About Me

My photo
I write novels for teens and adults. Visit me here & on my website http://www.jenniferarcher.net

Friday, April 24, 2009

"Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing, Baby"

Unless you were born yesterday, no doubt you've heard the lyrics to Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing, by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. (Hear it on YouTube)I agree with their message wholeheartedly. Whether it's love, butter, cheese, or Coca Cola, imitation or altered versions just don't come close to the genuine article. This is true of research, too, especially if you're writing fiction. As an author, I can read about a place or a profession in a book or on the Internet, and I can learn a lot -- enough, even, to write my story and make it believable. But actually visiting that place in person, or talking to someone that works in the profession I'm writing about, can serve to take the writing a step above, to make it come alive in a way it just can't, otherwise.

The first part of my novel THE ME I USED TO BE is set in Portland, Oregon.
I've never been to Portland, and it wasn't possible for me to fit in a visit there before my deadline. So I researched the city through the Internet and travel guides I bought at the bookstore. I think I managed to portray Portland realistically in the book -- at least, none of the letters and emails I received from readers pointed out any goofs. But because I was worried about making a mistake, I found myself holding back as I wrote those chapters. I kept my descriptions about the place as brief and basic as possible. I did just enough to get by. Had I actually had the opportunity to explore the city, I could've included more local color, the scents, the sounds, the rhythms of the place. By absorbing and experiencing all those things firsthand, I could've put the reader more "into" the story and made the book even stronger.

The book I'm writing now -- my Young Adult novel, scheduled for release in the fall of 2010 -- is set in the Texas Panhandle, where I live. However, I live in the city of Amarillo, while Cedar Canyon, the imaginary town in my story, is a little town with a population of only 2,300. So I recently made the half-hour drive from Amarillo to Panhandle, Texas, which is about the same size as my fictional town.
Cedar Canyon's high school plays a big part in my story, so I spent the day at Panhandle High. I know three teacher there, and they graciously allowed me to observe their classes. What a great experience! I came home with over 15 pages of handwritten notes about teen clothing and hair styles, teen expressions ("Groovy" is no longer in vogue! Who knew? Just kidding. I'm almost that old, but not quite), descriptions of the classrooms and hallways, sounds, scents...too many things to name here. I had forgotten the sounds one hears sprinkled into the silence while taking a test -- the rustling of paper, sighs, scratch of pencils on pads, squeak of chair legs against the floor, foot falls down the hallway, the droning voice from a film being shown on the other side of the wall in the next room. By placing myself in the middle of a setting like the one in my book and experiencing all the sensory elements, I am now able to add so much realism, so much flavor to my story as I work on the rewrite. I hope these details serve to make the reader feel as if he/she is experiencing what is happening in those scenes -- to make them feel they are actually there.

If you are a beginning writer, I highly recommend experiencing your place, person, topic, etc. firsthand, if at all possible. Yes, it takes a little more time, but it's time well spent. Fiction-writing is an art, and creativity shouldn't be rushed. As a friend of mine once told an editor -- "I'm an artist; I don't work well under pressure." She said this jokingly when a deadline was too tight, but I think there's truth in her statement!

"Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing
Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing

I got your picture hangin' on the wall
It can't see or come to me when I call your name
I realize it's just a picture in a frame

I read your letters when you're not near
But they don't move me
And they don't groove me like when I hear
Your sweet voice whispering in my ear

Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing

I play the game, a fantasy
I pretend I'm not in reality
I need the shelter of your arms to comfort me

No other sound is quite the same as your name
No touch can do half as much to make me feel better
So let's stay together

I got some memories to look back on
And though they help me when you phone
I'm well aware nothing can take the place of being there

So let me get the real thing
So let me get the real thing
Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing
Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing"

Happy reading, writing...and researching!


Fiction website


Travis Erwin said...

I have held off writing several story ideas for this very reason. I was afraid I'd screw it up and make a fool of myself so I'll wait and right them one of these days after I can do the necessary research.

Kara said...

I'm so excited you are coming out with a Young adult novel! Can't wait to get it:)

Jennifer said...

Great to hear from you Kara! What a cute photo of you and your baby! I wish my YA was coming out sooner--it's been pushed back to winter of 2011. I am doing a pretty extensive rewrite of it right now. I'm enjoying revisiting the story and the characters and making it stronger. I also sold a second YA that will come out the year after the first one. Hope all is well with you!