Posts Tagged ‘research’

Diversity Dilemma

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

I’m afraid to write this post. Why? Because it’s about diversity in YA fiction, and writing about diversity is almost as scary as writing diverse characters. There’s a sense that you need to walk on eggshells, that at any moment you’re liable to say something offensive, un-PC, or just plain wrong.

The call to write diverse characters is everywhere, but when you’re not LBTQ, disabled, or a Person of Color, doing so is stepping into a minefield. No one sets out to create a character who is a stereotype. But when you’ve been fed those stereotypes all your life through the media and the institutionalized biases that run rampant in our culture, they can be hard to see beyond. Even worse, you may think you’re writing an authentic character, unaware that you’re reinforcing one of those very stereotypes.

A related problem occurs when you intentionally try to write against stereotype. The thinking goes like this: There is a stereotype out there of the young black man who is an unemployed, drug-dealing thug. Therefore the young black man in my book needs to aspire to a law degree from Harvard, speak the Queen’s English, and spend his spare hours doing volunteer work at the local hospital. Your character then becomes just as cardboard as the original stereotype, and what’s more, if your book’s setting is a crime-ridden inner city, downright unbelievable (is it okay that I said that??). This whitewashed, pardon the irony, version of your character is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to the original stereotype, and therefore calls attention to that stereotype.

So how does a straight white woman like me go about creating characters who are very different from her? I don’t know, but I imagine that the answer lies in a combination of research, beta readers…and a bit of trust in our shared humanity. Through research, I can learn about the cultures of those different from myself, and once I’ve finished a draft, beta readers can reflect back to me any insensitive material I’ve unwittingly introduced into my work.

But the most important tool I have is empathy. Our skin colors and sexual orientations may be diverse, but my characters and I share primary human emotions and universal life experiences. If I can tap into the deep well of my feelings and experiences, I know I will find a connection with my characters whether they’re black or white, abled or disabled, straight or gay.

So I pledge to move forward boldly and do my best to bring diversity to my YA fiction. The danger of leaving deserving teens without books that reflect their backgrounds and experience trumps my personal fear of getting it wrong.

Facebook: a writer’s best friend

Friday, July 6th, 2012

I’m not ashamed to say it: I love Facebook. Not everyone does, and I understand that. But Facebook has done so much more for me than reconnect me with long lost cousins, high school buddies, and old boyfriends. I think of Facebook as a tool for my writing life, and not just because I can check out my favorite authors’ pages or friend agents and editors. The most useful aspect of Facebook for my writing, I’ve found, is the ability to poll friends and get expert opinions.

Here’s an example of one way I’ve used polling: When my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt told me that my novel needed a new title, I asked my Facebook friends, in the form of a status update, what they’d suggest as a title for a Young Adult novel that dealt with both crystal meth addiction and bird rescue. Dozens of friends commented with title suggestions, some of them great and some of them not-so-great. Even though the title we eventually chose, FLYAWAY, came from another source, I was glad to have a chance to involve my Facebook friends in the process. Hopefully, it gave them more of a sense of collaboration with me and more of a stake in the book.

Recently, I put out this request, again in the form of a status update: “Okay, theater friends. Have any of you seen or been in a show where a woman with a leading role has a quick backstage costume change? This is for a scene in a Young Adult novel, so it would have to be a show that could be done at a high school. Any suggestions would be appreciated!” I got a number of great suggestions, along with an invitation to further contact a woman whom I’m sure will be helpful as an expert on the topic I’m writing about.

So if you’re a writer, don’t think of Facebook as just a time-sucking distraction. Next time you need some folks to brainstorm with or give you expert opinions, call on your Facebook friends!


Field Trip

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

I’m taking you on a field trip today! So come board the bus, and join me at the Teenreads blog for a post on “Out-of-the-Box” Research.

Getting your (writing) ducks in a row

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

It used to be that when I had an idea for a new novel, I’d just turn on my computer, open a file, and plunge in. I thought that too much plotting and planning would take away the magic, that writing in a burst of manic inspiration from the first word to the last would result in a coherent work.


Often what I ended up with were moments of brilliance housed within an unholy mess full of detours and dead ends. Now, before I write one word, I insist on getting all my ducks in a row.

Clip art © by Dixie Allan,

What does that mean exactly:

Writing about the book

Before I start writing in the book, I write about it. I just open up a document, title it (Name of Novel) Notes, and have at it. I write about what excites me about the book, what scares me about the book. I write about how I’m going to write it, what problems I forsee, and how I might go about solving them.


Before write a word, I research any plot elements I need to know more about. I start with the Internet, then move from there to the library and then to any hands-on experiences I can think of that will help me write more authentically. I may have to do more research as I’m drafting, but this lets me start with a knowledge base.

Character Sketches and Interviews

Before I write, I get to know my characters. I write about them: their hopes and fears, their histories, their families and friends, their likes and dislikes. I also interview them to get a sense of their voices. I type out my interview questions in one font and have them type their answers in a different font. It’s amazing what I can learn about them this way.


I often start with just a germ of an idea – an image, an opening line, a closing scene. As I go through my pre-writing process, I continue to add to what I know about the story. By the time I feel ready to move into drafting, I have a detailed synopsis of several pages. I then distill that synopsis into one or two paragraphs (very difficult!) that cut to the heart of the story. My synopsis changes dramatically through the pre-writing process, and when I’m finally satisfied with it, I know that I’m ready to dive in and begin my first (or as I prefer to call it, my exploratory) draft.

What about you? Do you dive right into a new book, or do you go through a pre-writing process? If so, what is it?





In praise of PAWS

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

As the release date of FLYAWAY draws closer, I want to take the time to highlight (and thank!) some of the people and organizations who made the book a reality. And no organization was more integral to my writing of this novel than PAWS.

PAWS, short for Progressive Animal Welfare Society, is a regional organization, located in Lynnwood, Washington and focusing on Washington State and the Northwest, that strives to improve the lives of animals, both wild and companion. Their mission statement reads:

“PAWS is a champion for animals- rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife, sheltering and adopting homeless cats and dogs, and educating people to make a better world for animals and people.”

When I began writing FLYAWAY, I knew I would need actual experience working with injured and abandoned birds to lend authenticity to the scenes at On The Wing, my fictional home-based bird rehabilitation clinic. I knew from my Internet research that PAWS had a bird nursery, so I contacted them to see if I could volunteer.

The lovely Rebecca Mandell, then the volunteer coordinator at PAWS, helped me get started. I attended volunteer trainings where I learned how to fashion toilet paper nests, make “bird mush” from soaked ferret chow, and feed baby birds using syringes and tweezers. I spent several weeks volunteering at the bird nursery, where I fed birds in incubators, baskets, and aviaries, and learned firsthand just how often baby birds need to eat! During my time as a volunteer, I met bird expert Candy Brown, who later vetted a draft of my manuscript.

My wish was to volunteer all summer, but when my doctor found out I was working with birds, he advised me to quit immediately. As a cancer survivor with no spleen, I’m at high risk for infection. It hadn’t occurred to me what a risk it might be for me to handle birds, which often carry germs that can be hazardous to humans. Reluctantly, I followed his advice and turned in my volunteer badge.

But my experience with PAWS wasn’t quite over. I knew that my novel would contain a scene where a rehabilitated bird is released into the wild, so I contacted Kevin Mack, who took me along on a robin release. I will never forget the moment when the other volunteers and I opened the cardboard box housing the robin and watched it fly away, a scene which I recreated in my book.

I will always be grateful to the people at PAWS for giving me the hands-on experience. And the Companion Animal Adoption branch of PAWS has given me one more thing to treasure.