Monday, September 26, 2016

"You Know Nothing, Jon Snow" (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)



I'm going checklist style with my top tips for researching historical fiction.

·         First and always, remember this: 


·         Even if you think you know things, trust me, you do not know things. I don't know anything. Whenever I start researching, I am shocked by how little I know and how much I learn.

·         Don't assume anything. Like my dad says, assuming makes an ass out of u and me.

·         Pick a setting you can live with for all the years it will take to do the research, write the book, revise the book, find a publisher (we hope!), revise the book some more, promote the book, and live with the fact that you wrote this book for the rest of your life. If you're getting bored by your research or even if you're not really, really excited, quit while you're ahead and go with something else.

·         Start with the secondary sources to get a sense of your setting's overall structure and context. If they exist, start with the books written for laypeople and not professional historians. While I am a formally trained historian and have deep love for a good scholarly article, I always start with the layperson's history if I can. They tend to be more general, which is good for this phase, and they tend to be written with your entertainment as well as education in mind, which means you'll have more fun.

·         As you study secondary sources, pay close attention to their bibliographies and acknowledgements. This is where you find more specific resources and experts.

·         You can probably write a first draft at this point. It will be only a bare bones story structure, but from this you can get an idea of where you need to focus your research.

·         As you're writing your first draft, check out primary sources from your setting: letters, images, etc. Go to university and historical society sites from your setting and check out their online collections. If you can't find what you're looking for, ask one of their experts. Email is a great tool. Don't be shy! Most people love to talk about their areas of expertise.

·         Read books and other significant documents written in your setting. These can help you get a sense of the time and place.

·         Read other historical fiction from your setting. You can be very sneaky and make other people do some of the research for you this way. This also helps you avoid writing books that are too similar to everything else on the market.

·         Several drafts in, I do a "research draft." I print the manuscript and go through it, circling every detail that needs clarification and drawing a line out to a bubble in the margin where I write my research question. Better people than I can do this digitally, no doubt, but I am visual and tactile and this helps me.

·         Choose your beta readers with care. Find someone who lives where you've set your novel or who's an amateur expert or a professional expert in some element of your novel. They can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes. (Example: I read a novel set in South Carolina and the author referred to palm trees throughout. I gritted my teeth through it for about a hundred pages, and then I just couldn't take it anymore. The novel had other problems, but we have palmetto trees in South Carolina, and it drove me crazy.)

·         Beware of stereotypes about your setting. They're probably significantly less prevalent than pop culture would have us believe. (Example: In another novel set in South Carolina, which I literally threw across the room, erryone et grits and aigs and pork fat fer brekfust all the time and somehow the book was not about people having heart attacks. Further example: I did not see a single Scottie dog in the whole month I was in Scotland.)

·         Which brings me to this: You should probably actually visit your setting. I have a personal rule about this. It might seem a bit limiting, but in fact it's a useful tool for narrowing and choosing settings.

I know we can add to this list. What are your top research tips?

But remember:

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Ups and Downs of Research -- Jen Doktorski


I’ve done “research” as I was writing each of my books. I feel the quotes are necessary because I have friends who write historical fiction and others who’ve written doctoral dissertations, so I hesitate to call what I do research.
One of the coolest things about writing fiction, from my perspective at least, is that while I’m writing I get to live my characters’ lives for a little while. And because of this, if my characters are experiencing something I haven’t, or know something I don’t, I do research to fill in those gaps. Sometimes that research involves contacting a lawyer to better understand how a restraining order works. Other times it means reading about identity theft.

Sometimes, the research is more frivolous.

For example, in HOW MY SUMMER WHEN UP IN FLAMES, the main character Rosie goes on a cross country road trip with three guys. I took a very similar road trip and shared many of Rosie’s experiences, but when I visited Dollywood it was closed. (It was January, what did I expect?) So for that section of the book, YouTube helped me fill in some gaps. Riding this roller coaster was an important moment for Rosie, so I had to know what it felt like.



In THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME, the main character, Lucy, wants to be a marine biologist and volunteers with a group that is helping to reclaim the bay waters by “reclamming” them with oysters and clams. Each chapter in this novel opens with an excerpt from Lucy’s research paper on the dating and mating habits of sea life. I loved doing the research for these excerpts! Here’s an example.
“Clams don’t fall in love. There are no courtships, fancy dinners, grand proposals, or family planning. For them, it’s all about the weather. When the water temperature rises above sixty-eight degrees, clams release gametes into the water leaving a union and the creation of baby clams to chance. It’s broadcast spawning. No attachments.” 

