Early Writing, Early Dreams

by James Scott Bell

The first novel I ever wrote was about a boy who sneaks aboard a pirate ship. I was in third grade, in Mr. McMahon’s class at Serrania Avenue Elementary School, deep in the heart of the post-World War II paradise known as the San Fernando Valley.

It was in this fertile land that babies boomed, along with the blast of rocket engines being tested at Rocketdyne. Nestled between the Santa Susana and Santa Monica mountain ranges, this piece of Earth extends 25 miles east to west, 13 miles north to south. It was “discovered” by the Spanish expedition under Gaspar de Portolá in August of 1769.

The Spaniards, of course, encountered the native inhabitants, who called themselves, simply, the people. The Spaniards called them Fernandeños, for they had decided to name this valley after King Ferdinand III.

In the latter part of the 1940s, returning servicemen came back from fighting Hitler and Tojo and staked claims in the housing developments of the Valley.

One of them was Arthur S. Bell, Jr. During his service in the Navy he met and married a beauty named Rosemary, and after the war built a house for them in Woodland Hills—yes, built, as he had learned the carpentry trade—and had a couple of boys. He went to law school at USC. After graduating he began his practice. All was going according to plan when his wife announced a little “surprise.”

They named the surprise James Scott. Scott is a family name, all the way back to James Winfield Scott who fought with Sherman in the Civil War.

The neighborhood in which young JSB grew up was teeming with kids. The neighbors all knew each other. They came out on summer evenings to sit on a stoop outside the Koteki household to drink beer and smoke and talk, as the kids played all around them.

Even as night fell, we kids rode bikes without helmets or helicopter parents watching our every move. We played hide and seek, kick the can, hit the bat. But not spin the bottle, which was forbidden to children of our age, but was whispered about as a pastime of the teenagers. It involved kissing girls, so I was not at all interested in becoming a teenager. Girls had cooties.

But I was talking about my first novel. It was written on my big brother’s notebook paper, three holes on the side. Four pages in all, including illustrations.

When I showed it to Mr. McMahon, he said, “This is a good idea.” Later that day he announced to the class that “Jimmy Bell wrote a book. It’s this big. You can look at it after school. I’d like each of you to take a week and write a book, too.”

I was already influencing a generation of young writers.

It is a tragedy of minimal proportions that this early work of literary genius is lost and will not be among the papers I leave to the University of Southern California (which may mean just leaving them on the table at the Trojan food court). But it’s in my head, and I can see it even now. The first illustration was a boy, barely more than a stick figure, climbing the anchor chain to get aboard a ship.

The boy’s name was James Green.

James, because that’s such a wonderful name, and evidence of my incipient desire to live vicariously through the adventures I was making up. Green, because that was my favorite color, for it was the color of the togs of both Peter Pan and Robin Hood, two of my heroes.

Peter Pan, because he could fly and fight pirates.

Robin Hood, because he could laugh and shoot arrows and sword fight with Basil Rathbone. Also because he could win the heart of Maid Marion, who was played by Olivia de Havilland in the movie, and who I was in love with. Or, I guess, had a crush on, considering my tender years. After watching The Adventures of Robin Hood, I concluded girls did not have cooties after all.

My friend Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, a standard text for screen and fiction writers, would say that all this was my “call to adventure.”

I think he’s right, because Peter Pan and Robin Hood never left me. They are with me still.

So there I was, writing an adventure story about a boy on a ship, sensing even then that this was what I wanted my life to be about—going on adventures, and what better way to do that than write story after story where I could live my dreams?

Do you remember your first attempt at writing a story? Tell us about it. At that time in your life, what did you dream of doing someday?

45 thoughts on “Early Writing, Early Dreams

  1. My first story that I wrote and illustrated was in first grade. It was called The Horse Who Went to Heaven. I remember the pictures more than the story. My horse had wings and he was beautiful.

    In 6th grade we had to do the obligatory What I Did This Summer essay. I wrote about spending time with my cousins at Aunt Jean’s in Gautier, Mississippi. It was a paradise back then. On a hill overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone who lived on Cedar Point was a relative or a close friend. We used to play hide and seek and Piggy Wants a Wave at night with flashlights. I started out writing about that but ended up with aliens using their flashlights to suck up Cousin Billy into their spaceship and my cousin Sarah and I having to rescue him. My English teacher, Mr. McMurray at Gold River Elementary, called me up to him, looked me in the eye, said “You are a writer. Never forget that.” He had me read it to the class. They liked it.

