Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Allison: Anatomy of a Writer’s Group

Unlike book groups, writers’ groups did not need the megawatt charisma of talk show goddess Oprah Winfrey to become attractive to the public. In nearly every city and township across this country a group of writers meet periodically – and usually informally – to discuss work written by its members. These groups thrive for one fundamental reason: thousands upon thousands of people love to write.
If you are thinking of creating your own writers group, here are some guidelines:
Size matters. Depending on your temperament, as few as three participants may suffice. However, if you want greater critical mass, as many as twenty members may not be enough. It’s a question of intimacy verses variety, structure versus a free-for-all. Nevertheless, many large groups have been know to divide into cliques, creating a series of micro groups within the macro. So how many members should you have? Eight to twelve participants should be enough to guarantee steady attendance. Remember, count on at least one person having a conflict with any given meeting date. Aim for 90/90 – ninety percent of the writers coming ninety percent of the time. This will create a sense of community and fraternity.
Any place with do for a meeting as land as it holds oxygen and is well lit. For the first few meetings, while everyone is getting to know one another, a public place is best. People feel less intimated and, therefore, more comfortable, if they feel that everyone is on common ground. So start off by meeting at an inexpensive eatery or (weather permitting) a park. Once everyone has warmed up to one another, a dedicated bunch can start rotating households. Members can opt to carpool if one of the writers lives far away. No one person’s house should become the group’s constant meeting place just because it’s convenient.
While hosting a meeting, tend to all pets, spouses, small children, crazy aunts and so on before the meeting begins. Make sure the answering machine is turned on and the television is turned off. If your budget permits, you might want to supply refreshments. No full-course meals, just chips and dips. Writers drink enough coffee in solitude, so try tea. Soda is nice. Wine is even nicer. But always keep in mind that under the influence of alcohol every work sounds Shakespearean and that their is not a social gathering, this is a work party.
Keep thus meeting punchy and on time. The mind can only absorb what the butt cab endure. Less really is more. There is no need for everyone to reminisce about prom night. Aim for two-and-a-half—anything more classifies the meeting as a marathon.
Writing is a calling that spans all ages, sexes, races, religions, and political views. In today’s global mindset, no one group that has the rule if the collective opinion, so why not invite everyone and everybody to your writers’ group. After a few meetings, it will be clear the real thing that separates writers are motivation level and attention to craft, not nationality or income.
Many writers’ groups encourage members to read their copy aloud for group discussion, This works well for performance oriented pieces but for writing that is primarily fir print this could be counterproductive for it interrupts the normal delivery of the text, Circulating advanced copies does get expensive when dissecting larger pieces, but the value of a studied critique is priceless. Some groups do writing exercises at the start or the close of each meeting. This is also an excellent way to bookend the meeting, by having everyone leave with something new to work on for the next session.
Leadership makes a difference. Let’s face it, you started the dang thing, so you’ll probably get stuck with the title, if the group has one. The facilitator’s responsibilities are ever-evolving. The biggest headache is finding the ever elusive meeting date that will satisfy everyone. The group leader must also keep meetings moving by diplomatically squashing side issues about The Apprentice and gas prices. For the good of the whole, the leader needs to be assertive, but don’t expect to be thanked for it. To ensure everyone is respected, be honest without being brutal. Be ever vigilant.
By participating in this communal are of sharing resources, challenging opinions and correcting typos. Writing groups appeal to the novice and experienced alike. It’s a bond like no other.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Coert: Engaging the Young Adult Reader

The paperback of my first book The Brothers Torres is released today, which—in addition to conjuring painful flashbacks of Dennis Cass’s fantastic Book Launch 2.0—has me thinking about a book I haven’t looked at in a while. What follows is an adaptation of my contribution to the Engaging the Young Adult Reader panel at last year’s IRA Conference.

I taught a high school film class for six years. The students wrote, directed, produced, and edited a variety of assignments, from music videos to commercials, documentaries and narrative films, and at the end of the year, they presented a final project. Three years into it, I began to dread these final projects, knowing that every single one would include some or all of the following: envelope-pushing public displays of affection, slow-motion fights with their parents, and most of all: shot upon shot of their cars. From the passenger p.o.v. the driver’s p.o.v. The camera on the dashboard, on the hood, montage after montage of driving around the city, looking wistfully out the window, all accompanied by the latest emo tune. Make it stop, I thought. I see this every year.