From “What’s love got to do with it? The dating and mating habits of North American sea life.” A junior thesis by Lucy Giordano.


 
I renewed this book from the library so many times I grew attached to it and wound up buying my own copy.
My latest novel, due out in spring 2018, is called AUGUST & EVERTHING AFTER. It’s named for one of my all-time favorite albums by the Counting Crows, so seeing them in concert this summer felt a bit like research. I wonder if my accountant will see it that way.

The main character in this book is a drummer. She plays the snare in her high school marching band and eventually learns to play a full kit. So far this book has required a fair amount of research about drumming (I’ve interviewed drummers and have been taking lessons on YouTube). This was my Mother's Day gift this year.
Maybe my next main character will travel solo throughout Europe or work on a cruise ship? I’m already looking forward to the “research.”

Thursday, September 22, 2016

For the love of verisimilitude by Patty Blount

Verisimilitude is such a fun word. I can hardly pronounce it, but it's a fun word.

I love doing research. Finding the right facts, the right nuances, the right flavor for a story adds that touch of verisimilitude. Even before we had an internet, I loved going to the library, plowing through the card catalog, the microfilm readers, the periodicals, following different threads to see where they'd lead me.

Card catalogs are gone now and we have the entire internet accessible through cell phones. Maybe that's why I keep hearing how libraries are no longer relevant.

That comment makes my vision go red.

Libraries are relevant and always will be as long as there are people with open minds willing to learn. Libraries are havens for kids like I used to be...one whose friends existed mainly between covers. Libraries are centers of their communities, reflecting the culture and interests that make that community thrive.

All of my novels require research, even the novellas. How I perform that research depends entirely on the subject. But yes, I start with Google.

But -- and this is important -- I never end there.

If you haven't yet read Alissa Grosso's post, go do so now. As I said in my comment on her post, my hometown library is Sachem Public Library.


Libarians are absolutely the best source you have when you need to do research. I'm quite fond of this Neil Gaiman quote --  "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one." 

When I was researching bullying for SEND, Google kept giving me news but I wanted information about laws. For SOME BOYS, I needed information on rapists, not victims -- specifically, why they do it. My Sachem librarians found me a number of valuable resources I never could have found on Google. 

But here's the best thing.... remember what I said about communities? When I was researching firefighting for NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, the libarians at Sachem suggested I speak to one of their employees. Turns out her dad was the chief at one of the local volunteer departments. I contacted him, got a tour of the facility and a whole bunch of inside information I would not have found on Google without first knowing where to look. 

And that's the key -- knowing where to look. Librarians are experts at that. 

So to everyone at Sachem Public Library, I couldn't write a word without you. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

ODD PLACES I DO RESEARCH - HOLLY SCHINDLER

1. MY OWN WORK - In the indie market, I've done a sequel (PLAY IT AGAIN) as well as a short story series (FOREVER FINLEY). It's essential to mine your own work when you decide to do any kind of follow-up to a previous release--and not just to remind yourself of the order of events or minor characters' names. It's essential to get back into the feel of  previous book--to remind yourself of the rhythm of the sentences, the overall mood. Those seemingly "minor" details will make your readers feel as though they're picking up where the story left off--which is exactly what you want a sequel to do (it's far tougher than you'd think it'd be).

2. OTHER AUTHORS' WORK - This is all about mining for new technique. I love, love, love authors that make me think about my work in a new way--maybe a book's not told in chronological order, or it's got a great pace or cool plot twists. The ways other writers put their work together constantly give me new ideas, push me to be better.

3. GOOGLE / YOUTUBE - I'm not talking about the usual fact-checking we all do for our books. I'm talking how-to. I've become the queen of how-to Googling in the past couple of years, especially as I went indie. I've Googled how to format an e-book, how to compile using Scrivener, how to do page numbers InDesign, how to create a cover for a print book...the list goes on and on. I've also begun to illustrate my own work--but my previous experience with any artwork had been with pen and paper, paints and canvases. Digital art was brand-new to me. So I've been watching a ton of illustrators' and artists' vids on YouTube.