    Good times. Thank you for bringing it back.

    Several years later, when I was in high school, a Gautier man was abducted by aliens.

  2. Thanks for sharing this peek into your childhood, Jim. Surprise, indeed!

    My first story was written in kindergarten. I could barely write, so it was a couple of words and a lot of artwork, which looked like I had grabbed some crayons and scribbled at random on that rough brown paper they used to pass out. Mrs. Keathley, the teacher, listened very seriously as I explained that it was the first episode of a series involving two brothers looking for treasure. I might have been marginally influenced by The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure, The Mickey Mouse Club adaptation of The Tower Treasure, the first in the series of Hardy Boy Books. Bless her. She kept a straight face.

    Do you know if Mr. McMahon ever learned of subsequent success?

    Have a great week, Jim!

    • Right on, Joe. You were already thinking in terms of a series! The Mickey Mouse Club and Hardy Boys were influences for me, too. Remember Spin and Marty?

      I don’t know what happened to Mr McMahon. I do remember he was tall and a disciplinarian. But my favorite time was when he would read the Henry Huggins stories to the class.

  3. Aside from my short-short story written in the 3rd grade and published in the local Atherton, CA newspaper, my writing journey began in 5th grade. We had to write a short story every week and our teacher would read them aloud every Thursday after lunch. My first story was called The Mysterious Man. I couldn’t decide how to end it, so I wrote “To be continued . . .” After that, every single other student wrote “To be continued” at the end of their stories. Who knew I could influence an entire classroom of 11-year-olds?

  4. I wrote (or better, I attempted to write) my first novel when I was 12 or 13. Then I was swept away by movies and wrote many screenplays before returning to writing novels. 😊📚📚📚📚

  5. I never had aspirations to be a writer, but I ran out of room for any more needlepoint projects. I was well into my 50s and noodled with a piece of fan fiction. Thought it was fun, wanted to see if I could create my own characters. Joined an online writing group, answered a “write a 200 word hook” exercise, and people wanted to know what happened next. So did I, and I ended up writing “Finding Sarah.”

  6. Good morning, Jim. I loved this look back at where you grew up and your first “novel”.

    In 7th grade I wrote and illustrated a piece of fan fiction for Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” I had been riveted by the book. The following year, I wrote two science fiction stories for my Language Arts class. One is lost forever, the other I still have, “Voyage to the Andromeda Galaxy.” I loved writing both stories, but for whatever reason, didn’t follow up with anything other than scene fragments until I was in college.

    Back in Junior High I wanted to be an astrophysicist when I grew up, because I loved the stars and the night sky. Alas, math beyond algebra proved too much for me. Just as well, because I was also drawn to history and fiction, and of course, libraries.

    Thanks for a wonderful trip down memory lane. Hope you have a fine Sunday.

    • Illustrations were a big deal to me, too, Dale. Even though I couldn’t draw. Thinking visually, though, helped me, I think. Creating pictures with words is what we do!

  7. In the fifth grade, I wrote a story about a robot from outer space that terrorized the Earth. Troops marched, cannon roared, but to no effect. Our hero decides to use an A bomb.

    I managed to recycle every stereotype I’d ever seen or read. That’s one way to get the bad writing out of your system.

  8. I don’t recall writing any stories until 11th grade literature class. We had a cute new teacher, just out of college. Several of the boys created a ghost student, John Kauffman, who turned in papers for all assignments. Cloaked in anonymity, John wrote stories on the edge of acceptability. Miss Warner was amused, and read his stories to the class. John got an A for the year, and was never uncovered.

    Alas, Miss Warner left our school after that year, and my interests returned to science and math, and a career in medicine.

  9. My first story was a chapter book. I wrote it in fourth grade because our teacher wanted us to write a story. She showed us how to bind it with a real cover and end papers. Each chapter was a page or two long, typed. I think my mom helped with the illustrations. I called it “Tina Pteranodon” because I loved dinosaurs. I think I still have it.

