research

Be the John Clayton of Your Book

by sarahenni on November 19, 2012

Oh, hi there! Let me dust this thing off… Ahem. I’ve been gone a while, but it’s been productive! There’s something about fall, and specifically football season, that gets me more motivated. Something about the sense of teamwork, the emphasis on hard work paired with passion, and of course the raucous family tail gates, just energizes me.

Watching all that SportsCenter has more perks than just highly-entertaining Princess Bride quote wars. The other day while watching “The Professor,” an NFL reporter named John Clayton, I started to think about niche expertise.

Clayton isn’t an athlete; he never played a down of professional (or college or high school) football. But he’s in the NFL Hall of Fame because he knows everything about the league, backwards and forwards.

Similarly, as an author you may not know first-hand what it’s like to be a medieval nun-assassin, but you can bet your fanny pack that R.L. LaFevers researched the hellfire out of 15th century France. And it shows in the product—Grave Mercy oozes authenticity of time and place. Similarly, Kristin Cashore knew the details of her most recent book, Bitterblue, so well that she could recognize the handwriting of a minor character. And when my fellow YA Highwayer Phoebe North was asked about the generation ship setting for her forthcoming book, Starglass, she sent her publishing team a hand-drawn layout of the entire vessel.

When you know your story and its characters to such a minute degree, it shows. The story is richer and truly draws the reader in to its fully dimensional world. So I suggest you be the John Clayton of your book.

But how do you gain this level of knowledge? Do you need to research until your eyes bleed and fill out 50-age character sheets for every speaking member of your WiP cast? No, not necessarily. Over time, as you draft and revise (and revise and revise), the details have a way of revealing themselves. But keep it in mind, and every time you wonder, “Why would Character X do that?” or “What makes Love Interest react this way?” spend some time solidifying an answer. That could mean research, or brainstorming, or who knows, it could mean rewriting a huge portion of your work. But no matter what, it will always benefit the end manuscript.

(And if you’re interested in witnessing how awesome John Clayton is, check out the video below!)

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How NOT to Incorporate Setting, Courtesy of Top Chef

by sarahenni on September 24, 2012

I’ve been watching Top Chef for years, and for years I’ve been grumbling that they need to host a competition in Seattle. So I was super psyched when Bravo announced that the show’s 10th season will be set in the Emerald City!

But I started reading up on the local press coverage of filming. And was, let’s say, troubled by what I read. From Seattle Weekly’s Hanna Raskin:

[T]he show’s producers are notoriously uninterested in the true culinary character of the cities they feature, and even less interested in engaging the people who live in those places. Top Chef treats its shooting locales like motel rooms serviceable for a one-night stand.

And

Although Texas ponied up $400,000 for the privilege of serving as a Top Chef host, the state which viewers saw was a goofy caricature that was unlikely to lure anyone to the Lone Star State. The impression created by Top Chef was that Texans ride horses and eat beef in unbearable heat. … “No one in Houston really cared about the show,” Kathaine Shilcutt, my counterpart at the Houston Press, e-mails. “In fact, most people I know actively boycotted watching it because they were so furious at being overlooked.”

I remember thinking much the same about the episodes filmed in Texas. Though the show went to great lengths to film in several different cities (hitting Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas), the take-away from any on-the-spot filming was that Texans were rednecks with big hats who wouldn’t hesitate to scream, “Texas chili doesn’t have beans!

Dr H reminded me, too, of when Top Chef returned to New York for a previous season. For all the local dining or exploring the cast did, it might have been filmed in New Jersey.

Why would Top Chef bother traveling to film on location if it never intended to engage the local community, or branch out beyond stale stereotypes of whatever corner of the country bucks up the dough to host?

This reminded me of setting, and how important it is to get right. To use the city or region in which your story is set as more than a shabby, two-dimensional backdrop built with lazy preconceptions and a condescending lack of attention to detail. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book set in your hometown, and either delighted or cringed over how it was portrayed? If you set your novel in a real place, many readers will have that experience.

You really don’t want to get that wrong.

The good news? You don’t have to splurge on plane tickets to get the feel of a place.The answer is the same every time: research, research, research.

Have a Twitter account? I guarantee there are some people on there who live in your setting, and would love to chat about it! 1

If you want to get the exact point of view that your character has, walking their streets, try to find images in the Google Street View Gallery.

No matter how large or small the community, you can be there is some kind of newspaper, or community newsletter, or blog that focuses on the issues important to those citizens (Google is your friend!). Take a day or two to peruse and get an up-to-date refresher on what concerns that community.

The long and short of it is, if your characters exist in a world made of trite stereotypes and cliched tourist traps, they’re more likely to fall into similar tropes themselves. Don’t sell yourself, or your characters, short!

What about you?? Have you ever had a major gripe with how your hometown was portrayed? Where have you set your WiP? What kind of resources have you discovered to get a better sense of setting?

  1. I once asked a question about Texan homecoming traditions on a Sunday night… and got something like 5o responses!

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Getting the Teen Perspective

by sarahenni on November 8, 2011

Generations are defined by the events that shape them. I’m 26, and I don’t feel that removed from my teen experience. But let’s look at the major events that have happened in my lifetime, that I remember: the first Gulf War, the O.J. Simpson trial, the crazy shambles of the Al Gore vs. George Bush race, September 11th, President Obama being inaugurated (I was totes there!), and the recession.

But a teen right now was born between 1993 and 1998.

To put that in perspective? There are some teens that are younger than “…Baby One More Time.” Yeah. Odds are, they didn’t go see Titanic three times in theaters (I mean, what? Who did that…). The biggest James Cameron movie they know is Avatar. They might not even think Leonardo DiCaprio is hot. (*tears*)

But I really don’t want to turn current teens into “other”—that is not the point of this post. The point is to remind myself, and maybe you if you need reminding, that while writing is a very personal practice, we have to be attentive to the world of the people we’re writing for.

For current teens:

  • The threat of high school shootings has always been present. (Columbine was in 1999.)
  • Google has always been a noun and a verb and the best access to the internet. (No dial up for most of these lucky kids.) (Google history) 63% of teens say they regularly use the computer at home, and nearly half have their own email addresses. (Source)
  • 9/11 happened when they were in elementary school or younger. I doubt many second grade classes stopped to watch what was happening. (My high school teachers didn’t. And shame on them.) But they’ve been living with the political and military fallout from 9/11 throughout their formative years.
  • For these teens, women and minorities regularly run for officeand win.
  • The recession hasn’t caused them to forego insurance payments or refinance their home. It has caused that kind of stress to their parents, who may or may not be honest with their kids about familial financial strain. The recession has also made it harder than ever for regular teens to find easy part-time or summer jobs, something that was an important experience in every former generation.
  • Reality TV has always been part of their culture. (The Real World: New York debuted in 1992.) MTV was at an all-time low before The Jersey Shore became its highest-rated show ever.
  • Speaking of MTV, the network hardly bothers with videos anymore, which industrious music-loving teens can find online now. (And they are—57 million unique viewers watched music videos on Youtube in September alone.) So when Beavis and Butthead returns, not only will most teens not have any memory of the original show, the dudes will be lambasting Snookie and Kardashians instead of music.
  • They’ve been raised in a 24-hour news cycle. MSNBC was founded in 1995; FOX News was founded in 1996.
  • Wikipedia is a font of knowledge they’ve had access to for as long as they’ve had papers to write!

And these are just a few things that came to mind. What do you think? What else can you think of?

(And any actual teens please let me know if I’m getting anything wrong or leaving out something major!)

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