There are so, so many talented people out there. Who are not content to hide the brush strokes--who want to show the process of making art, not just the final product. I'm grateful for their willingness to do so, every single time I begin to type a new "how to..." phrase in Google's search box.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Card Every Writer Needs (Alissa Grosso)

It's nearing midnight and I am in bed with my trusty laptop fighting off sleep so that I can finish writing a chapter, when a question arises. Google can't quite deliver the answer I need. I can hear my dog snoring, and I wonder if maybe I should shut the computer and catch some z's myself. Then I have a rare midnight brainstorm: the library! Of course the physical building is closed at this hour, but thanks to my local public library's digital subscriptions I'm able to download a book that has the information I need, and I'm reminded of how awesome libraries are.

September is National Library Card Sign Up Month, so it seems appropriate that we're covering research this month at YA Outside the Lines, because libraries have always been my go-to place when I need to do research. Whether I need the cold hard facts of history or science texts that will make my writing factually accurate, need to read comparable books in my genre or need information on the business of publishing, libraries have served me well over the years.

Every once in awhile some idiot writes some clickbait article about how libraries have outlived their usefulness and are no longer needed. Usually this is someone who hasn't owned a library card in years or set foot inside one since they were a child, so the article writer ends up sounding like a fool.

For most of us, we know that libraries are places that are filled with books. There are some people who think that books are no longer needed or that thanks to their Amazon Prime membership, they already have access to all the books they could ever need. There are two things I would like to point out. First off, not everyone has an Amazon Prime membership (raises hand) and second of all, there are a lot of books that for whatever reason aren't available on Amazon Prime. The books alone that are available to people of all ages and all income levels for free from their local library, make libraries a tremendously valuable resource. It's also worth noting that librarians have gone to school for and spent a great deal of time curating their collections to ensure that a wide assortment of high quality reading material is available for their patrons. Amazon has no curators.

If you love libraries, you must read the web comic Unshelved.


If all libraries had were books, they would still be valuable, but it's 2016 and libraries have a lot more than books. Other physical items available for free from libraries include video and audio products, both entertaining ones like feature films and popular music CDs and educational ones like how-to videos and language learning programs. These are the basics that are offered by nearly every public library in the country. Libraries, though, continue to innovate and many offer their patrons the opportunity to borrow all manner of physical items. I can borrow a huge assortment of cake pans from my public library. A library that I used to work for has educational toys and products to help children with sensory processing issues. Games and passes to visit local museums are also available at many libraries.

Free wi-fi and internet access computers at libraries mean that even when you're financially strapped you can use technology for research, communicating or job hunting. For those that have computers or tablets at home, the library's subscriptions to different databases and digital products mean that you can enjoy around the clock access to information and entertainment.

I'm such a library-lover that I have a an old card catalog in my living room. Picked it up for $10 at a yard sale. The doggy, on the other hand, was free to a good home. 

Recently, my boyfriend and I took advantage of my library's Heritage Quest subscription, to do some genealogy research. We sort of (his family lost their second "O") share a last name and have always been curious about just how closely we're related. We still haven't found the connection, though we did learn a little more about our lineage by examining some old census records.

Libraries also provide lots of services for patrons. At the most basic level there's access to low cost printing and photocopying, but many libraries, especially larger county branches go well beyond this. Maker's spaces with things like 3D printers and binding machines are pretty awesome. My own county library has VHS to DVD conversion services and patrons can have access to an Ellison die-cut machine.

Finally, there's the programming. We all know about library storytime, but there are lots of programs for grown-ups, as well. Things like writing workshops, art classes, lectures and entertainment are held at many libraries that anyone can attend for free.

One of my first author gigs was speaking at a library just before my first book, Popular, was published.


I'm sorry if this post sounds like nothing but a big advertisement for libraries, but the fact is, that libraries deserve more advertisements. Unlike most advertisers, libraries don't want your money, just your patronage. I feel like not enough people realize all the things that libraries can do for them. Long before there was Siri, there were librarians ready to answer all your burning questions, and no offense to technology, but librarians do a better job of tracking down the answers you need.

So, if you are a writer or hope to become one, there is a card that you absolutely need in your wallet. If you don't already have one, go down to your local public library and sign up for a library card. It just might help you write your next book.



Alissa Grosso is a one-time library employee and regular library user. She encourages you to seek her three novels Shallow Pond, Ferocity Summer and Popular at your local library or to find out more about her and her books by visiting alissagrosso.com.

Friday, September 16, 2016

You Are Researching a Crime...

Okay. It's possible that a crime did not occur.

