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December 30, 2011

Helen Landalf on Out-of-the-Box Research

Posted by Katherine


Helen Landalf was born in San Diego, California, where she grew up with her two brothers, one of whom has autism. His beautiful artwork can be seen in her picture book THE SECRET NIGHT WORLD OF CATS, which he illustrated, and on the cover of MOVEMENT STORIES FOR YOUNG CHILDREN. When Helen was fifteen years old, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Although she recovered, it was an experience that made a dramatic impact on her life. Perhaps because her teen years were so difficult, she became inspired to write for Young Adults. Her debut YA novel, FLYAWAY, about a girl who struggles to deny her mom's addiction to meth, was released from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Fall 2011. When she's not writing, Helen works as a certified Pilates instructor and teaches Creative Dance to preschoolers. She has authored / co-authored five books for teachers about integrating dance and drama into the preschool and elementary classroom. Helen resides in Seattle, Washington. Here, she talks about the research that goes into each of her books.

People sometimes ask me which part of the writing process I like best. My answer is, “definitely not first drafts,” as they are always a struggle for me. Although I do enjoy revising, I’d have to say that my favorite part of the writing process is research.

Research. The word probably conjures up images of being cooped up in a library or spending endless hours staring at a computer screen --- and you’re at least partly right. In school, I was one of those weird kids who couldn’t wait for the teacher to assign a report so I’d have an excuse to hang out in the library and scribble notes on index cards. And if they’d had the Internet back in those days (yikes, I’m kind of showing my age, here!), I would have been all over it.

Spending time in the library and looking stuff up on the Internet are definitely part of my research process as an author, but what excites me most is what I call “out-of-the-box research:” hands-on experiences that allow me to bring authenticity to whatever I’m writing about.

In order to research the bird-rehab scenes in FLYAWAY, for example, I spent a summer volunteering in a bird nursery at PAWS Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Sure, I could have read books and articles about caring for injured and orphaned birds, but through volunteering, I got to immerse myself in the experience. I got to feel what it’s like to feed a baby robin through a syringe, see a worm wiggling between a pair of tweezers, and hear the sound of swallows flitting from branch to branch in an aviary. Not only that, but working at PAWS gave me a chance to connect with bird experts who later were helpful in vetting my manuscript for accuracy.

Helping baby birds was uplifting, but, since FLYAWAY had a dark side to it, too, so did my research. One of the characters in the novel is addicted to meth, and several others use the drug, so I needed to learn more about it.

I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t do meth in order to research my novel. Sometimes, you have to draw the line. I did want to do more than just read about the drug and about addiction, though, so I contacted a drug rehabilitation center and arranged to interview an intervention specialist who was a former meth addict himself. Speaking to him about his experiences helped make them real for me and, I hope, helped me make them authentic for my readers. In addition, I spent time on online forums where users talked about their preferred methods for using the drug and about how they feel when they’re high.

Some people advise writers to write what they know. I disagree. I say you should write what you want to learn about. Because there’s a whole world available to you through libraries, the Internet, and --- of course --- out-of-the-box research.