What I realized, thankfully, was that while I might have seen it all before, this was the first time my students had ever had the opportunity to express these stories and emotions. They had something to say, and it was fresh for them, and that was the important part. And once I was able to achieve a kind of critical distance, I realized that there was complexity in a lot of the representation. Their view of the world, once we got past the slow-motion slamming of the door in the mother’s face, was beginning to show nuance. The students were beginning to see themselves as part of a complex and difficult world, and it wasn’t until I began writing for Young Adults that I realized what that meant.

Before I say anything about engaging the young adult reader, I think it’s important to examine what I think of as Young Adult literature. I’m hesitant to oversimplify, but one of the conclusions I’ve come to is that YA doesn’t so much reflect a writer’s decision to write for a particular audience as it does a marketing decision based on a combination of protagonist and narrative stance.

This is not to say that we don’t care who our audience is; the stories we tell are of course influenced by the audience. What I mean is that once the story has been chosen and it comes time to write it, then—if we really want to “engage” the reader—we should forget who the audience is and concentrate on how we’re telling the story.

For every story there is a narrative stance—be it omniscient, effaced, first or close-third person, present or past, retrospective or not—that maximizes the potential of the story itself. And Young Adult literature (this is of course a massive generalization, but bear with me) tends to be first or extremely close third person, non-retrospective narration, either in present or past. This particular narrative stance mirrors the emotional and intellectual state of the protagonist (and in many cases the young adult reader herself): a kind of netherworld somewhere between the benevolent narcissism of pre-adolescence and the potentially crippling self-awareness of adulthood. It is a time in the teenager’s life when he’s beginning to grasp adult issues while still within the framework of himself as the center of the universe. Representing this state allows the YA writer to show the world in all its complexities, and while the reader might not see the complexity right away, he will feel it, just as he feels it in his own world.

Besides, the real world is not a series of simple either/or choices—Do I do drink, or no? Do I join a gang, or no? Do I stand up for what I know is right, or no?— it makes no sense, if we want to engage with our readers, to craft our fictional world that way. We can take advantage of the complex narrative stance in order to present the world in all it’s greyness.

My book, The Brothers Torres, which is set in a fictional small town in northern New Mexico, is told in the present tense, from the first-person perspective of the sixteen year-old narrator, Frankie Towers. There is no retrospection, so Frankie starts the book thinking his story is just another boy wants girl:
So, there’s a guy, right? And he’s known this girl forever, from back when they used to take swim lessons and throw dirt clods at cars and lift packs of Juicy Fruit from Arroyo’s QuickMart. But she’s all grown up now. She’s sixteen and in high school and somewhere along the line she got smoking-hot. And this dude, he wants to ask her out, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He doesn’t know the right words. He gets this nasty pinch underneath his rib cage when she even turns around to look at him and blah, blah, blah. I know, you’ve heard it all before. I thought I had, too. Until that dude turned out to be me.
This first paragraph doesn’t mention the brother, but it does confront head-on the narrator’s awareness that while this story has been told so many times before, it’s different now—it’s worth listening to—because it is happening to him. As the novel progresses, the storyline of the brother pushes itself into Frankie’s life, and eventually we have a character who can no longer ignore the outside world. One challenge was to present the world as Frankie sees it while also passing along enough information about the “real world” so that the reader can place him in it.

The beauty of the first person, and of having a point of view character who is insightful, whether he knows it or not, is that the reader can take part in two narratives: what comes through the subjective eyes of the narrator (value judgments, jokes) and objective information that the narrator passes along, in the form of action and dialogue, for example.

What follows are some of the ways I tried to take advantage of this particular narrative stance to engage the reader with a complex world—with Frankie’s perception of his love interest, Rebecca; with his parents, and finally, with his brother Steve.

