Friday, January 2, 2015

Research, Duckies, You Gotta Get On That

Today, I'm writing to you from both sides of the publishing desk. Most of you know me as a writer of books with miserable endings and a side of pain, but ALSO, my day job is editing books that shower you with love (read: romance novels). So I'm basically a million flavors of emotional fun.

Which is to say that I read a fair amount and I see a whole heap of shenanigans when it comes to research. And if I'm being totally honest, I have been guilty of some of these shenanigans myself. We all have. You only have so much time to write a book and look, we've all watched The Facts of Life so we get what boarding school life is like, right? No. No No No No.

Here's the deal, if you are basing your contemporary YA novel on the stuff that happened when you were in high school and you're not 18 years old, you need to do a little research. The world is way different now than when me and Lenny Kravitz went to high school. Technology alone is enough to send me deep into the rabbit hole of wondering how I even managed to meet my friends in town without cell phones. Some of you won't believe this, but the Internet did not exist when I went to high school. We used things like encyclopedias and research books FROM THE LIBRARY. I hand-wrote all my papers until senior year of high school. HAND-WROTE! My God. I shudder to recall it.

Everyone seems to think that historical fiction or fantasy is the kind of thing that needs heaps of research. This is true, but it does not mean that contemporary YA doesn't require diving in and seeing how things work. As much as My So-Called Life is a font of helpful teen emotional landscapes, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I think you need to visit high schools, talk to teachers, talk to teenagers, ask some questions about what their days look like. Even if you aren't doing school visits on the regular, call your alma mater and ask for a little walk-around. You will notice that they do things like check your ID when you walk in the building. The library looks different. There are security guards. I have found that teachers and parents and counselors are way more up in your business than they used to be.

Which means that you CANNOT:

1. Have a plot point that hinges on school faculty not reporting your MC for something. School personnel are mandated reporters for suicide, rape, abuse, etc. The world is way more litigious and ignoring/dismissing teenagers is a lawsuit waiting to happen so teachers are ON THIS, covering their asses, and frankly, looking out for teens. The exception to all this, of course, is an asshole teacher like a coach trying to protect his football players from a rape charge. But average Joe teachers are reporting. Write your books accordingly.

2. Make up some vague reason why a teenager is inaccessible. "My cell phone was out of range" is a weak sauce excuse these days (unless you're trying to talk to your bestie from the top of a ski hill in Northern Michigan, in which case it's like 1980s Beirut). There are way too many cell towers now. I mean, my friends were Tweeting me from the bombing site at the Boston Marathon a few years ago. Your cell doesn't stop working unless it's out of batteries and even then, the charge lasts pretty long and I don't know many teens who let their cell phones die. Plus, every parent I know has that "Find my phone" or "Life 360" app installed so they know where their kids' phones are (which means they know where their kids are).

3. Rely on TV shows for information about crimes/criminal acts. As a rape victim advocate, there is nothing that bugs the crap out of me more than when I see, "The victim doesn't want to press charges." Yo. We're dealing with a crime, the victim isn't given a choice about whether charges are pressed. The victim can be a reluctant or non-responsive witness (which would make a state's attorney's case fall apart pretty quickly), but in the end, it is the state's attorney who determines whether or not a case will be prosecuted. I have seen rape cases go forward without the victim providing any testimony. It does happen. I have also seen (way more often, to be honest) cases where the victim wants the state's attorney to prosecute and the SA decides not to. Bottom line: Do not use Murder She Wrote as the foundation for your teen crime story. TV writers' research is even more suspect than YA writers'.

4. Use other fiction as a foundation for your research. Have you ever noticed that after a while, something sort of becomes truth and we're all repeating it and don't seem to think it's weird at all? I'm quite certain this is because famous fictional things have MADE THIS TRUE. For example, rubbing two sticks together to build a fire. People who build fires on the regular know that you can use two sticks to start a fire but you don't rub them together like two Xes. For those interested in how you actually do it, I researched it here. I see things like this all the time in my day job. People picking locks with bobby pins (it can be done, but there's a VERY specific way to make it work and it has to be a certain kind of lock). People writing romantic suspense who give cops abilities they do not have like "enhancing images." People who write BDSM with very little understanding about the culture of consent that is at the core of that community. At the end of the day, you can't rely on other people's shoddy research to shore up your own. That just perpetuates silliness.

I'm sure there are things that don't fly in all of our books. We're human. We make mistakes. We research and think something is right, only for it to change post-publication (I have books I've edited that included gay couples "unable to marry" in Pennsylvania, that I had to go back in and change when the law changed). But do not let things slide because you're being lazy about research, because that's how it was in 1996 when you were in high school, because that's what you saw on an episode of Roswell. Dig in, ask questions, find experts, visit places, and if you're not sure about something, flag it and ask your beta readers/editor/copy editor/agent/teenager next door if that's how things work.

Since I started writing and editing, I have been to a high school radio station, skate park, tattoo parlor, Catholic church, boxing ring, fetish-wear shop, a hot yoga class (Gah!), and Thatcher Woods a bunch of times. I've researched medical suturing, Guerrilla girls, alcoholism, nudists, geocaching, degenerative blindness, music, lot lizards, ethics committees, high school codes of conduct, short films, village politics, etc. And of course, for BLEED LIKE ME...


  1. I adore you for this, but then, I knew you would. This is also what makes you such a brilliant editor ;-)

  2. TY at 2:43 Toronto time I read this post and it resonated with me as an aspiring writer I realized I can't take the easy route as such I include research within my writing goals, your right I graduated high school in 1997 and things are way different in regards to how teens act, technology etc.

  3. Yes! This is the little extra that makes good books great. I'm writing an Asian pirate novel right now, and you wouldn't believe the things we get wrong about both pirates and the Chinese lower classes in 1800. Okay, maybe the latter, but pirates? Really? With all the books and movies, you'd think someone would bust all the myths...