We’re looking forward to our first webinar of 2022 in which we’ll feature a panel discussion on the role of research in fiction with authors Christine Kendall and Lindsay Bandy. The webinar will take place on January 20 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time. Learn more about it and register here. And thanks to an SCBWI member who is “paying it forward,” we are giving away a free critique from Lindsay Bandy for up to 10 pages of your middle grade or YA manuscript, plus a one-page synopsis. See below for details.
In preparation for the webinar, we’ve invited Christine and Lindsay to chat with us at our virtual EasternPennPoints Café. Grab your favorite beverage and join us!
Laura: Hi, Christine and Lindsay! We’re delighted to have you at the café. I’m sipping my favorite fall beverage: hot apple cider. What are you having?
Christine: Hot chocolate. One of my wintertime favorites.
Lindsay: Hot chocolate sounds like a great idea, Christine! I’ll have mine with extra whipped cream. And marshmallows.
Laura: We’re looking forward to your panel discussion on the role of research in fiction. Let’s start by clearing up any misconceptions: Fiction—it’s all made up! Who needs research, am I right?
Christine: Well . . . not exactly. It’s true that fiction is made up of imagined events, but in order to get readers to buy in to a story, the imagined events have to be presented in a realistic way. Even if you’re writing fantasy you have to make the fantasy believable.
Lindsay: I think some of the misconceptions are rooted in our definition of “research.” When we think of research, we tend to think of dusty archives and bowties and those awful papers we had to write in school. Researching is really just learning, and there are SO many ways to do that! Paying attention to the behavior of the people around you, as well as your own emotions, is a form of research. So is studying an old map or visiting an art gallery or reading other novels that deal with a topic of interest to you. Writers are kind of like designers on a movie set, tasked with creating a world carefully enough that the audience believes they are somewhere else entirely. This takes work, but if you’re a curious person, the work is fun!
Laura: A question for you, Lindsay: How difficult was it to put yourself into the mindset of eighteenth-century France while writing Nemesis and the Swan? Did you use other forms of media besides books and websites to immerse yourself?
Lindsay: Because my story takes place before the invention of the camera, I relied heavily on period art, fashion, and music. I love art history—but I hate memorizing dates or cold facts! Seriously, if it doesn’t make me feel something, I forget it in like two minutes. So, I like to look at what art shows us about the mindset of the artist, whether it’s the way they chose to style their hair, the necklace and dress combo they put on that morning, or the picture they painted on commission. Fashion and fine art play a huge role in Nemesis and the Swan—and that jewelry on the cover is at the center of it all.
Music history is also super interesting to me, because the songs we sing cling to our memories and bring us together like nothing else. A song takes you back to a poignant emotion or specific place and time. It makes you feel something. The songs people were singing during the Revolution—oh, yes, they sang while parading heads around on pikes—told me a lot about how desperate, angry, and hopeful they really were.
Laura: And, Christine, your books are set in contemporary time and in settings that are similar to your own lived experiences. Did you still find yourself having to do a bit of research to create the settings in your books?
Christine: I sure did because it’s crucial to get the little details right. For instance, my first book, Riding Chance, is a story about a boy finding himself through his relationship with a horse. I’m not a horse person but I wanted to tell this story. A lot of the book takes place at the stables, so I had to do quite a bit of research to bring the smell, the sounds, and the feel of the stables to life.
Laura: In addition to settings, authors often have to do a lot of research to make their characters authentic. What aspects of your characters required the most research?
Christine: For me, it’s so important to understand every character’s cultural background. There’s a secondary character in The True Definition of Neva Beane whose father is from Ghana, West Africa. So, I have this Ghanaian-American family living in West Philly. I needed to research Ghanaian culture in order to describe how my character would address her dad, how their home would be decorated, the music they may listen to, etc. All of those details had to be authentic, even though this was a secondary character.
Lindsay: So, when I first submitted Nemesis and the Swan to editors, my agent and I received some interesting feedback that led to more research and ultimately a new opening chapter. My main character, Helene, is the daughter of a marquis, and she’s lived a very privileged life but doesn’t feel like she really belongs in that glittering world, or anywhere else for that matter. That part was easy. I took it from my own experiences of growing up not feeling like I fit into any neat category or group.
The problem was . . . Helene is not me. She’s got her own life, and I realized there were some parts of it even I didn’t know yet. The very smart editor’s question was, Why? What would give her such a radically different world view than her parents when she’s lived a pretty darn comfortable life? I did some more learning, and a new character was born. Helene had a governess who secretly taught her from subversive texts, snuck her out to Enlightenment salons, and introduced her to Hugo, her Black boyfriend who spoke up for the abolition of slavery in Paris while showing his whipping scars. Now we had a good why based on her time, not mine. And we sold the book!
