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!