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This blog was featured on 08/27/2018
The Best Part of Writing A Novel: Research
Written by
She Writes
August 2018
Written by
She Writes
August 2018

Today's guest post comes from our August Guest Editor, Justina Chen. A fan of research, Chen digs into the process behind her latest YA novel Lovely, Dark, and Deep

Hand me a research project, any research project, and I am in my happy place: on a treasure hunt for new ideas. You want a landmark weekend getaway? Or a gift for that impossible-to-buy-for-person in your life? I love finding the weird and arcane, the secret spots and the little-known places.

So researching an entire novel is pure bliss, especially the fact-finding for my latest novel, Lovely, Dark, and Deep. For this book, I immersed myself in new topics to develop the world—from photosensitivity to light to soup. Yes, soup.

Meet Viola Li, an intrepid future foreign correspondent who intends to cover the hardest places on earth. Her Auntie Ruth even has her on a travel program to toughen her up so she can handle the toughest circumstances. But when they return from a trip, Viola becomes unexpectedly and inexplicably allergic to the sun. Even her cell phone screen burns her skin. So she finds herself imprisoned in the dark. Wait, imprisoned? Think again.

The entire believability of this story was contingent on getting the experience of photosensitivity right. It just so happens that my best friend and fellow author, Lorie Ann Grover, has a condition that causes such severe photosensitivity that she needs to stay in the dark for extended periods of time, sometimes even for months. Lorie Ann is the muse for the story and my inspiration in real life. To ensure that I gave Viola the right medical condition that would work for the story, I consulted with a dermatologist who pointed me to different potential illnesses. Once I settled on Viola’s exact condition, I found the lead researcher in the world who patiently answered all of my questions about causes, treatments and extreme conditions. And finally, my publisher found two physicians who both read the manuscript to ensure that the symptoms and treatment were medically accurate.

The second element of the story that was especially important to anchor in research was Viola’s parents. I asked myself: what profession could her parents have that would be the most annoying for a teen ready to be independent just as she’s diagnosed with a rare medical condition? Crisis managers who specialize in creating plans, contingency plans and backup plans for backup plans! Well, it just so happens that in my other life, I’m a story strategist for leaders, and one of my executives is a leading crisis manager who helps global organizations facing cybersecurity attacks. So writing the crisis management handbook in the novel was an homage to her.

And then my favorite research of all: travel that inspires my novels! Working on a novel while I’m out and about in the world gives me a reason to ask a thousand questions—and to hush my kids who may or may not get embarrassed over my curiosity.

My kids (pained): Mom! Seriously? Do you have to talk to everyone?

Me (oblivious): What? I’m researching.

Light features prominently in Lovely, Dark, and Deep—and my travels over the last few years informed the book. It was on a trip to Tanzania with my son where I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the sunlight. I’d never seen such beautiful, golden light before. That light was such a counterpoint to visiting Iceland in the dead of winter with its meager four hours of sunlight during the day. And then when I was stargazing in the Dark Sky Parks in Utah, I was awash in starlight and moonlight. All of these types of light became motifs in the book.

I'm so excited for my new work-in-progress about a matchmaker. I cannot wait to see where my research adventures lead me, but they’ve already brought me to Silicon Valley’s millionaire matchmaker… and Xbox. Stay tuned!

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