When people talk about it now, many years later, they refer to it as a "thing that happened." You have also heard the word "incident."

You don't have many facts to go on. The year. The date--within a week or two. The place-- a patch of woods at the edge of a family campground. There was only one witness, a ten-year-old. And you only know her first name.

The suspect ran away.

Somebody called the police, so there might have been a police report filed. Perhaps a small article appeared in a newspaper? These are the details you're trying to figure out as you do your research. A librarian you know has good suggestions about internet searches. How to track down digital records and microfiche collections.

It may take some old-fashioned sleuthing. Calling a library in another state. Visiting a police station and hoping they've kept old records on an incident that occurred almost forty years ago.

And what would be written in such a record?

Notes from an interview taken at night in the woods? The words of the traumatized ten-year-old witness?

The victim.

Unfortunately, she has no recollection of what happened.

She was ten too. Going on eleven. She has a clear memory of the first part of the afternoon. It was supposed to be a short walk in the woods to look for sticks to roast marshmallows. She'd just met the other girl that day. That's why she only knew her first name. She didn't really like the girl all that much. She didn't like the woods. She wasn't a huge fan of marshmallows.

She saw the man first. Or rather, she heard him. A rustle of leaves. A snapping of twigs. And then he was standing there, several feet away, in the center of the path. His legs spread. His hands on his hips. He was smiling.

One more detail: he was naked.

The witness giggled. But our victim knew something wasn't right. Maybe some kind of survival instinct kicked in. What to do when you encounter a predator. No sudden movements, she thought. Don't let him know we see him. But don't turn your back on him...

She nudged her new friend, putting herself between the man and that silly giggling girl, and slowly slowly backed them out of the woods. Slowly. Slowly. And wasn't it strange how time slowed down further? How slowly her new friend seemed to move?

Another rustle of leaves and snapping of twigs. The man came running. The giggling girl, no longer giggling, tore out of the woods and left the victim behind.

The research is slow-going. An internet search of the towns surrounding the campground. A scroll through other crimes in the area at the same time, near the same place. Assaults. Kidnappings. Murders. Unsolved cases. Reports on sexual assaults. All dead ends. Did you know you can jump on the Library of Congress site and see a listing of all U.S. newspapers from the 1690's to the present?

But you won't find what you're looking for there. The truth is you're not sure what, exactly, you are looking for. Or why you are doing this research.

What will you make with it? Is there even a story here?

A blink, and the girl was curled in a ball, hands around her knees. The man was gone. Strange, that her flip flops had flown off her feet and were dropped in the brush off the path. Strange, how quiet the woods were now. She got up shakily and retrieved the flip flops, hardly noticing the cut on her leg.

But this was nothing. Probably just a scratch from the marshmallow stick.













Sunday, September 11, 2016

Something New


by Tracy Barrett

Interrupting your regularly scheduled programming to announce the publication of my twenty-first book, and my very first to be self- (or indie-) published!

https://www.amazon.com/Song-Orpheus-Greatest-Greek-Myths/dp/1535144505/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472497967&sr=1-1
  
The Song of Orpheus: The Greatest Greek Myths You Never Heard is a collection of retellings of little-known Greek myths, intended for the young fan (upper MG to younger YA) who’s tired of reading the same stories over and over again. Readers who aren’t so familiar with the subject won’t feel left out, though—I included a glossary of characters and places. (In order to make this section appealing to the Greek-myth geek too, I made sure there was at least one little-known fact in each definition.)

Kirkus Reviews says: "Accessible and entertaining, these stories provide a thoughtful, fresh take on a classic subject."

I’ve revived my own blog to discuss why I chose this route, why I chose this book to be my debut indie, what work I farmed out, and some financial aspects.

Post 1: A new (ad)venture! (Why indie publish? Why this book?)
Post 2: My self-publishing adventure: Part II (Agency-assisted self-publishing)
Post 3: My self-publishing adventure: Part III (What services I farmed out)
Post 4: My self-publishing adventure: Part IV (The business side, including costs)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Research (I love it but it makes me weird) by Sydney Salter

I love research so much that the first time I started to write a novel, I ended up enrolling in classes at the University of Utah and finishing most of a second Bachelor's degree. Writing college papers is much easier than writing novels! But that idea is still on my To-Be Written List.

Now I set research deadlines.

Writing keeps me from collecting degrees. I love how I can learn about any topic for the sake of writing. Curious about jewelry-making, I gave that hobby to my main character in My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters, and enrolled in a few classes. I ended up with a couple of cute necklaces that I still love to wear.

