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Confession: As a 7-year-old, I dreamed of being an Olympic pairs figure skater. I loved the grace of the female skaters, how they were lifted and thrown, how they spun. I loved it all. When I told my mom and my figure skating coach my wish to try pairs figure skating, they couldn’t contain their amusement. I was already as tall as my coach and was still growing. Sure I was coordinated and had strong legs, but I definitely did not have the build of a figure skater.
I took figure skating lessons for another year, but ultimately went on to compete in a variety of other sports. Still, I loved skating, and I loved the Winter Olympics. In fact, it was the 2006 Torino Olympics that first inspired my novel Podium Finish. As interesting as the sports were, I found the athletes’ life stories even more fascinating.
While I knew what it felt like to win and lose, how much it hurt to break a bone, and though I had some idea of what it meant to train twice a day multiple days a week, I realized very quickly that I didn’t really know what it was like to be an Olympic hopeful, nor did I know that much about the winter sports I wanted to write about. This meant one thing: I had to do research.
The first thing I did was buy a 3 ring binder and dividers. I wanted to research 5 sports, so each sport had its own section. I made lists of the things I didn’t know, starting with a bulleted list of broad topics such as rules, gear, or training, and then started writing specific questions.
I also made “character sketches.” So much of what drew me to wanting to write about the Olympics in the first place were the different life stories of the athletes. This notebook was a good place to develop their character and plotlines before I even started writing.
The internet was a great resource for answers, especially my questions about ice dance. Image searches helped with ice dance costume ideas for Alex’s character. The images were also helpful for when I needed to explain certain body positions.
I watched footage from different skating competitions, always making sure I had a pen and paper at hand. Watching skating competitions gave me a feel for how the skaters moved and acted. Plus, televised skating competitions have sportscasters, some of whom were skaters themselves. They explain what is going on for an audience of non-experts. They make skating accessible to those who have never skated before. This is similar to what an author does, so it was incredibly useful to hear how the sportscasters described the rules and routines and borrowing their jargon added a sense of authenticity to the book.Nonfiction books are another great source of information. I read several autobiographies of athletes from various winter sports. These books captured the hard work, sacrifice, and daily struggles of an Olympian. Plus, they answered questions I didn’t even know I had. Turning to autobiographies has also proven helpful in the research I’m doing for another manuscript I am currently working on. This story involves various medical components—comas, organ transplant, hospital regulations, etc.—and while some of this information is on the internet, autobiographies give a closer and more insightful look, because they tell of a more in-depth personal experience.
GET TO KNOW YOUR AUDIENCEIt’s important to know your market. Where does your book fit?
The best way to figure this out is to read other books in the genre. When I was writing Podium Finish, there weren’t many other young adult books out there that dealt with winter sports, let alone the Olympics, so my work offered something new. However, there were some wonderful young adult books that had sporty female protagonists, such as Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Dairy Queen series and Miranda Kenneally’s Catching Jordan. Know what’s out there. Know what these authors do well and see if your book has these elements. Sometimes doing book research involves improving your craft.
GET MORE FROM PEOPLE WHO KNOWInitially, I had intended for the book to take place in Torino, as this was what sparked the premise of Podium Finish in the first place, but an agent told me that using a real Olympic location would date the book. She recommended I change the location to some place real, but a place that had not recently hosted/was not scheduled to host the Olympics. I had traveled to Iceland in 2010 and was able to use bits and pieces of that experience in the book.
After reading and scouring the internet, I still had some unanswered questions, so I contacted some Olympians and Olympic hopefuls. I emailed them explaining that I was doing research and asked if they would have time to answer a few questions for me. I had some wonderful responses. I wanted my book to portray their sports as accurately as possible. The accuracy was something important to the athletes too. I was writing about sports that most people only pay attention to every four years, so this was a way to get the athletes’ voices out there as well. Plus, I was 16 at the time. I used my age to my advantage. While some adult athletes might have been skeptical of helping a young, budding writer, I found that teen athletes and athletes in their early twenties were very interested in helping out. They were trying to build their career just like I was trying to build mine, so we could relate to one another. And, the characters in my book were 17-year-old Olympic hopefuls. Interviewing teen Olympic hopefuls about their experience made the most sense.
GET REALAs a final note, it’s important to remember that not all research will end up in the book. For example, I interviewed a snowboarder, Brooke Shaw, who, fingers crossed, will make the 2014 Olympic team—she’s awesome and I loved interviewing her—but I ultimately decided to cut the snowboarder character from the book, so I could focus more on Alex and Harper. This research wasn’t in vain. I learned a lot, and who knows, I might use it an upcoming project.