Writing from Empathetic Perspectives with Chelsea Lin Wallace

How do you write from an empathetic perspective? I’m excited to have author Chelsea Lin Wallace on the blog to dive deep into this topic. Chelsea’s upcoming picture book debut, A Home Named Walter, illustrated by Ginnie Hsu, is coming from Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan) on April 19. This story is brimming with heart and complex emotions, which is quite impressive given that one of the main characters in the book is… a house. Read on to learn more about Chelsea’s writing process and empathetic inspiration.

LL: Welcome, Chelsea, and congratulations on your upcoming debut! To start out, tell us more about A Home Named Walter—what’s the story about and how did you come up with the idea?

CLW: When I was little, I could feel the feelings of everything around me – both alive and inanimate. I became the rescuer of discarded toys and abandoned stuffed animals.

I had one very special stuffed wombat, named Woolly. I loved Woolly alive, I’m sure of it. Then, the worst happened. I lost Woolly on an airplane, and my world came crashing down. But I worried even more about Woolly. Was he scared? Was he sad? Would he be found and loved again?

This story wasn’t what inspired Walter. Not directly anyway. It wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when Walter came knocking on my heart’s door. Yet, they seem connected somehow.

Cover of A Home Named Walter, depicting a person walking into an anthropomorphic house.

CLW: A Home Named Walter is about a house that is sad when the family he loves moves away. He grows cold and quiet and only wants to be left alone. Until a Little Girl moves in, and helps him heal. 

Could this have been my way of channeling my feelings about Woolly? Perhaps. But that’s what is so mysterious about creativity and inspiration overall. Sometimes it’s only in deep reflection that we discover how far back the roots of our stories go.

LL: That sure is true. Inspiration can come from surprising places!

So, it’s one thing to put yourself in the shoes of a human character, but how did you put yourself in the shoes—or perhaps in the foundation—of a house? Tell us more about how you determined what Walter might be feeling.

CLW: I’m not the kind of person who can do anything insincerely. That goes for character writing as well. I didn’t have to determine Walter’s feelings; I felt them. I knew who he was and what he cared most about and how it would feel if he lost that. He didn’t feel just sad to me. He felt upset, confused, and the hurt was so painful I knew he’d want to protect himself.

I’m not sure if my process comes from my theater background – but I’m someone who likes to get into character before I even learn the lines. Walter came to me fully-formed as his own person, er, house.

Interior spread from A Home Named Walter, featuring a family driving away in a car, leaving the house behind.

CLW: I do wonder if in his case, it was the spirit of Woolly coming to visit me. Wanting me to tell his story and assure me that it had a happy ending after all.

LL: Continuing on with this theme of inspiration, when you were writing Walter, did you use any mentor texts or engage in any writing exercises as part of your process?

CLW: Not specifically. But in a broader sense, I feel all texts are mentor texts for me. There’s always something I can learn or be inspired from in picture books. I read as many as I can and as frequently as I can.

I can share a few of my favorite picture books that I go back to a lot because they create a powerful emotional shift: After the Fall (Dan Santat), Jerome By Heart (by Thomas Scotto, illustrated by Olivier Tallec), and Each Kindness (by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis).  

Interior spread from A Home Named Walter, depicting the new occupant of a home painting the walls.

LL: One last question: What are your top tips to tap into the heart of a story and ensure you’re achieving some emotional resonance for your readers?

CLW: Pay attention to the moments in a story, in a movie, in a song that make you feel an emotional shift. Pull out the why and how, then dig into your own emotional well until you tap into something sincere. It’s like hitting oil. See how you can tangle your sincerity with that of your character. Don’t tell the reader how to feel and don’t tack on emotions that aren’t meant to be there. Let your character show you the way. Your character doesn’t have to cry to make us cry. In fact, most often it’s not even the sad stories that make me feel emotional. It’s the stories that feel true. 

LL: Thanks so much for being on the blog, Chelsea! Readers, if you’d like to connect with Chelsea and/or preorder A Home Named Walter, you can do so here: https://linktr.ee/chelsealinwallace

PS- If you enjoyed this interview with Chelsea, you might also like a previous interview on writing with heart from author Kelly Jordan.

Photo of author Chelsea Lin Wallace.

Chelsea Lin Wallace is a children’s author and a poet with a Master’s in Education. She is a former elementary school educator who loves teaching poetry and creative writing to children. Her debut picture book, A HOME NAMED WALTER, is set to release in April, 2022 with Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. She is represented by Jen Rofé at Andrea Brown Literary Agency and is a proud member of SCBWI and the 12×12 Challenge. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband, her daughter Charlee, and her dog, Lucky.