    In highschool, I attempted, several times, to write mystery novels by hand. Now I write medieval fantasy romance.

  10. My third grade teacher wrote on my report card, ‘A creative child with a vivid imagination.’ Being a middle child with my siblings being over four years older or younger meant I was alone a lot, but I always had my story people. Writing came easily in school and by the time I graduated, I wanted to become a photojournalist and travel all over the world taking photos and writing about the people and places I saw. But, I met a guy. He loved to travel, too, and before we were 20, we’d been to half the states.
    All this time, my story people hung around, and I started writing their stories in spiral notebooks. I wasn’t thinking about publishing, but my husband bought a computer for me, at a time when they were considered a luxury, so I figured I’d type a story and get it published to make the huge investment worth it. After consulting Writer’s Market, I picked a publisher, and picked an editor because she had the same name as one of my sisters. She called me three weeks later and said they wanted to publish my book.

  11. Loved your look back at childhood. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have been born in the post-WWII years can identify with the simple joy of growing up with roller skates, bikes, and scraped knees.

    I can’t remember my first attempt at writing, but the first story I wrote that I do remember had to do with an evil band of thieves, a rich family with a subservient butler, and a policeman who was trying to find the elusive head of the gangster group. I asked my Aunt Imogene to give me a good name for the butler since I wasn’t exactly on intimate terms with wealth. She suggested “Jeeves.”

    The teacher read my story to the class. I remember being embarrassed when she read the surprise ending revealing the lead gangster and my classmates clapped. it was Jeeves.

  12. In fourth grade, I read this nutmeg book called The School Story by Andrew Clements. It was about this seventh grader who had an editor for a mom (quite convenient) and wrote a story for her to publish. But she couldn’t let mom know, so her and her best friend playacted agent and client until they had no choice but to ask an adult for help when signing a contract.

    I thought to myself, I’m not a seventh grader, and I’ll probably never get published, but what the heck. So I wrote a story called the disaster, where kids go on a class fieldtrip and crap happens. Don’t think I ever finished it.

    The following year I met another girl who liked writing stories. Unfortunately, she just liked reading hers out, so my passion largely remained a secret. I also had no teacher who encouraged story writing.

    • Every writing journey is different. So many of us had a helpful teacher along the way. Sorry that didn’t happen for you, but you have other experiences that make up for it. All life is material.

  13. Thanks, Jim! Sounds a little like my childhood, especially the part about the neighborhood parents sitting outside and letting us little hooligans run wild a bit. 🙂

    When I was in my 40s I went back to college and took a creative writing class. For that class, 1/2 of our grade depended on the end project-a short story.

    Mine was called The Oak Tree.

    Alas, I’ve misplaced it. But I received an A on it, and an A in the class. It was about a central WA family and an oak tree that’d stood on their land for generations. In the story, the tree was a symbol of familial stability and loyalty. The husband and wife main characters were at odds with each other and close to divorce. At a family reunion, they came together again under the oak tree.

    I like the story, but I like what my professor said about it more. “This is good, Deb. Don’t stop.”

    Many years later, after I’d written my first 3 books, he became a patient at the cancer center where I worked. I was able to take his hand in the waiting room and thank him for those words. He passed away a few months later.

    I can’t find the story I wrote, but I will always cherish it because of him.

    • How wonderful you were able to share that with your teacher at the end of his life. It meant a great deal to him. I was able to keep in touch with my beloved high school English teacher, Mrs Bruce, who thought she saw some talent in me. She lived to see my first few novels published, and I was able to visit her when she was 90, just before she died.

  14. I still have mine tucked away. WINGED KING, a horse story along the lines of THE BLACK STALLION and all the other horse books I read at the time. It was large print at around 12 pages, and I believe I wrote it in the third grade.

  15. I’m amazed at all of your early story-writing adventures. For me, it didn’t even begin until my 30s, when I was writing feature stories for one of the sports magazines I co-founded in L.A. This was basically journalistic event reportage, but I noticed that I kept wanting to add in little narrative chunks, even some dialogue. And since I was the editorial boss, no one could stop me.

