Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Secrets of Kidlit: Book Research!

Photo used under a Creative Commons license.
Credit: glennbphoto
"Hello, my name is Gail and I love book research!" Now, I write contemporary middle grade, so it's not as if I'm sitting around conducting months of scientific or historical research before I can write a single word. But I've found that all books require at least one tiny Google search (Are dolphins mammals or fish? How far is Indianapolis from New York?), if not something more.

For BREAKING THE ICE, I needed to learn about the Zamboni. Sure, I'd grown up skating and seen one of these huge machines almost every day, but I had no idea how they worked. So I pestered the Zamboni driver at a local rink until he offered to give me a ride. When I showed up, not only did I get the promised ride, but I also got to drive! That experience added a whole new layer to the scene I was working on (and was awfully fun too).

I asked some other MG and YA authors to share their favorite book research experiences, and they came back with everything from observing their kids to reading about weird nineteenth-century medical treatments:

Brooks Benjamin, author of MY SEVENTH GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS:

"For the dance studio elements, I Googled a lot and bugged a group of students who were in my class. They all attended a studio and went to dance competitions. So I picked their brains, threatening to give them F's if they didn't cooperate (I'm kidding, I'm kidding... *shifty eyes*), and compiled my how-dance-studios-and-competitions-work list. I wish I could say I brushed up on my old moves to re-enter the world of bad dancing, faked a birth certificate so people thought I was 13, and entered a local contest for first-hand experience. But that'd be a lie. And a really fun idea for another book..."

Ronni Arno Blaisdell, author of RENEE REINVENTED:

"My book takes place in a Maine boarding school. As it happens, we'd been looking at schools for my daughters throughout New England. Although they weren't boarding schools, I definitely got the New England school vibe. I knew I wanted to incorporate a New England harbor town into a story. Fashion also plays a large part in RENEE REINVENTED. This was more challenging, since I know absolutely nothing about fashion! I googled and browsed dress shops. Whenever I tell someone that my main character is a fashion designer, they blink, look me up and down (I may or may not normally walk around in pajamas), then give me a smile/smirk. That's why it's called fiction!"

Holly Bodger, author of 5 TO 1:

"Well, it may be the second longest book ever published in English (and it may have taken me close to a month to read) but A SUITABLE BOY really helped me learn about India. In general, most of the Indian books I read and movies I watched really helped. Of course, other things like having to actually wear 20 bangles and crazy heavy earrings would not have been the same had I read about them instead of just doing them."

Melanie Conklin, author of COUNTING THYME:

"There is a strong paper theme running through COUNTING THYME. I have a side character who makes beautiful paper stars called parols, which are cut-paper Christmas lanterns from the Philippines (her mother is Filipino)...they're beautiful!"

Mel found a video here, and directions on how to make your own cut-paper parols here

Gretchen Kelley, author of SUPERHEROES DON'T EAT VEGGIE BURGERS (Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2015):

"I used my son as my muse.  He was just starting middle school and watching him go through the trials and tribulations of what that entailed was funny, entertaining and sometimes painful.  I still remember the day he looked at me and said,  'When did playing with Legos become uncool, Mom?'  Shortly after that, I discovered this poem for the first time, and knew why I needed to write middle grade. Whenever I start 'losing' my middle grade voice, I go back and read this.  I helps me remember what a unique time in a kid's life the late elementary/early middle school years are...lots of cool 'firsts', but lots of difficult 'lasts' as well. While some kids embrace this, others mourn.  For what, they often don't know. Maybe our job is to help them understand it a little more?"

Fonda Lee, author of ZEROBOXER: 

"I have found that an extremely valuable, much-overlooked source of research is reading memoirs. I rarely used to read memoir, until I realized how amazingly useful they are for building characters and settings. If you're writing about a policeman, or a recovering addict, or an astronaut, or a rock star...well, there are memoirs written by people who are those things! The main character in my novel, ZEROBOXER, is a young prizefighter, so I read a ton of MMA and boxing memoir. Oh, and I had to get ringside seats to see live fights. For you know, research."

Stacey Lee, author of UNDER A PAINTED SKY:

"To get into the spirit of the Frontier for UNDER A PAINTED SKY, I read pioneer diaries. You think your life is hard? It isn't hard until you have a raw chicken strapped to your leg to cure snakebite."

Jen Malone, author of AT YOUR SERVICE:

"I had a phone interview with a Rockette. I also had an in-person coffee date with a concierge at a fancy Boston hotel so he could walk me through his job- that was fun! And my husband walked half of NYC taking photos for me of the exact placement of every souvenir penny machine mentioned in the book!:)"

Marcia Wells, author of the EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER series:

"My best researching moment was taking my family to Mexico on a trip, while researching EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER Book 2: MYSTERY IN MAYAN MEXICO (coming Spring 2015). Ironically I had already written the book but the manuscript needed some zest, some life. (Also a great excuse to travel!) I wasn't sure if I'd be inspired to wrote new scenes; what I found instead was a world of tastes, sounds, and smells. Those small details added up to a much richer story, and a much more authentic experience for my protagonist."

I admit that I'm a bit jealous of Marcia's trip to Mexico! If you're a writer, what's your favorite research story? 

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