Fact or Fiction: Research and the middle-grade novel

Okay, so here’s a conversation I’ve had far too many times: my husband/stepchildren/visitor asks, “Why are you reading a book called The Idiot’s Guide to Surviving a Lightning Strike (or The Flora and Fauna of the Blue Ridge Parkway, or How To Box)?” And I answer, “It’s research for a new novel I’m working on.” And invariably, the annoying person would respond, “But why do you do so much research? It’s fiction and it’s for kids!” Now, the short answer would be because I am, in my other life, a librarian, so research comes as naturally to me as breathing. But there’s more to it than that. To help me explain and explore the reason why research is so important when writing fiction for kids, I sat down and talked with a couple of my writer buddies, Sydney Salter and Patti Sherlock. Sydney writes for teens and middle graders. Her books include My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters, Swoon at Your Own Risk, and her middle-grade novel, Jungle Crossings. Patti writes all over the age-group spectrum, from middle grade to teen to nonfiction for adults. She’s the author of the award-winning novel, Letters from Wolfie, and her most recently released adult memoir, A Dog for All Seasons. Okay ladies, we’ve all heard it before: it’s fiction and it’s for kids. Why is is so important to research even the tiniest details? Sydney: Kids are people too! They deserve the best books we can write. That includes writing truthfully and accurately. Plus, these days, many adults gravitate towards kids fiction. Patti: I think it’s important to do careful research for kids books because out there, combing a book for errors, are eight-eleven-and thirteen-year-old geeks who have encyclopedic minds for facts, and who check for errors just for fun. If they write to your publisher and prove you got something wrong, you’re in trouble! Too true! I always have this imaginary reader sitting on my shoulder when I write who lives in the place I’m writing about and who knows everything there is to know about that place or the subject. So what is your research process when you’re working on a new novel? Do you do a lot of research up front or do you do research on an “as needed” basis? Patti: I came across this good piece of advice many years ago: while you’re writing a story, guess at the facts and then go back and research them later. That prevents you from getting bogged down in research and neglecting the story. I don’t heed this fully. It really depends on the story. When I wrote Letters from Wolfie, I researched the subject for months before putting down the first line. Sydney: I always do a lot of research before I write; I’ve found that the tidbits I discover while researching help me plot the story. Do you like doing research? Patti: I love research! I love it almost as much as I love writing. My favorite kind is interviewing people who have knowledge on the particular subject. Sydney: I love research so much that I have to set deadlines to start writing! Otherwise, I’d keep studying. One of my favorite things about being a writer is the freedom I have to learn about a variety of subjects. Oh I know! I think sometimes I use research as an excuse to put off the actual writing! Patti, you mentioned you really like to interview people who are subject specialists. What kinds of sources (besides books and the internet) do you both like to use for research? Sydney: I love to travel to fun locations–like swimming through underground rivers in Mexico before writing Jungle Crossings. mostly, I learn by reading. Until I had published books on the shelf, I felt shy about talking to real people. Now I’ve learned that real people love to talk about their expertise. I’m quite chatty these days! Patti: I love research that involves going to the source. Here’s a for-instance: when I was researching pulling horses for my kids novel, Four of a Kind, I went out to a dairy where they fed hay from a wagon pulled by horses. The man showed me how to harness, ect., then invited me to go along while he worked a pair of colts. As we pulled away from the barn on the wagon, I asked, “What’s the worst thing that can happen when you’re training colts?” He said, “A runaway.” About fifteen minutes later, the colts were galloping along, and he said, “Uh oh, hang on.” I asked why and he said, “We got a runaway!” He ran the colts into an area of mud, which slowed them down. I didn’t fall off, but now I had a new idea for a complication for the main character in the book! That’s something you couldn’t have gotten out of a book or off the internet! I worry sometimes that when kids are doing research, they rely too much on printed and electronic sources. There’s nothing like talking with a real live person. I’m curious, have you ever done a ton of research for a particular thread or subplot in your novel only to have it chopped in the revision process? Sydney: Oh yes, I researched and wrote a big, honking scene about the Mayan creation myth for Jungle Crossing. I thought it was so clever telling it in the form of a play my characters watched. But in the revision process, I cut all 1,500 words–and yes, the book was better for it. And doing the research still helped the overall story. Patti: Oh yeah, I’ve had to discard whole threads of the story! And then there’s the flip side: have you ever dug up facts that took your book in a different direction? Sydney: Yes, with my mummy story I’m working on. Once I found about a bit more about Egyptian afterlife, I was able to go from a total satire to a more conventional, yet still funny, YA paranormal. I love the way research informs plot! Well put, Sydney. I think when it comes right down to it, whether it’s reading books on the subject or actually or physically doing what you’re writing about, fiction and fact are really inseparable when writing for kids. Bobbie Pyron writes for teens and middle graders. Research for her first book, The Ring, took her into a boxing ring. To research her next book, The Ring by Bobbie Pyron Dog’s Way Home (March, 2011) she spend an awful lot of time hanging out with her dogs. To find out more about her, visit her website www.bobbiepyron.com

Bobbie Pyron