A story about Hawaii gave me the courage I needed to take surfing lessons.

Look at the size of that wave!


Not quite big wave surfing like my character, I earned a true appreciation for the strength required by the sport.

Research also makes me weird. I read really odd books. The kind you don't really want anyone asking you about on the soccer sidelines.

Not exactly a book most soccer moms are reading!


Right now I'm in the midst of another weird book phase while doing some enhancement research for my WIP (since it's past the deadline, I'm technically done with research and prioritizing writing, I swear!). Yet I'm still sneaking around, not letting anyone see the titles or book covers. Sometimes I wonder if the government tracks the weird stuff I read...?

My family is used to me by now.

But the other day I was writing in the Toyota waiting room during my car's oil change, and my husband, sitting in a boring meeting across the country, texted me: "You're Googling how to remove dead bodies. Should I be worried?" (For some reason my Googling shows up on his phone, making for many interesting conversations).

I started laughing crazy loud, drawing attention to myself.

Ah, the hazards of research!


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Romanovs, Fairy Tales, Angels, Fountains of Youth, and Vegas

As my YA OUTSIDE THE LINES colleague Bill Cameron noted in his post, research is a necessary and fascinating and often temperamental little beast. Too much and you’re not writing the book. Too little and readers are writing you, detailing where you got it wrong. (And okay, even if you hit the sweet spot, readers still sometimes write you to tell you that you got it wrong.)

For me it’s been different with each book. For the DREAMING ANASTASIA series I had to immerse myself in a number of research topics: The Romanovs, first of all, because that was part of the origin story. I had to know about their lives and their deaths and everything that surrounded them in that period of time. Russian/Slavic fairy tales and folklore, second of all, particularly the tales of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, but also many others. I went deep there as well, reading extensively in not only the tales themselves but also about fairy tale structure because Russian fairy tales follow a specific structure that’s a bit different from say, a Grimm’s Brother tale. And then Chicago as well, although it is my hometown and I know it well and visit it often. But to place it in a book meant studying L train maps and bus schedules and visiting the places that I hoped to bring to life in the books. It was fun. It was fascinating. It was hard work. But at the end of the day, you still have to stop and write the story.

Story is where it always begins for me, regardless. I play with an idea, with characters. I write about fifty pages and see if it feels like this idea—whatever it might be—can sustain a full novel. If it can, then I stop and regroup. I develop characters further. I plot out the book, at least the key beats as I see them right now, knowing that this will change as I move along, but you have to have a plan or you’re not going anywhere. And I start digging into the research in a fuller more comprehensive way. Internet first, because it’s easy to get an overview and honestly, there’s always some obsessive lover of almost everything who’s gotten there first and detailed his/her findings. Then to the library where inter-library loan has become my best tax-payer friend. And on like that. I take notes. I organize. I read and read and read. Authenticity comes in the small details as well as the large. So I go for the small in particular. And then I work to wind it into the story and make it my own.  It is painstaking work but it almost never stops being fun to me, which is great since I’m the laziest of academics even if I’m always an enthusiastic student of knowledge!

And so it’s been through all my books so far, but always varied in depth and degree. For the SWEET DEAD LIFE I needed to know Houston and its suburbs well enough to have Jenna lampoon them. I needed my settings to feel real, the car trips to be accurate, the people to feel authentic to place. I spent a lot of time wandering my local mall. And honestly, some quality time watching Judd Apatow movies because that was the irreverent tone I was aiming for. And some time reading about angels and people’s ideas of angels, which I was about to toy with as well. A few re-readings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings helped a lot. (Yes, that’s part of the source material. It really is. I hope this makes you pick up the books!)

FINDING PARIS required a variety of road trips: Vegas. Paris Texas. LA to Vegas. (This one my agent did for me, because she’s that type of wonderful and okay, she was going anyway. She stopped periodically to take video and pictures and confirm that what I thought was there actually was.) My husband was most delighted with the PARIS research since he got a trip to Vegas out of it and hung out the poker tables while I tromped around taking pictures and notes. I have to credit the amazing copy editor team at Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins as well; they vetted everything in that book—every street, every turn, every place. And one day, these margin note on a draft: “She knows her Vegas.” Another day, a reader email: “You must have grown up there.” Well, I didn’t. But that email made me smile for days.