The object of Frankie’s affection, Rebecca Sanchez, appears at first to be a one-dimensional construct—the pretty girl who exists solely in Frankie’s fantasy. And sure enough, Frankie works hard throughout the novel to convince us of her perfection. He says:
Straight black hair, creamy light brown skin, a kickin’ body—not too skinny.
A few chapters later, as he catches a glimpse of her walking with her friends across the quad at school, he tells us:
You know those movies where the hot chick has a couple friends who are almost as hot but not quite? They always walk in slow motion with the hottest one in the lead, like a squadron of attack planes in V-formation? Rebecca could make that happen if she wanted to. But she doesn’t need that attention, and Katie seems to want it, so Katie’s the one in front.
On the surface, we get Frankie’s description of Rebecca, which helps justify the lengths he goes to win her heart. But if we’re paying attention, he gives us language to suggest that perhaps there is a more objective way to see her. What does “not too skinny” mean? What does that mean when combined with the fact that Frankie brings up the hot chick movie convention and then explains why Rebecca isn’t in front? We see what role Rebecca plays in Frankie’s world, but we also get a glimpse of how she exists in the “real world” of the novel. This complicates our impression of her character while at the same time informing us about Frankie.

Then there are the parents. Frankie’s understanding of his role in the world, in the family, is shifting so rapidly that he can hardly keep up (at one point, he even feels himself being thrust into the role of the parent.) Frankie’s observations lead him at the beginning to conclude that his parents are a joke. “I love my dad, right?” he says at one point, “but it’s like he learned how to be a father by reading self-help books.” Frankie thinks they concentrate all their parenting on him while letting his older brother Steve walk all over them. When he comes home after having been beaten up, all Frankie can process is that his mother is freaking out; even though he tells us what she says, he hardly pays attention to it:
Mom’s voice finally cracks. “Someone attacked my baby and my husband’s at work and my boys won’t talk to me for some reason pero no se porque no me hablan—”
“Mom.” She’s panicking now. Talking to herself. Making no sense.
“—both coming home with bruises all over, and I don’t know what’s happening to my family—”
“Mom!” I come home after getting my ass totally beat, and my mom goes off the deep end? How does that help anything?

Are Frankie’s parents really jokes, or does the objective information indicate otherwise? Frankie says his mom is making no sense, so he interrupts her and dismisses what she’s said—“both coming home with bruises”—by telling us she’s gone off the deep end, but he’s also given us enough information to reach our own conclusions.

Objective information also tells us that the father is just overmatched. He’s doing his best to keep a struggling business afloat, he’s trying to have a relationship with his kids while at the same time he’s devastated that he has no idea how to relate. Late in the novel, Frankie actually pretends to be asleep so as not to have to talk to him:
He places his hand on my shoulder, and it takes everything I have not to react. I give a pathetic half-groan and stretch out my legs, but I’m still asleep, of course, so I shrug my shoulders up close to my ears and go back into the fetal position. Dad’s hand is still on my shoulder, but he doesn’t say anything.
We stay like this for over ten minutes. I know because I count the whole time – counting helps me breathe more naturally. Six hundred and twelve Mississippi. His hand resting on my shoulder.

We see Frankie’s perspective: he’s tired, he doesn’t want his father to keep bothering him (to keep fathering him) and at the same time, all the father wants is a connection. The scene from Frankie’s point of view (“counting helps me breathe more naturally”) also helps to moderate the scene’s potential heavyhandedness—if you’ll pardon the expression.

Ultimately, it’s the storyline with his older brother Steve that forms the emotional center of the book. Frankie’s repeated inability to stand up to his brother drives the conflict forward as the situation worsens, resulting in a climax that pits the two of them against each other. The narrative stance here helps to draw out that tension, to let it simmer as long as possible.
Even as Frankie has complained to us that his parents aren’t taking Steve’s illicit activities seriously enough, he can’t help himself from doing the same thing. Remember, he’s perceptive, but not always correct. When Steve’s friend Flaco shows up at the mini-golf, Frankie can’t help but be impressed:
He looks extra-fierce tonight—the khakis, the wallet chain, the flannel buttoned at the top over a white beater, the mesh trucker hat pulled low over his eyes, the shiny ponytail halfway down his back. I’ve never been happier to see anybody in my life.
And later, as Flaco is joined by Steve and the rest of their crew, Frankie tells us:
We don’t really have gangs here in Borges, but if we did, this is what they’d look like.
Here the reader can sense that Steve is in trouble, just as Frankie does even though he doesn’t want to admit it. And even though he’s given us detailed description, because he doesn’t want to admit it, he comes to a conclusion that excuses his brother’s behavior. We may go along with it: we may allow ourselves to excuse it away as Frankie does, or we may not. If we do, then we stay deep in Frankie’s point of view. If we don’t, a double narrative presents itself. We may even recognize (as Frankie starts to in the end) that he’s excusing his brother’s behavior in much the same way that his father does.

