Today—maybe even at this very moment that you are reading this—I’m experiencing an exciting first: My first post-book-deal school visit.
The visit came about in an unusual way, which is probably often the case for an author who still has another year to go before her book is out. My novel is set in San Francisco, and bits of it take place in a contemporary middle school. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have lived most of my life there, including in the city itself. But I went to a suburban middle school about a half hour outside the city, not to mention, it was snarfmumblehum years ago that I was in middle school, and so I don’t exactly feel like an expert on the contemporary San Francisco middle school setting.
I don’t need to be an expert to write the school scenes in my book. They are generic enough that I could imagine my way through them, and the story would probably be fine. Doing my research about contemporary San Francisco middle schools has helped me, not only get ideas, but feel confident about what I’m writing. Having the opportunity to experience at least one school firsthand will help me be a better sensory writer, and will help ensure I don’t get things way wrong.
I reached out to a Language Arts teacher at a school that is in the general vicinity of my fictitious middle school, and asked if I would be able to tour her school and/or talk with her or some students. Not only did the teacher respond warmly and enthusiastically, but, as luck would have it, they were having professionals come in to talk about their careers and didn’t have anyone scheduled to speak in the Language Arts arena. So I agreed to talk about being a writer, and in turn I’ll get to hang out with a bunch of middle schoolers and observe their world. I know there are people out there who would be terrified of voluntarily spending their day with middle schoolers, but I’m super excited. (Okay, maybe slightly terrified, but mostly excited.)
One of the things I plan on talking about at my school visit is: why does research matter if you are writing a fictional story?
As a reader, books often feel like magic. Whole worlds come alive. I still think about book characters the way I think about old friends. As a writer, I don’t want to break the magic spell for a reader, if I can help it.
I saw a movie once where the characters drove to the airport from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s impossible. I know the movie-makers wanted to include the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in their movie, but as someone who was born and raised in the area, it bugged me. Another movie had a cable car running down a street that cable cars don’t run on. Instead of being invested in the characters and their conflicts in these movies, I was pulled out of the moment and distracted. I don’t think these things were errors as much as “creative license”, but it’s important to know when you’re taking creative liberties, versus just not doing the background work. I don’t want to make assumptions about a setting or experience, and get it wrong.
We have creative license when writing fiction, and can bend things to suit our needs. But if you manipulate too much, or bend without intention or, worst of all, out of laziness for getting it right, readers will know and be disappointed. Sometimes even angry. So that’s where research often comes in for me: drawing on firsthand experiences to deepen the writing and suspend the reader’s disbelief that they’re immersed in a made-up world.
To the other writers out there, what kind of research have you done for fictional works?
Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade mystery, Book Scavenger (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2015). Book Scavenger launches a contemporary mystery series that involves cipher-cracking, book-hunting, and a search for treasure through the streets of San Francisco. Jennifer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.
You can find Jennifer online at http://writerjenn.blogspot.com where she runs an interview series with children’s book authors and illustrators called “Creative Spaces.