IT WASN’T ALWAYS LIKE THIS was its own beast. It’s a TUCK EVERLASTING meets VERONICA MARS tale and so immortality was where my research began. Stories. Myths. Pop culture. Science. And then Florida (another trip!) and Juan Ponce de Leon and then Dallas because the current day parts of the novel are set there. Emma and Charlie aren’t quite sure of the science or magic behind what has happened to them, but I needed to be. I needed to know what happens in the animal kingdom that I could extrapolate into a stumbled upon Fountain of Youth. And history—well, I needed to know what Charlie and Emma were living through from 1916- 2016, even if much of it was never going to directly be on the page. (Gotta leave room for sequels, you know…)


Right now I’m writing about a girl who thinks she has heard her dead brother’s voice—which has saved her from an explosion. It’s set in Chicago. All sorts of juicy research. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Beware! (Bill Cameron)

Research is dangerous. I mean that in every possible sense of the word.

The biggest problem, I believe, is everything is interesting. Well, except CrossFit. But everything else. Seriously, pick a topic and start digging in. Do a deep dive, and you’ll discover no end of fascinating rabbit holes to wriggle into. (Speaking of, you know what’s interesting? The natural history of rabbits! Also Watership Down.) 

Quantum mechanics, how lace is made, the socioeconomic factors behind the price of grain in early 16th century Bavaria? All fascinating when you dig into them.

And what’s wrong with that? you may be asking. Why, nothing, if the price of grain in 1516 Bavaria is your thing. But it’s a potential source of trouble if, say, you have a book to write. Because once you start down those rabbit holes, the research can take the place of other things you need to do, like write the next scene, and the the scene after it, and the one after that. 

You may tell yourself, “My historical YA about the politics behind the Reinheitsgebot depends on me understanding the political dynamic in the Holy Roman Empire that led to the reunification of Bavaria, sure, but don’t I also need to know the deeper historical context?” The next thing you know, you’re all the way back in 974 translating a brewing license granted by Emperor Otto II to the church at Liege. But what does that have to do with your YA set in the duchy of Munich in the early 1500s? Not much. But, sheesh, how fascinating!

But perhaps, unlike myself, you’re disciplined about your research. As curious as you may be about ol’ Otto II, you know he doesn’t have anything to do with your particular historical YA. Yet this leads to another danger. Because what if you cover what feels like the necessary information, but because you’re also committed to your word count (good writer, *pats head*), you set the research aside before you got to a critical detail? 

Maybe you gave up on the historical YA in favor of a YA thriller set in the present, and when the big reveal happens—the school principal is in fact an agent of the Russian FSB—and he pulls his handy Glock on our intrepid heroine, you have Agent Principal thumb the safety. Except OMG Glocks don’t have that kind of safety, and besides a Russian agent would probably be armed with a Makarov, right? (Well, maybe not if you YA is set somewhere other than Russia itself.) My point is you are going to get lots of angry emails about that safety thing.

So, too much research is risky, but not enough research is also risky. Could someone tell me what the right amount of research is?!

Please?

And when do you do this research anyway? Before you write the actual novel? During? After?!

Sometimes I get an idea and want to just start writing, even though I know I’ll need to do research sooner or later. One of my books included a pig farm as one of the settings. When I started it, I relied heavily on my own memories of working on such a farm in high school, figuring I’d go back look up a few details sooner or later. Yet because I was caught up in the writing, sooner became a lot later, and before I knew it I was on the final draft and under deadline before I remembered to do my pig farm refresher course.

Oops.

It wasn’t so much that I’d misremembered life on the farm, though there was a little of that. It was that pig farming had changed in the 25 years since I’d last worked on the farm. Furthermore, I’d set the pig farm in my novel in a part of the country that really isn’t suited for raising pigs.

Double oops.

I was kinda stuck, what with the deadline and the fact there was no way to move the farm in my book to a more appropriate area without doing a major overhaul. There was just no time. All I could do was clean up what I could, send the book off, and hold my breath until the emails rolled in.

Actually, they were pretty nice emails. People said things like, “I enjoyed the book, but I live in the area depicted, and there aren’t many pigs here, and definitely not on the kind of farm you described.”

In retrospect, I should have done my research sooner. But I got into the writing zone and didn’t want to disrupt my momentum. Sometimes it goes that way, and honestly, I don’t really regret how things worked out. Most readers didn’t notice the inaccuracies, and even if I had gotten all the pig farm stuff correct, something else probably would have slipped through. Something always does.