Laura: As writers we often have to research some pretty bizarre or unique topics, even for some of the smallest details in our stories. For example, I spent a bit of time reading (and watching lots of videos) about synchronized swimming for a scene in my novel—a scene that doesn’t even appear in the novel anymore! What fun, bizarre, or obscure topic did you enjoy researching for your books, whether or not the information actually appeared in the novel?
Christine: I enjoyed learning about volunteer cuddlers. These are people who volunteer to hold babies in hospitals because infants need human touch and their parents and nurses are not always available. Cuddling is often done while sitting in a rocking chair, but it can be emotionally demanding work. Cuddlers should be applauded!
Lindsay: Oh my goodness! I want to be a volunteer cuddler! That’s much more pleasant than many of the things I learned about the French Revolution. Ha! However, I enjoyed learning about the big hullaballoo surrounding the Montgolfier hot air balloon demonstration in 1783. It was the first “manned” flight, and its passengers were a rooster, a sheep, and a duck.
Laura: Let’s end by giving one cool fact we’ve learned while researching for our novels. Here’s mine: The prefix “tredeca-” means thirteen, so a tredecillion is 1,000,000 to the thirteenth power (which has 78 zeroes, in case you were wondering).
Christine: I knew that touch is an important part of bonding with a horse but I didn’t know that horses will often respond by hugging in return. They can bend their neck over a person’s shoulder and press their face against the person’s back. Very cool!
Lindsay: Can I volunteer to be cuddled by horses, too? I’ll cuddle the babies, and the horses can cuddle me, and we’ll all be so happy. Christine, you are the research winner. You win. I give up.
Okay, fine . . . something cool I learned . . . Nope, never mind. I surrender. The cuddling wins.
Laura: This was so much fun! I can’t wait to hear all of your research advice in our webinar on January 20. Thanks for chatting with me!
Christine: I’m looking forward to it!
Lindsay: Thank you, Laura and Christine! Can’t wait!
Christine Kendall grew up in a family of artists, the fourth of six children, where everyone studied the piano along with one other instrument. She still feels sorry for the neighbors. They woke up one morning and found themselves living next door to a flute, two clarinets, a french horn, a cello, a set of drums, and always, always somebody on the piano. Christine wasn’t any good on the piano or the clarinet but she loved writing.
Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and her debut novel, Riding Chance, (Scholastic 2016) was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens. Her second novel, The True Definition of Neva Beane, was published by Scholastic in the fall of 2020.
Christine lives in Philadelphia where she co-curates and hosts the award-winning reading series, Creative at the Cannery.
Lindsay Bandy is always on a treasure hunt. She enjoys researching and writing about an eclectic variety of people, places, and time periods while seeking the emotional core that ties it all together. She is a youth librarian, the Published Member Coordinator for the Eastern PA chapter of SCBWI, and the author of Nemesis and the Swan, a YA historical novel set at the height of the French Revolution. Lindsay lives in Lancaster County, PA with her husband, two daughters, and two cats, and when she’s not writing, she’s probably on the hunt for thrift-shop treasures or the perfect donut while singing along to Harry Styles.
Join authors Christine Kendall and Lindsay Bandy on January 20, 2022 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time as they discuss their writing and researching processes and answer your questions. We’ll dive into practical advice for both contemporary and historical fiction writers, including balancing researched information with story, avoiding awkward info dumps, discovering the holes in your knowledge base to direct your research, incorporating real people into fictional narratives, developing a character’s cultural background and emotional landscape, and transposing your own inner conflicts into fiction. To register go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/panel-discussion-webinar-the-role-of-research-in-fiction/
Thanks to a generous SCBWI member, who is paying it forward, we are giving away a free critique by Lindsay Bandy to one lucky writer for the first ten pages of their middle grade or YA novel plus a one-page synopsis. To enter, comment on this blog post by Saturday, December 18 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time and include your Twitter or Instagram handle. The winner will be chosen at random from those who comment. If you’d like to comment on this blog post but not be entered to win (i.e., if you are not interested in a critique but still want to add to the conversation), simply state that along with your comment. Materials for the critique are due January 21, 2022. The winner will be announced in the comments section of this blog post, so check back after the deadline to see if you’re our winner! Instructions for submitting materials will be sent to the winner.