The Perks of Research

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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?

 

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_2001843-122Jennifer 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.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Perks of Research

  1. annbedichek

    This is so cool, Jenn! I love hearing the background on how it came about! What a great idea to reach out to them.

    Good luck today!

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  2. Never fear, Jenn. I have found middle schoolers to be energetic, engaged, interested, and interesting. It’s high schoolers who stare at you with bored, glazed eyes.

    I feel the same way about errors in books or films. When you know something so well, an error — even an intentional one — takes you right out of it. It’s why my husband has such a hard time watching movies like “Beowulf” with me. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Maryanne! You were absolutely right. They were also a little bit squirrelly because it was the second-to-last day of school, but they were anything but bored and glazed over.

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  3. Parker Peevyhouse

    I hope your school visit went well!

    It’s funny how research can change your story in ways you wouldn’t predict. You think you know how a story is going to go and then your research shows you that you have to rethink things… like nixing having your characters take the bridge to the airport instead of into the headlands where the bridge really leads. 😉

    PS I love the new header!!

    PPS I also live in the Bay Area–we should meet up some time!

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    • Haha, so true, Parker. Or if you’re a Hollywood movie you just shrug and say, “Eh, how many people will know the difference REALLY. And it’s preeetty!”

      I actually don’t live in the Bay Area any more, but my family still does, and I’m back there often. So we should definitely meet up in the future!

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  4. You are right, Jennifer. Three details that could have been easily researched in a recent MG I read, by a well known author actually, had me looking for more mistakes in the rest of the book. Bummer because the story would have been good without the distraction. Would a middle grader have caught them? Who knows. I love mysteries and look forward to reading yours. Congratulations and I wish you outrageous sales!

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    • It can be so distracting, can’t it? And I think you nailed the ultimate problem–it breaks down the reader’s trust in the author and you begin to question everything about the writing. That’s no way to enjoy a story! Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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  5. Middle-school students are the best (of course, I’m biased), and it’s awesome that your phone call yielded a school visit! How exciting. I hope you have a wonderful experience with the kids; they’ll be SO excited to meet you and hear about your writing. And to answer your question, I do all sorts of research. Probably the funniest thing I’ve done lately is join a forum of amphibian enthusiasts to find out what would happen if a frog fell into a puddle of wine… I had to assure them that I wasn’t going to try to kill any frogs. 🙂

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  6. Lindsey Lane

    Nice post, Jenn. I tend to hold off on research until after I get the story down because sometimes the research can distract from the emotional journey. I love it when the research bears out the emotional journey and I have those meant-to-be moments when I am writing.

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  7. This is awesome, Jenn! You never know how or when a door will be opened for you. Good for you for reaching out, taking a risk, and doing your homework. Details matter!

    Like

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