Hi, everybody! Hope it was a great weekend for you. Mine included finishing a draft of a book that’s due soon (woo-hoo!), catching fish and eating s’mores. Ah…summer!
Before we have today’s mini-lesson, we need to announce the winner of Friday’s book giveaway. Congratulations, Denise Krebs! You’ve won Joanne Levy’s SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE. Please send me an email (kmessner at kate messner dot com) with your mailing address so she can send your book.
Guest author Pamela Voelkel joins us now for today’s mini-lesson. Pamela and Jon write the Jaguar Stones books set in Latin America, MIDDLEWORLD and THE END OF THE WORLD CLUB. Read more at their website – and right now, Pamela joins us to talk about research.
The worst advice I was ever given was: “Write what you know”. Those four little words gave me a twenty-year writer’s block. It was only when I’d spent half my life as an advertising copywriter that the truth hit me. If I didn’t want to write about what I knew, all I had to do was know about something else.
So when my husband Jon started writing adventure stories based on his childhood in South and Central America, I joined him on the project. At first, they were just ripping yarns, with some cool Maya pyramids in the background for local color. But as we started to read about the Maya, we discovered that their story was more amazing than anything we could make up. We also discovered that many of the books in print were out of date. So that’s when we decided to turn our website into a portal for teachers to access the latest research into the Maya, and offer free lesson plan CDs.
Time was passing. Jon had completed a course at Harvard on reading and writing Maya glyphs, but I was still struggling with writing English. I was concerned that I couldn’t describe the sights and sounds of the jungle if I’d never been there so, when I saw an ad for a cheap flight to Belize, I persuaded Jon that we had to go. Not just us, but also our three children – then aged 2, 9 and 12 – to observe their reactions to spooky pyramids and creepy-crawlies and whatever else may await us.
After that we went down every year. It was our second trip that changed everything. We were at a remote site in Guatemala, on a day that was free entry to locals. Our son is very tall and he attracted a crowd of local youths who followed him around, giggling and taking pictures of him. Our tour guide watched this for a while, then puffed out his chest and stepped forward. “Remember these people,” he said in Spanish, “but not because their son is tall. Remember them because they are writing books about the Maya and, thanks to them, children in North America will be reading about your history and culture.” There was a moment of silence. Then these hoodie-wearing, gum-chewing Guatemalan teenagers burst into applause, with the ancient pyramids right there behind them. My heart sank into my jungle boots. Now we had a responsibility to these kids. Now we would have to tell the story of the modern Maya as well. And that’s where our lead character (and everyone’s favorite) Lola the Maya girl came from.
So my advice regarding research would be read everything you can, double/triple check your facts, take nothing for granted, wander down every blind alley you come across, and be prepared for what you find to fundamentally change your story. In the best possible way.
Note from Kate: No…we are not sending you all off on airplanes for a giant field trip for research today…but we are sending you on a virtual field trip. Like Pamela, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in many of the places where my books are set and to travel for interviews and other research. I spent a week in the rainforest of Costa Rica researching HIDE AND SEEK, the sequel to CAPTURE THE FLAG, and interviewed one of the world’s leading tornado experts in Norman, Oklahoma while I was working on EYE OF THE STORM. But what happens when there’s no book contract yet, and no advance to pay for that travel? Or what if the trip just isn’t feasible for another reason – like safety, or travel regulations, or child care issues? That’s when the Internet is your best friend.
Assignment: Google Maps and Google Earth have satellite images and photographs that will show you the view from many addresses all over the world. This Salon piece has a great tutorial on how to use that street-view feature so you can take a virtual field trip to the setting of your novel.
YouTube, too, has videos that writers can use for virtual visits when a real one might not be possible. In my mystery CAPTURE THE FLAG, for example, some of the chase scenes happen in the underbelly of the airport, on the twists and turns of baggage conveyer belts. Airport security, sadly, does not allow for nosy writers to ride baggage carts, and so my descriptions of characters in those areas were all based on online videos like this one.
Get the idea? Find a video or street-view map or a collection of images of your setting online today. Check it out and take some notes, paying attention not only to what you see, but also what you hear, what you might feel, and what you imagine it would smell like. How would your characters see that place? Share some thoughts in the comments if you’d like!