I’m not suggesting that Frankie is an unreliable narrator. He’s certainly not hiding anything from us. He just a character who sees the world the way he sees the world, and he’s telling his story in a non-retrospective first person point of view. Our job is to figure out how his perspective works. And if this perspective is successful, then every reader will read it differently, will come to different conclusions, will invest herself in this second narrative.

But let’s say that the reader doesn’t recognize any of this double narration business? What then? Well, then there are other ways to engage. As readers, we engage on the character level with an unlikely hero—a guy who isn’t super-smart, doesn’t have spectacular abilities, isn’t fabulously wealthy or dirt-poor, doesn’t become famous, a narrator who stops the present action to address the reader in the second person. We engage on the plot level with a dangerous situation that only escalates. We engage with fireworks and a one-eyed best friend, with the pressures of a boy who needs to find a date for the dance, with the almost-foreign setting of northern New Mexico and a quirky small town where the tallest building and largest employer is a tortilla factory.

And as writers, no matter the genre, we can engage the young adult reader if we address what Carson McCullers’ twelve year old narrator Frankie—no relation—refers to in her 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding as the “old question”: “the who she was and what she would do in the world and why she was standing there that minute.”

Monday, August 3, 2009

Integrating Research Into Historical and Contemporary Fiction for Young Adults

Research is an intrinsic part of writing historical fiction, and I have relied on the interlibrary loan system at my university for everything from a jewel-like book that contains an inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe (The Queen’s Wardrobe Unlock’d)—an atlas-sized tome I have yet to return which helped me enormously as I apprenticed myself to learning about sewing and embroidery in the period!—to books of Renaissance cookery, midwifery, and medicine. Integrating research so that it feels natural, an organic part of the narrative and not baggy or obvious, is the key to success in my view. The research, especially in historical fiction, should be present enough to enable the reader to inhabit that particular period—to walk into it and breathe the air, catch the glint of the language, hear the street noises or their absence. In this post, I thought I would concentrate on a few examples from recent historical YA fiction by Libba Bray, Lisa Klein and myself in order to make two key points, and then look at the way Megan Frazer brings research into her fabulous contemporary novel, Secrets of Truth and Beauty.

Written in the first person, Lisa Klein’s lyrical first novel, Ophelia, retells Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view. It’s a natural novel with which to begin this discussion because almost every high school junior knows who Ophelia was. She might not have the archetypal cache of Eve, but I’m not sure there is another woman in Western literature who is as well known. To an extent then, Lisa Klein was blessed with not having to do all the work in establishing background and contextual history because she could safely assume most of her readers would be familiar with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Klein taught Renaissance literature to college students for many years and wrote her dissertation on Elizabethan poetry, so she was already extremely well-versed in the period and its literature—its voices—when she came to her novel. In an interview published with Klein (and included in the Bloomsbury paperback), she reveals the following origins for Ophelia: “…I became interested in the lives and works of Renaissance women and wrote articles about the needleworks of Queen Elizabeth and not-so-famous women of the period. I read (and taught) women’s journals, letters, and poetry. I studied so-called “nonliterary” works such as conduct books….” All of these helped Klein understand how sixteenth century people experienced their world.

What intrigues me about Klein’s decision to tell Ophelia’s story is the fact that the desire grew out of her own disappointment—and her students disappointment—at the passive presentation of Ophelia in the play. “Well,” Klein asked, “if Ophelia was so dim, what on earth made Hamlet fall in love with her? How would the play have been different if she had not drowned? If Ophelia could tell her own story, how would it differ from Shakespeare’s version?...These [questions] wouldn’t let go, so I began writing.” The strength of this very strong novel (which I read over the course of two nights) IS Ophelia’s strong character and her hypnotic voice. I quote at length from this conversation with Lisa Klein because it exemplifies a key element of integrating research successfully into a novel: One must MUST live with the material for a time in order for it to become familiar. The research needs to click within the psyche of the writer before she can use it naturally in the story.

