinking in deeper and deeper,” said one student.
“Good - Now what’s the worst thing that could happen next?” asked Stricklan.
“He sinks up to his neck,” offers another student.
“Then what?” asks Stricklen.
“The wind blows a branch on a tree and he pulls himself out but there’s a man-eating tiger growling at him.”
And so, the story-telling process continues building on the conflict and rising complications until a climax and eventually a resolution.
Stricklen said ideas, no matter how crazy or improbable, can come from anywhere - personal experiences, something that’s been read or seen on television, or even dreams. “I keep a pencil and paper by my bed because sometimes I wake up after a dream and I write it down before I forget it,” he said.
“Sometimes you get ideas from something you’ve done or seen. If you write these things down they can become the inspiration for your stories. When you write something down it puts a lock on that idea and it's there forever.”
He encouraged students to get ideas in their heads and start writing a sloppy first draft. “Just get it on paper and keep writing. After you have that sloppy draft, then you go back and build the characters, add the dialogue and connect all the pieces in the story,” he said.
Stricklen also told students it’s important for their writing to have a hook early. “You want to keep them reading and wondering what’s going to happen next, so you have to hook them into the story right away,” he said. After sharing a couple of pages from his book ‘Beneath and Beyond,’ he asked students if they wanted to know what happened next.
“Do you want to keep reading? Do you want to know what happens? That’s the hook,” he said.
Similarly, at the end of the story Stricklen said readers should feel a “...big bang. “If the reader doesn’t care about the protagonist, they won’t care about the ending. You have to build up the characters in the book so the reader cares about them,” he said.
He pulled some magic out to demonstrate just what he meant. As he carefully slid a large needle through a blown-up balloon, it didn’t pop. “There’s no big bang,” he said. But after a student slipped the balloon off the needle, Stricklen pricked the balloon with the tip of the needle and the balloon popped with a “bang.”
“That’s what you want your reader to feel - that bang, that excitement,” he said.
Stricklen said he wants to encourage creativity in students and enjoys sharing his love of reading, writing and even painting. “I love hearing the ideas students come up with when we start to build stories from the pictures,” he said. “They are creative - they just can’t be afraid to use it.”