Research for contemporaries: the intersection of Oklahoma!, lady umpires, and autism

I love research. I’m one of those authors who will spend so much time in research that I delay to dive into the writing for way too long. Maybe that’s procrastination, but I’d rather believe it comes from a deeper need to be so familiar with my characters’ backstories that the words just flow.

My first book was a YA time-travel, half in 1796 and half now. To get the 18th-century girl’s viewpoint right, I visited museums, experimented with colonial recipes and dances, even tried on reproduction clothes. I wanted to experience her world with all of my senses.

But I didn’t anticipated how hard it would be to research the 21st-century half of the book. I had taken it for granted that I knew what now was like for young adults. Raising two daughters counted, right?

Um, not really, at least not for the hero’s POV. My girls were helpful, but they still couldn’t completely represent what it’s like to be a male teen. In many ways, researching contemporaries required more care than historicals–because every reader is an expert in now (or thinks they are.)

Today is the book birthday of my newest YA contemporary romance, Fade to Us. I’d like to share some of the fun I had with its research. Here are 3 of my favorite techniques.

Interview people and listen to their stories. Whether face-to-face, over the phone, or in google-chat, as long as it’s live and interactive, I love interviews. I’ve found that people are eager and generous in sharing what they know. Even if I don’t use all the material, having more than I need lets me write from a place of confidence.  It’s amazing how often I found tiny, unexpected nuggets of information that transform a story into something better than my imagination could’ve conceived.set from Oklahoma

  • Since Fade to Us is set in a summer musical theater camp, I interviewed 3 theater directors, including one from a local high school. Their answers gave me wonderful ideas, which led to two major choices. First, rather than make the hero an actor, Micah is the stage manager (i.e., the guy who runs everything in the show except the director). And the second choice was the musical we picked– Oklahoma!
  • Micah is biracial: half-Chinese, half-white. I have a Chinese friend who is married to a white man. I interviewed her teen sons, who told me how it felt to be biracial (they “feel American like everybody else”), and suggested scenes (“since it’s set in a small town, maybe add a scene where he’s holding hands with her but then…”)

Experience the topic. If you’re not familiar with the topic, get involved in it. Learn a sport. Take ballroom dancing classes. Ride-along with paramedics. Immerse yourself physically, no matter how small the game

  • The heroine’s mom is a lady ump. Knowing nothing about umpires, I contacted a professional umpire, who invited me to go to a ballgame with him. We had great fun sitting in the stands while he explained everything. He also connected me with a lady ump, who was a totally kick-ass source of information. Although I couldn’t use many of her stories in my G-rated YA, I have enough material now for an adult romance.
  • I attended rehearsals for 3 musical productions. I was allowed to sit in on production team meetings, observe the backstage crew in action, and listen in as sound and light teams responded to the stage manager’s direction. Very cool. 

Even when you’re the expert, learn more. A main character in Fade to Us has Aspergers syndrome. I’m an autism mom. Even though I’ve lived this research for over 20 years, I didn’t want to be my only resource. So I talked with other autism parents and chatted with my daughter’s autistic friends.  By weaving together my experiences with those of others, I was able to create a unique, rich character in Natalie–who is not a fictional version of my daughter. 

Fade to Us cover

What about you? Do you have any tips for researching contemporary stories? Has research ever led you to new, fun experiences? Ever worried that the FBI might be frowning at your google searches? Join us in the comments and share!


Elizabeth Langston is a YA romance author. Writing as Julia Day, her book Fade to Us releases today! Set in a summer musical theater camp, the book tells the story of a teen, her autistic stepsister, and the boy they both like–in different ways. 

18 responses to “Research for contemporaries: the intersection of Oklahoma!, lady umpires, and autism”

  1. Happy Book Birthday, Beth! As someone who went to summer musical theatre camp as a teen, you book sounds like it’s right up my alley. I hope it sells like crazy! 🙂

    As for research… I tend to research as I go or during revisions because I never know what I’m going to need to know, you know? 😉

    • Julia Day says:

      I’m definitely plot-driven. I almost can’t write if I’m not completely secure in the research. I did the interviews and theater visits about 4 months before I started writing (which is clearly why I write so slowly!)

  2. Addison Fox says:

    Happy happy book birthday!!!!

    I love this overview of your research and I think you touched on something so important. Through the research, we see/hear/process so many different pieces that spark ideas in the story. It’s a magical part of writing and such a neat way to bring our characters to life.

    Enjoy release day!!!

    • Julia Day says:

      Thanks, Addison!

      In the “write what you know” vein, I’m beginning to wonder if I should “write what I want to know.” I’ve always loved baseball, but hanging out with and talking to umps made it so real from a different perspective. Now that I discovered how interesting and tough it is for them, ideas for other books are blooming. Although I guess I need to remember that there probably isn’t a huge market for umpire romances 🙂

  3. Elisa Beatty says:

    Happy book birthday!!