Klein’s coming to the story resonates deeply with me, as I, too, lived with the story of Katherine Parr, the mother of Mary Seymour, the main character in The Red Queen’s Daughter, for several years before I wrote Mary’s story. Like Klein, I did graduate work in the Renaissance, writing my masters thesis on representations of women and women’s bodies in John Webster’s violent tragedy, “The Duchess of Malfi” (a phenomenal play by the way by one of Shakespeare’s successors). Long after I finished my doctorate and began teaching college literature, I read several biographies of the Tudors and stumbled about Katherine Parr’s story. This last queen of Henry VIII was well-educated and loving, and she was the wife of 3 old men before she finally married for love after Henry VIII’s death. She married Thomas Seymour, brother to the late Jane, and bore a single daughter, Mary. The tension in this story begins with the fact that Katherine Parr mothered the late king’s children successfully and was a role model for Queen Elizabeth. What Katherine wanted, desperately, was a child of her own. Unfortunately, she died within a week of giving birth, and Mary most likely died within the first three years of her life. Like Klein, I was compelled by questions: what would have happened had Katherine Parr lived? What if Mary didn’t die? What options would there have been for a woman of her time other than marriage? (Given her mother’s experience, a non-too-happy one, I did not want to surrender Mary up to marriage.) Anyway, by the time I sat down to tell Mary’s story, I, like Lisa Klein, had been living with the Renaissance for several years. The language of the day, the customs, and especially the very real and usually restrictive codes associated with class and gender were deeply familiar to me. So, my first word of advice in integrating historical research: live with the material for a while before you begin writing.

One helpful exercise to try, as preparation, is to take a piece of research and bring it to life. For example, in researching the world of Elizabeth’s Court, I stumbled upon the fascinating reality of its need to be nomadic. The Court, a sprawling ensemble of lords and ladies and their servants, along with the army of human beings necessary to feed, clothe, doctor, beautify, and clean up after them and their animals, was unbelievably large. One practical reason the Queen went “on progress” for part of the year was the simple fact that her palaces needed to be cleaned. Hay was usually strewn underfoot, within doors, to keep the air fresh. Imagine how a 16th century palace would have smelled after a month’s time. Then there was the fact that the Court would quickly exhaust the food and other resources within a region after a few months. So, one exercise that draws upon this research could look at the day of departure from one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting. What would preoccupy the woman in charge of the transport of the queen’s wardrobe, for example? What would concern a groom? A cook? A maid made pregnant by a departing noble? You get the picture.

The fact that the writer must rely on language to recreate a period poses other challenges and advantages. A filmmaker has the advantage of costume at set design, but for the writer, it’s the written word. Here, I find another excerpt from the conversation with Lisa Klein valuable: “I did lengthy word searches in my gigantic Oxford English Dictionary, in order to use words that were current in Shakespeare’s time. I read sixteenth century herbals and books about convent life.” If one turns to the plays of Shakespeare, for example, or to the poems of Herrick and Donne and others of the period for that matter, readability does become an issue. I have always been a bookworm, and yet I know that I struggled through Shakespeare well into college. How then does the writer successfully integrate vocabulary from the period without making it stiff or unwieldy? The following passage from Ophelia illustrates how quite beautifully. In this scene, Horatio has just recovered Ophelia who only pretended to be dead (thanks to a concoction she drank).

“You were put into the ground late in the day, [Horatio said] and I
returned just as night fell to dig away the still-loose earth. I dreaded that the
grave robbers would arrive first, for they do not respect those that are self-
I gasped, for I had not considered that I might be stolen from the earth
and my body opened by robbers. I crossed my arms and shivered at the memory
of Hamlet’s book, with its drawings of the corpse laid open, the parts within it
revealed like a pirate’s booty in a torn sack.”
“Fortunately,” Horatio went on, “no one was about then. But I could not
rouse you from this deathlike slumber. I feared you were lost….”

