Monday, November 3, 2008

Heidi: Election Day and You're Talking About Research?

Like they say, timing is everything.

So it's Election Tuesday and my dear agent Sara picks this day for me to write about researching my upcoming novel SEA. I hope you've brought your I-Just-Voted-sticker-wearing-self into your local Starbucks for a free cuppa joe and are just settling in to read about the election...or better read about how a virtually unknown future debut author researched her novel SEA. Obama who? McCain whaaaa?

In the hopes that you're all election'ed out, it started like this:

My husband, a young psychiatrist fresh out of residency intent on bettering the world, didn't want to start a big $ private practice. He was interested in non-profits and more specifically international humanitarian efforts. So after the Asian Tsunami hit, he volunteered and spent two weeks at an Indonesian orphanage helping the surviving children with their post-traumatic stress: nightmares, night terrors, anxiety, depression etc. It was the first time he'd done anything like this and came home *cliche warning* a changed man. I kid you not about this. I mean, he was always a great guy, but he came back...different, like the hero at the end of the disaster movie who somehow makes it out the other end and lives to tell. But how does this involve me?

This was 2005. I had already earned my MFA in writing for children and was working on another project albeit half-heartedly. Our son was a toddler; I was busy. But after he'd been home for a week or so, my husband looked me straight in the eye and said, "You should write about this."

I'm like, right. I know nothing about Indonesia. Nothing about the tsunami. I can't begin to imagine what those kids went through. He said, "Well, think about it. Otherwise their story might not get told."

So I thought about it. A lot. I tried to think how to take my husband's reality, his amazingly detailed journals, illustrations, stories, pictures and fictionalize them. How to create fictional characters readers could relate to. How to create a story of hope out of a story of tragedy.

I got in touch via email with some of the older kids he worked with, the teenagers. I talked with them back and forth, got a feel for their broken English, their strong, sensitive voices. Their incredible spirits and their never-ending questions about America. I read and re-read my husband's  journals, appreciating the humor in a situation that you might think humorless--the lack of toilet paper, the insane traffic, the goats riding sidesaddle on motor scooters.

And I created a voice to tell the story. Once I started I could not stop. The story just flowed out, my fingers flew across the keyboard. I dreamed about my characters, I fell in love along with them; the passion never let up.

Over the course of the next two years I wrote the book. My husband and his team went back two more times and spent a total of eight weeks there, coming back each time with more details about the people and experience. 

A lot of SEA involves non-verbal communication. The touch of a hand to a heart. The thick heat of dancing to the beat of a drum. Hand charades. Laughter. But I also wanted to learn some of the language so my main character could communicate with some of the children who hadn't yet learned English.

Bahasa Indonesia--the language of Indonesia. I studied mostly pocket Lonely Planet, the same guide my husband uses when he goes. I ran my dialog by our friend Skye who volunteered in an orphanage over there for a year and spent two full years in Indonesia for accuracy.

I emailed my friends, the boys who survived the tsunami. I asked them about slang. They happily offered any help I may need. As more story and plot came to me, I researched the setting. Googled pictures online. Used my husband's pictures to create story. SEA contemplates many religious themes as Indonesia is a land of many religions. Instead of researching the religion specifically, I'd ask a young Muslim to explain the story of Mohammad; a Buddhist to tell the story of the Buddha. I wanted to get these stories first hand from a believer's point of view, not the encyclopedia's, so the dialog would ring true.

So research. I'm no expert. I just explored all the options that were open to me. I set out to tell this story as authentically and honestly as possible. To honor these incredible kids who ran away from an enormous wall of water and lived to tell about it. Who lost most of their family to that menacing wave. Who with their strong faith in religion and in each other still wake up each day urging themselves to go on. Who play in the rain, tell talk-talk stories, and comfort each other when they're all alone in the dark and there's no one else to chase the ghosts away.

Looking at their pictures, I felt like these incredible kids looked me in the eye and dared me to figure out a way to write their story.

I would have been a fool to say no.

SEA debuts Summer, 2010 with Putnam (Penguin)



  1. Wow. I am so impressed that you had the courage, commitment & ability to do this. I'm so glad you posted about your inspiration - what a powerful story. I really can't wait to read this book.

  2. Wow, that sounds incredible. I like your point about talking to the kids themselves and getting them to explain their beliefs in their own words -- that's definitely a good way to go about it. Thanks for sharing your research journey with us.

  3. Dude, RJ just said what I was going to say- really innovative and exciting to ask kids to explain their own faith rather to get a living sense of it. Man, I am adding that to my toolbox!

  4. What an amazing story, Heidi. (And I'm not even talking about SEA yet!) :-) Cheers to you and your husband for bringing this story to teens everywhere. Just... wow.

  5. Wow, Heidi, what a fascinating story! Now I'm even more excited to read the book!

  6. Heidi--Wow!

    Very cool stuff. And sort of a kick in the pants. There's all sorts of stuff I'd never dream of writing about because, well, I just wasn't there. And you made it work. I am beyond impressed.

    Your hubby sounds like a very cool guy too. My dad was/is a psychiatrist for veterans and deals a lot with PTSD. I'll definitely be giving him your book.

  7. I want to add my "wow", which is the first thing I said when I read your post. What an opportunity. A writer's dream: transcending craft, creating purpose. I look forward to seeing it.

  8. Thanks everybody. Your enthusiasm means so much to me. =)

    Happy election day, and don't forget your free voting stuff!

    -Krispy Kreme (star-shaped no less!)
    -Ben & Jerrys

  9. So I guess I shouldn't discount my husband's story ideas so quickly, huh? Except he's never had quite an idea like YOURS had. So glad you wrote that book - I can't wait to read it!!!

  10. Heidi, I'm impressed with the creative ways you did research, esp. by asking the people to tell you about their beliefs and experiences in their own words. I'm so excited to read this book and get to know this corner of the world!


  11. Wow! Lovely!! And I love that your husband helped so much. my husband works so hard with me on my series (he's a fabulous idea bounce board and editor) and so i enjoy reading about other husband/wife teams.

    I cannot WAIT to read SEA!!!!

  12. The tsunamis were huge, unimaginably huge, and I feel like we were very insulated in the US.
    I am so glad you decided to follow this path and write this story!

    Jennifer H.

  13. My response keeps getting swallowed so I'm going anon.

    Yay Heidi! Great story. Can't wait to read SEA

    --Lindsey Leavitt


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