So, research pitfalls: too much, too little, too early, too late. Have I missed any? Probably, but I’ll have to research them.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Staying Totally Tubular to the Max (Brian Katcher)


Greetings, all you hep cats out there. It's your old pal Brian Katcher, here to rap at you.

No, don't panic. I'm not going to hit you. You see, in today's youth slang, 'rap' means to 'have a meaningful chat with one's peers.'

As the author of popular teenage literature, I find it important to stay abreast of the popular youth parlance, or 'slang.' For instance, the other day a student told me that my books were really bad. Did I take offense? Heavens no! In the language of today's adolescents, to describe something as 'bad' means that it's actually quite good.

This is why I do my research. The life of today's young person is not all hanging out at the malt shop, listening to jive music, and driving around in hot rods (fast driving automobiles). The modern teen worries about such problems as acne (or 'zits'), being pressured into attending spin the bottle parties, or classmates who partake in illicit substances such as alcohol or marihuana. As an author, I find it my duty to speak the kids' language so I can 'get down' with them, so to speak.

When talking to teens, I know that due to my age many of them take me for a square. But I explain that I'm not too different from them. Heck, I once spent my weekends listening to rock and roll tunes on my hi fi, wearing blue jeans, and talking back to my old man (father). Soon, my readers realize I'm not a 'drag' but a 'cool daddy-o.'

And that's when I can share my life lessons. Smoking cigarettes doesn't make one look admirable. Sometimes Mom and Pop are worth listening to. And occasionally, it's the bravest fellow who has the courage to just say no.

Now don't expect to master teen speak overnight. It's complicated. For instance did you know that the word 'dope' can mean both 'a fool' and 'illegal drugs'? Or that 'hip hop' has nothing to do with rabbits, but is actually some sort of urban folk music? Not only do teenagers learn from me, but I learn from the them!

 If you're interested in learning more about youth slang, contact your local reference librarian. She'll be happy to introduce you to books that can teach you the difference between 'funky duds' (expensive clothes) and 'bling blang' (expensive jewelry).

'Catch you later!'

PS My daughter will be a teenager in four years. This should be interesting.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The heart and soul of relevance (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

If I start to get overly anxious about the technical details of relevance (slang, technology, social customs) in my writing, I only need to think back to Judy Blume and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Judy Blume is a giant in the field of YA and MG lit. She was part of the vanguard of 1970s candid contemporary writing, especially when it came to the topic of puberty.

It seems incredible now, since coping with puberty is one of the main challenges of the tween and teen years, but for decades, most books for kids glossed over or just plain ignored this reality. Five years before Judy Blume’s Margaret agonized over when she might start her period, editor Ursula Nordstrom took a big risk by allowing author Louise Fitzhugh to admit, in the pages of The Long Secret, that young girls menstruate. This was so new and unusual that Nordstrom’s correspondence spent a fair amount of space on it.*

So Blume’s honesty was refreshing and novel. In the pages of her book, I identified with so many of Margaret’s problems: the friend who is less than true, the crush who doesn’t know she’s alive, the curiosity about how and when her body will change, the pressure to like the cutest guy in the class even though he’s an arrogant jerk, the left-out feelings when you realize some things about your family are different from those of the other families around you (in her case, this revolved around religion).

But even at the time it was published, the details about menstrual paraphernalia were already outdated. Margaret was talking about belts and hooks, and I knew even then that such products weren’t really around anymore. Then there was the party she went to (her first boy-girl party!), at which she wore a fancy velvet dress, instead of the jeans that would be common at the parties in my real life.

I just shrugged off those details, though. Blume got it right about the things that mattered. The emotional ups and downs of the characters rang true. There’s the time your parents made that unfair decision ... the time the boy you like caught you in an embarrassing situation ... the time you caught your best friend in a lie. There are the games that boys and girls use to try out their first tentative approaches toward one another, toward kissing and physical attraction. In the character of Laura Danker, Blume addressed slut-shaming before there was even a name for it. Those situations all rang true.

I understand that Blume has now updated Margaret to reflect more contemporary details, but the book found a huge audience even before she did that. Of course we try to get all the details as perfect as possible. But the most important part of a story to get right is its heart and soul: the struggles, the choices, the emotions, the ties between people. That’s what really makes a story relevant.


*see Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, compiled by Leonard S. Marcus, an entertaining read in its own right