What is immediately apparent about Klein’s prose is its lack of embellishment. With the exception of “still-loose” and “deathlike” and “torn,” her prose is remarkably free of adjectives and adverbs. She wises chose to use “self-murdered” instead of the more contemporary “suicide” which does not enter the English language until early in the 18th century. (The thorough copyeditor at Hyperion caught my own use of a post-16th century word in A Sweet Disorder and wisely drew my attention to this error.) In addition, Klein uses vivid, strong verbs like “dread” and “shivered” and “laid open.” “Put into the ground” is a very natural, colloquial-sounding phrase. Ophelia’s mention of Hamlet’s book very naturally integrates the learning taking place in the period—the first autopsies were being done and a clearer understanding of anatomy was taking shape.)

At this point, I would like to bring Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, the first novel in a trilogy set at a girl’s boarding school in late Victorian England and in a parallel, fantasy universe. (For the purposes of this discussion, I will not focus on the fantasy). Bray’s lively, almost feminist heroine, Gemma Doyle, at times comes dangerously close to seeming too contemporary, for she has such a strong voice and character, one that can feel at odds with the heroines of such classic Victorian novels as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Ultimately, however, Gemma IS convincing as a Victorian girl who grew up in India and therefore was not subject to the same strict rules as her England-bound contemporaries. And although I do not know for certain, I sense Libba Bray is well-versed in the novels of Jane Austen, for there is a wit to Gemma that reminds me of Elizabeth Bennett and the younger sister in Sense and Sensibility. But to return to the point: how does Bray make her research feel natural? Once again, the best way to dramatize this is by example.

Chapter Three opens with Gemma Doyle’s arrival in London in the company of her older brother, Tom. Following the violent death of her mother, she comes to England from India to attend a girl’s boarding or finishing school. Here is how Bray sets the stage:

“Victoria! This is Victoria Station!”
A burly blue-uniformed conductor moves through on his way to the
back of our train, announcing that I’ve arrived in London at last. We’re slowing
to a stop. Great billowing clouds of steam sail past the window, making
everything outside seem like a dream.
In the seat across from me, my brother, Tom, is waking, straightening his
black waistcoat, checking for anything that isn’t perfect. In the four years we’ve
been apart, he has grown very tall and a little broader in the chest, but he’s still
thin with a flop of fair hair that droops fashionably into his blue eyes and makes
him seem younger than twenty. “Try not to look so dour, Gemma. It’s not as if
you’re being sent to the stocks. Spence is a very good school with a reputation for
turning out charming young ladies.”
A very good school. Charming young ladies. It is, word for word, what my
grandmother said after we’d spent two weeks at Pleasant House, her home in the
English countryside. She’d taken a long, appraising look at me, with my freckled
skin and unruly mane of red hair, my sullen face, and decided that a proper
finishing school was what was needed if I was ever to make a decent marriage.
“It’s a wonder you weren’t sent home years ago,” she clucked. “Everyone knows
the climate in India isn’t good for the blood….”

In this passage, Bray demonstrates what good research should do: multi-task or perform a number of roles without feeling tacked-on or obvious. Although we still travel by train today, we do so much more rarely (or most of us do). By opening with the conductor’s voice and his clothing, she captures a figure who is still recognizable though one who represents a time that is quickly passing. An ordinary Victorian who lived in London would not have singled out the “great billowing clouds of steam,” but this is Gemma’s first train ride. It makes perfect sense that she would notice this. One detail conjures the steam locomotive succinctly. In describing Tom’s waistcoat, Bray alludes to the formality of the time, especially for people of Tom and Gemma’s class (not aristocratic but affluent and definitely from families that want to be linked with aristocrats). Yet Bray not only captures class here and period clothing, but she nails Tom’s character: he is fussy and a bit vain, but he’s also boyish. That wonderful “flop of fair hair that droops fashionably” captures his boyishness and his vanity. The alliterative string of “flop…fair…fashionably” feels Victorian. And the paragraph that follows with its description of the school and its portrait of the grandmother manifest the values of this class. Gemma’s goal in life is to “make a decent marriage.” In order to do so, she must be the opposite of what she is. The unruly and the sullen must be made “charming.” The Grandmother’s second sentence—“Everyone knows the climate in India isn’t good for the blood” does sound like precisely what every know-it-all in this circle would say. What’s our equivalent of “good” or “bad for the blood”?

