Adventures in middle grade research

Research is an essential part of writing. You already knew that, right? I should’ve done too, because I’m pretty sure my English teachers told me. But I wasn’t what you’d call a “good listener,” which explains why I had to learn it firsthand (and also, perhaps, why I feel compelled to touch clearly marked electric cattle fences just to see if they’re really electric).

Research helps a writer flesh out ideas. It sometimes brings to light new directions for a story. And at the very least, it’s like an insurance policy against criticism (especially of the “you didn’t do enough research” type). But sometimes, research brings to light things that, to quote one of my early editors, are stranger than fiction. And that’s tricky.

See, we hold fiction to a higher standard of plausibility than we do real life. That might seem crazy, but it’s true. Like, all those people who’ve earned a Darwin Award for their life-ending achievements? They'd find it hard to become the subject of a YA or MG novel because readers would complain about character motivation and consistency. “No one would be stupid enough to do that in real life!” readers would cry. Which is a coincidence, because I think they’d say the same thing about me if they saw me carrying out my “research.”

For instance, while doing research for my YA novels, I . . .

. . . sat my infant kids on Jimi Hendrix’s dead body in Renton, WA, and got some pretty disgusted looks from other visitors to the cemetery. (Good news: My kids haven’t required therapy yet!) 

. . . drove Route 66 through Missouri, only to discover that there are multiple, conflicting Route 66s, which meant (a) I got lost, and (b) I got to eat at twice as many roadside diners as seems humanly possible (bonus!).

. . . waded through marsh and weeds and got eaten alive by bugs on Roanoke Island, NC, just so I’d know exactly what it feels like. (Answer: not very nice.) 

. . . asked a park ranger on Fort Sumter, SC, how Civil War-era soldiers disposed of their poop. (Answer: when the tide is going out.) Interestingly, everyone else in the tour group stayed well away from me after that.

So yeah, real life is sometimes crazier than fiction. And when it came to researching my new novel, Mascot, it was especially true. Allow me to share some of the amazing things I discovered . . .

. . . There are at least 150 synonyms for “fart.” (Alas, my editor cut me off after about ten of them. Apparently, I have a much higher tolerance for farting wiener dogs than the average human.) 

. . . Fredbird, the real-life mascot for the St. Louis Cardinals, does some pretty crazy stuff in my novel. Some readers might say, implausibly wild. But to prove that we hold our fictional characters to a higher standard than real life ones, I present the following video evidence.

. . . Self-respecting human beings have argued over the shape of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Is it a parabola or a catenary arch? (Answer: Neither. It’s a flattened catenary, although I honestly can’t follow the math.)

. . . I attended my kids' elementary school spelling bee once, where one of the words was “Sisyphean.” Not only did the kid get it right, he sounded positively bored at how easy it was. I was so impressed (and intimidated) that I stuck it in the book.

. . . Aficionados of the game Minecraft have been known to devote years to creating perfect to-scale replicas of famous cities, including this one of Chicago

. . . At my high school, the head of PE was affectionately nicknamed “Rambo.” He cycled 50 roundtrip miles to get to school each day, and always wore shorts, even when it was freezing. I once asked for advice on how to handle puking during races. His advice? “Get it all out quickly.” While this doesn’t really count as research, it made its way into the book in the form of PE teacher Ms. Friendly, cross-fit champion and all-around beast.

. . . Fredbird, the St. Louis Cardinals’ mascot, has a private room in Busch Stadium. It’s called the “nest.” 

. . . Itching powder is not only real, it works

As for how all of this bizarre information relates to the characters in Mascot, well . . . I hope you’ll give it a read and find out :)