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  • In Other Words

Write What You Want to Know

by April Henry
 | Apr 17, 2013
Certain teachers stand out in your mind, even forty years after the fact. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Dietz, sent me a note when I graduated, asking if I still wrote poetry. And Mr. Perkins, my seventh grade social studies teacher, never flinched away from my essays—even when they were about topics like me mourning my yet-to-blossom bosoms. I still have two essays I wrote for him, not-very-neatly printed on lined paper, kept for the circled A at the top.

And then there were a half-dozen teachers who let me read in class after I had finished my work. All these teachers encouraged my love of reading and writing. And the two things are so tightly intertwined I can’t really tease them apart. To be a writer, you must be a reader.

Too often we tell kids who want to be writers: write what you know. But that advice should be modified to: write about what you want to know. Have I ever been blind? A serial killer? A drug dealer? No. But I have written best-selling books about people who are.

My secret: I read!

Reading is key to making writing come alive. When I first get an idea, I go to my library’s website and enter key words that might lead me to books. I’ll also Google the same terms, looking for articles and more books. If I read a book that covers interesting ground, I’ll use look at “Customers who bought this item also bought...” on Amazon to get ideas of more books to check out. As I read, I jot down ideas and questions.

When I get further into a project, I will also look for blog posts or listservs because they can offer an unfiltered and intimate experience. For example, I’ve Googled terms like “What it feels like to get shot” or “my car accident,” and I’ve lurked on message boards for cops.

I always read up on a topic before I interview anyone. Reading gives me a baseline of knowledge so I can respect people’s time. It shows my sources that I’ve gone to the trouble to learn something before asking for their help.

Here’s an example of how this process works. GIRL, STOLEN got its start with a real-life story I saw on the news. A blind teenager named Heather Wilson went out to dinner with her folks. When they also wanted to go Christmas shopping, she decided to stay in their minivan. Her mom left the keys in the ignition in case she got cold. A guy came along, saw the keys, didn’t see Heather, and stole the car. When she realized what was happening, she asked him to let her out.

The next day, I watched Heather and her mom being interviewed and I thought, That would make the great beginning to a book. What if the thief had kept her?

There was only one problem—other than having occasionally seen someone walking with a white cane, I knew NOTHING about what it’s like to be blind.

I began by reading first-person accounts of going blind. Several teachers and librarians recommended FOLLOW MY LEADER, by James B. Garfield, published in 1958, but still powerful today. I also read COCKEYED, by Ryan Knighton, TOUCHING THE ROCK by John Hull, and many more.

Once I had done some reading, I started reaching out to people who are blind. The Oregon chapter of the National Federation of the Blind put me in touch with a girl who was blind and went to a regular high school. And I asked a woman who reviews mysteries and is blind about clichés she saw in books or movies about blindness. She said that in movies there is often a dramatic moment where the blind person asks a sighted person if he or she can touch the other person’s face. She told me she had no desire to feel another person’s face, yet sighted people will often offer to let her touch theirs. So I had my character talk about this issue.

I hadn’t thought about putting a guide dog in my book (Heather doesn’t use one) until I read account after account about how much a guide dog can change the life of a person who is blind. People see you as much more approachable, and you can travel much faster. And of course, the dog is also your companion.

Luckily for me, there’s a Guide Dog School for the Blind that’s only an hour away. I made arrangements to visit. When I got there, I could see people in a meeting room. Some were seated, but two of them were walking—not dogs, mind you, but people! The people were on their hands and knees, with one arm up in a harness. It turned out that the students were going to get dogs the next day, but a dog can’t tell you you’re pulling too hard or not hard enough. So for a time, instructors played the roles of dogs.

Writing books has led me to read and do things I never would have. For THE NIGHT SHE DISAPPEARED, I read many articles on how to make architectural models, the profession of the killer. I also learned how divers search rivers for bodies. For an upcoming series called POINT LAST SEEN, I’ve learned how to tell animal bones and teeth from human, and I’ve been taught the finer points of finding crime scene evidence in the woods (leather gloves and painter’s kneeling pads are key, since you spend hours on your hands and knees).

And kids respond to this research. Two or three times a week, I’ll get a note like this:

“I am in high school and I have read two of your books and I'm trying to find some more. They are thrilling and I personally don't like to read but your books just draw my attention!”

“I finished the book in two days. My friend invited me over one day after school but I told her, ‘Sorry I want to finish my book!’ I'm not a big reader but this book made me love it. For some reason I can’t stop thinking about that book, I even have dreams about it.”

At the IRA conference, I’ll be talking about how mysteries and thrillers can be gateway drugs for reluctant readers. Study after study shows that the key to getting kids to read is to give them material that interests them. And mysteries and thrillers certainly appeal to kids, who love CSI-style shows and explorations of good and evil.

Come see April Henry at IRA 2013! She will be co-presenting the "Mystery Reading and Writing" workshop on Saturday, April 20, 2013.

April Henry is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of many acclaimed mysteries for adults and young adults, including the YA novels GIRL, STOLEN; THE NIGHT SHE DISAPPEARED; and the thriller FACE OF BETRAYAL, co-authored with Lis Wiehl. She lives in Oregon.

© 2013 April Henry. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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