If there is a second necessity in integrating research into historical fiction, it is to make the research perform a number of roles, as Libba Bray does. Keep the research streamline: a conductor’s voice, his uniform, a billow of steam, a waistcoat, a flop of hair, and dialogue peppered with words like “dour” and “stocks” and “good for the blood.” Bravo!

Before closing this discussion, I want to look briefly at Megan Frazer’s use of research in her first novel, Secrets of Truth and Beauty. Dara Cohen narrates her story here. A former child pageant star with a dynamite singing voice, Dara is now an overweight, somewhat troubled seventeen-year-old (or at least one with low self-esteem). After putting together a disturbing autobiography project at her private high school outside of Boston, Dara drives to New Hampshire to seek out and stay with Rachel, the older sister she didn’t know she had. (Rachel was herself a troubled, runaway teen when Dara was born.) Although the narrative held me enthrall, what I want to focus on is the way Frazer integrates the making of goat cheese into the novel so that it becomes an intrinsic, really essential part of the narrative—and a subject that I absolutely loved reading about.

When Dara arrives at the Jezebel Goat Farm, she finds her older sister, Rachel, in charge of the rather extensive cheese-making operation there. Here is an excerpt that exemplifies research that the writer has obviously lived with for a while, research that performs a number of roles in the story:

In the barn I found Rachel dumping a huge metal bowl of milk curd into a vat. “Phase one,” she said. “Flipping the curd into the bags. It separates the curds and whey.” She explained how much to put into each bag, and I watched her fill one and then hang it over a slanted metal counter. “We collect the whey and give it back to the goats.” That sounded a little gross to me, but I didn’t say so. I just started working. My hands grew prunelike in the still-damp curds.
“What’s phase two?” I asked.
“We salt and season the cheese and then put it into molds or roll it into
We worked in silence for a long time, and it was satisfying and soothing as Rachel had promised. I filled nearly a dozen bags.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so pissy lately,” she said. “Sometimes it’s easier
than dealing with things….I didn’t mean to get so angry….You should have seen
me when I first came here. The littlest thing would set me off. Someone would
ask me to sweep out the stalls, and I’d act like they’d asked me to lick shit off
their boots. Sorry, that was crass.” She hung a cheese bag up on a hook.
“Anyway, after some time here, I guess I just saw how things worked, the pattern
of it, the way everyone chipped in—I don’t know, I guess it calmed me down.”
“That’s cool,” I said, because I didn’t know how else to respond. I thought
of how unstable Mom and Dad said she was. It seemed like maybe she had been.
She’d obviously changed al lot since then…”

The scene takes place early on in Dara’s stay at the farm, a period when her sister’s character is still a mystery to her. She doesn’t really know why Rachel left, all she knows is that her parents said she was unstable and had done some unforgivable things. Through well-lived-with research into cheese-making, Frazer brings Rachel’s character to life. We come to understand the therapeutic aspect of making cheese. Rachel opens up when she’s making cheese. “I’m sorry I’ve been so pissy lately…” Equally important, cheese-making is good for Dara, too. “I filled nearly a dozen bags.” Although Frazer doesn’t chart Rachel’s transformation from troubled, angry teen to successful, responsible, caring small business woman in the novel, this passage alone demonstrates how Rachel got there. “You should have seen me when I first came here,” Rachel tells Dara. Because Frazer takes us through the very soothing process of making cheese, a process she staggers throughout Dara’s stay at the farm, we understand how cheese-making and life at the farm helped Rachel. A further benefit of this scene is that Frazer is able to explain how the process works without stepping out of character and story. Rachel is explaining the process to Dara so it feels completely organic, just as Gemma’s observation of the billowing clouds of steam feels organic.

There is obviously so much more to say about integrating research into fiction for young adults, whether it’s historical or contemporary. Perhaps The Crowe’s Nest will invite me back for a follow up to this post. In the meantime, I invite questions and comments at In my own experience, I learn best by example. If you see research working superbly well in a novel, look at it closely. Ask what roles it’s performing in the narrative and take apart the diction.