    I love how dedicated you are to research–thinking about it as experiencing what your characters experience in a full sensory way. (And I really, really want to read a story for grown-ups about that lady ump!!)

    Also, I’m so thrilled your book includes an autistic character, and that you’re making sure she’s a full, well-rounded portrayal. I have many students on the spectrum, and they’re hungry for literary representations of kids like themselves.

    I just ordered two hard copies to keep in my classroom as free-reading choices!!

    Thank you!!

    • Julia Day says:

      My autistic daughter was (of course) a huge resource for this book–and one of its sensitivity readers.

      While she was reading it for the first time, she was texting me constantly about her reactions (which were all positive.) But at one point–after she read a particularly painful scene between Natalie and her stepsister–I got a text from my daughter that said:

      Is this how you see me, Mom?

      And the answer was no. That’s why it can be such a fine balance between getting the character right and making sure that she isn’t a fictional clone of someone you know.

  4. Darynda Jones says:

    I love your journey, Beth! Thank you for sharing this and happy book birthday!

    I, too, get lost in research, but unlike you, I most definitely have a penchant for procrastination. My outlines are ridiculously detailed, but I can’t seem to be able to begin a book without those 40-60 pages backing me up.

    And, again unlike you, I am much more hesitant to ask people about what they do. As a bonafide writer, you’d think I would be more willing to do this, but when I first began writing seriously, I wanted to set a story in a small town in none other than Oklahoma. LOL. In search for info about a specific demographic, I called the city’s Chamber of Commerce. I told the woman I was writing a book set in her town and asked her if I could get a few stats from her. She was thrilled, so I asked away. About four questions in, she asked me what kind of book I was writing, so I told her it was a fiction YA book with paranormal elements.

    She hung up on me.

    Yep. She said something like, “Are you kidding?” and hung up. So now I’m so cautious about talking to people about what they do. I’d apparently offended the heck out of her. I believe she thought I was writing something nonfiction about the town, perhaps? IDK. I never misrepresented myself. I just told her I was writing a book set in her town. To me, the screams fiction.

    Anywho, I am slowly getting to where I ask more professionals questions and I’m always floored at how willing they are to open up. They are thrilled to be talking about their jobs and love telling stories. I’m just very careful to tell them I write fiction. And that I will steal everything they tell me.

    • Julia Day says:

      It’s too bad you were treated that way. I’ve found that most people are delighted to help out. They’re eager to answer questions and proud of the jobs they do.

      I’ve also had a few who wanted to help me out with plot points. That doesn’t work out often, but I listen anyway, ’cause you never know.

      The umpire guy has kept in touch. He offered to beta-read through my baseball scenes to make sure I got things right. Now he’s encouraging all of his friends to get the book. I think I’ve made a friend for life.

  5. Happy Book birthday, Beth.

    I love the research steps you’ve done to enter the past. I’ve not heard anyone say they try different recipes from the era. Just WOW! Good stuff.

    You touched on one of the elements that I talk about in my emotions workshop, speaking to others who have experienced what you have not. I give an example of your character’s home lost to a fire. I’ve never experience that horror myself. After talking to others who I gathered a number of unique and heartfelt responses which, if used, will make my scene that much more vivid for the my reader.

    Kudos on a great post.

    • Julia Day says:

      I love the recipes tip. It helps you get into the character in many ways. Cooking includes smell, taste, and touch. For the time-travel,the heroine was a colonial cook, so I made this stuff called Indian Pudding. Gag. It was incredibly hard to make from scratch and SO NOT GOOD. My family didn’t like it either. It gave me real insight into how hard it would’ve been to be an indentured servant, work hard, and have “the family” complain.

      I put most of my recipes on my website too.

      • That is cool. I make an Indian corn pudding for Thanksgiving, but I’m sure they didn’t have sour cream and sugar in those days. LOL

      • Julia Day says:

        I’m glad I kept digging, because I found a North Carolina specialty dessert called “sonker.” It’s a cross between a cobbler and a pudding/cake. My heroine makes berry sonker in the book–and one of the kids she takes care of calls it “cobbler with too much milk.”

  6. June says:

    Happy Book Birthday! I love your approach to research. I, too, love the research part of the book and if I’m not careful, I’ll spend more time researching than writing.

    Thanks for your tips!

    • Julia Day says:

      I know. I’ve sometimes wondered if I shouldn’t think about things I want to know or places I’d like to visit–and then call it research just so that I can indulge!

  7. Alma-Marie says:

    I love researching for my book. A secondary character is based on a real person who I read an article about in 1985. I kept the article and as I developed the character my son wanted to know more about the person. One thing lead to another and I had to deal with the emotions of learning the person achieved his goals, but died young tragically and suddenly. I found comfort in visiting his grave and each time I’m there I gain new insight to push me to continue this journey. Now, this secondary character have his own book and he’ll be featured in my last book. It’s taken on a life of its own. I’m loving the journey.


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