    Skip forward a few decades (and careers), and I asked myself: Why not try to write a novel? I had by then already (trad) published a best-selling nonfiction How-To book, so how hard could it be? Turns out, pretty hard. I had one idea, attracted an agent who wanted to see more (I knew how to pitch), but what I submitted was crap. Then I started another full-length story, got close to the end, but then “lost forward momentum” (from James Michener).

    I backed up, started researching HOW to write a novel (from the likes of gurus like James “Green” Bell), and came up with a unique concept and premise that I completed and (indie) published. And Hollywood optioned it! I’m now starting my sixth novel.

    So I didn’t dream it until much later in life. But after a lot of hard work learning the craft and the biz, I’m doing it!

  16. When I was round about first grade, I figured out that I could draw pictures on different sheets of paper and staple them together to make a book. One of the first ones I wrote was the story of our new dog. We had gotten her from the dog pound, where she was the last dog in the last kennel under a sign “good with kids”. But she had been there for so long that she was scheduled to be put down, and we bought her the day before her sentence. It was such a great story that I wrote it down and illustrated it. 😀

  17. I have two that I can remember: “The Cat That Understood.” And “The Transformation of Robbie.” I think the latter was about a Cockney fellow because I was into The Beatles back then. Like Cynthia, I had an inspiring teacher — Miss Gentry in 8th grade — who was the first to tell that shy little misfit she could write. It changed me forever. I dedicated my first book to her and luckily, was able to track her down and write her a letter of thanks before she died.

  18. The first *real* short story K wrote was for Mrs. Walsh’s English class in 9th grade. I called it “The House on Harley’s Hill” and it was about a group of friends who dare each other to break into Old Man Harley’s house, which was rumored to be haunted. Once inside, the house itself comes alive and kills everyone. I got an A++, with the comment, “This is good enough to be publishable somewhere.” It wasn’t, but for the first time, the dream seemed achievable.

    I think it’s interesting that everyone remembers the name of the teacher who gave them hope.

    • Love that concept, John (except maybe for the house winning, that is).

      And yes, an encouraging word at the right time can make a huge difference. No wonder we remember.

  19. My first attempt comes from a different place. I had done some legal writing, three law review articles and some environmental stuff but never any fiction.

    Then, back in 2019, I woke up out of a sound sleep at about 3:30 am, booted up my desktop computer and started writing about a Korean war veteran who realizes he can’t stay on the farm any more and looks up an old Marine buddy in Kansas City. He buys an Olds Rocket 88 with what money he has left and gets mixed up with the mob in KC.

    I have no idea where any of it came from.

    But I realized I had some stories to tell and I’d better learn how to do it. My first craft book was JSB’s “How To Write Pulp Fiction.” I took a creative fiction writing class at the local community college, took all the free stuff on Coursera and bought evey craft book I could think of and joined two writing groups.

    And TKZ is kind of my schoolroom. So thank you, all my teachers.

    It takes on a life of its own, and there’s nothing more gratifying to me than every now and again I hear about something and I say “This, this is a story I can write. It’s got legs.”

  20. Your first book sounds great. Mine was a story not a book, aged eight, about a boy who wanted to buy a loaf of bread for his mother for Mother’s Day so she wouldn’t have to spend that day cooking, It disappeared long ago, but that was the year I understood that the books I read were written by people and maybe I could be one of them.

  21. Oh my. I don’t remember my first stab at a story (would’ve been elementary school). But I very clearly remember how awestruck I was in first or second grade (whatever grade you’re in when they teach you how to write sentences). When that teacher showed me that words could be strung together into sentences and then I realized I could create my own stories, it was an awesome revelation. And I’ve never gotten over it. LOL!

    Mrs. Seese from 5th or 6th grade was a tremendous encouragement to me and later, in high school, Mr. Shaffer. I can’t remember what I had for dinner last week but I’ll always remember them for encouraging my creativity.

  22. Like Terry, I don’t think I wrote anything in grade school…I was content to read. it wasn’t until I turned 35 and these people came to live in my head and they wouldn’t go away until I wrote their story. So I did. A mini-mystery.

    By the way, my cousins grew up in Woodland Hills in the late 40s and 50s.

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