Welcome to my stop on The Art of Holding On and Letting Go blog tour! Kristin Bartley Lenz’ debut novel is about a teen rock-climber who has to put her dreams on hold when tragedy strikes. Today I’m pleased to introduce author Kristin Bartley Lenz who shares her “5 tips for writing what you don’t know in “The Art of Research.”. Thank you to Elephant Rock Books for sending me a copy of the book and to the author for sharing her story with us.
About the Book:
Competitive climber Cara Jenkins feels most at home high off the ground, clinging to a rock wall by her fingertips. She’s enjoyed a roaming life with her mountaineering parents, making the natural world her jungle gym, the writings of Annie Dillard and Henry David Thoreau her textbooks. But when tragedy strikes on an Ecuadoran mountaintop, Cara’s nomadic lifestyle comes to an abrupt halt.
Starting over at her grandparents’ home in suburban Detroit, Cara embarks on a year of discovery, uncovering unknown strengths, friendships, and first love. Cara’s journey illustrates the transformative power of nature, love and loss, and discovering that home can be far from where you started.
The Art of Research by Kristin Bartley Lenz
How did I write a novel set in Ecuador, Michigan, and California with a rock-climbing protagonist? Research. Lots and lots of research.
I was at a writing conference a few months ago, and a very well-respected author said she would never write a story set in a place that she had never visited. That gave me pause because I’ve been able to travel to some amazing places – Bhutan, Thailand, Costa Rica, China – but I’ve only stepped foot in Ecuador in my dreams. My protagonist, Cara, travels to Ecuador for only one week to compete in an international rock-climbing competition. But even for the short amount of time she spends in the country I needed to know specific details about the landscape, food, dress, weather, history, and culture.
The other aspects of my story were easier – I’ve lived in California and Michigan and I’m a rock climber. Not a competitive, world-class climber like Cara, but I knew enough to have a solid grounding in the sport. Still, I needed to learn the intricacies of competitive youth climbing.
Here are my 5 tips for writing what you don’t know:
- Be an armchair traveler. Around the time I was writing a draft of this story, my friends Cherie and Gerry traveled to Ecuador. They took tons of photos and saved their tour itinerary and menus from restaurants. When they returned I pestered them with a stream of questions. What did you see at the market? What did you touch? What did you smell?
- Be curious about people’s life stories. I’m continuously surprised by the history of friends I’ve met later in life. I know my childhood friends’ stories, but from new friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and social work clients, I’ve learned about life in Mexico, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, China, Taiwan, Germany, Brazil, and Bosnia. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I knew my friend Martha for several years before I learned she was Ecuadorian. She answered my questions and read the Ecuador section of my book, validating my research, and was especially helpful when the copy editor wanted to change the spelling of some of my words, like ceviche to seviche. Later, I even learned that a writer friend had studied/worked in Ecuador years ago. Just by talking about your writing, you will likely be led to someone with a personal connection to your story.
- Surf the web. From tour websites to travel blogs to climbing videos to Google Earth, the Internet really helped me zero in on the specific details I needed. I was able to see photos and videos of climbing competitions, markets, food, and even remote places like Mount Chimborazo, which is where the tragic mountaineering accident occurs in my book. Government forestry websites helped me discover and identify plants, their blooming seasons, and interesting facts like the growth of morel mushrooms after forest fires.
- Ask the experts. My novel is about much more than rock climbing, so I couldn’t include all of the intricacies of youth competition climbing. But, in addition to studying competition rules, etc., I met with a youth climbing coach at my local gym, Planet Rock. Any mistakes or twisting of the facts to suit the story are my own, but chatting with Bri Kinney helped me understand what the teens experience at various competitions, such as they’re not allowed to have their cell phones in the isolation area and they often have to wait there for hours until it’s their turn to climb.
Those specifics plus a deeper understanding of my characters led to editing changes right up until the final publishing of my novel. Here are the original opening lines of the draft that I submitted to my editor:
It was the second day of qualifying rounds, and I was up next.
Becky stood next to me. She had climbed earlier, but fell off a hold a few feet from the top.
“You’re lucky your parents aren’t here. Mine are making me way nervous.” Becky’s slight southern drawl stretched out the word, “Miiine.”
Compare that to the opening paragraph of the final, published version:
The waiting was the worst. I gripped my worry stone from Uncle Max, turning it around and around in my hands. My fingers probed its golden grooves and contours. The sharp edges shimmered.
- Experience it yourself. I’ve climbed indoors and outdoors around the country, but not so much in recent years, and I needed to examine those surroundings from Cara’s point of view. What would she notice, hear, touch, smell? I also needed to be descriptive in a way that non-climbers could understand, and that required actual climbing on my part. I especially focused on how I felt while climbing, the emotional aspects. Here’s an example from my novel:
I reached for the first handhold and let everything else fade behind me. Steady breath, reach, grasp, pull, push, pivot, twist. My fingers wrapped around a doorknob bulge, pinched another shaped like a duck’s bill. I slid my hands along a large diamond-shaped protrusion. The sandpapery surface scraped my calloused fingertips. My forearms quivered. My bruised toes jammed at the front of my climbing shoes, supporting my weight.
One handhold left, a tiny crimper. I balanced on the tip of my big toe, stretched, and inched myself up with the last bit of strength in my muscles. I teetered. I locked my eyes on the grooved nugget above my head. Breathe. My hand trembled as I reached upward, the nugget like the pyrite I had tumbled in my hands earlier. Come on, Cara, you know how to do this.
A final surge of energy erupted from my core, and I grasped the hold with two iron-claw fingers. Yes! I clipped the bolt, threw my head back, and grinned at the sky. My heart pounded all the way up to my ears.
What do you think? What new worlds are you ready to research?
Thank you for this insightful post, Kristin! It was fun to do some armchair traveling with this novel and your research made the rock climbing experience come alive.
About the Author:
Kristin Bartley Lenz is a writer and social worker whose career has taken her through rural Appalachia, the California Bay Area, and inner-city Detroit. She is the co-editor of the Michigan Chapter blog for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The Art of Holding On and Letting Go is her first book.
For more information, check out my review of The Art of Holding On and Letting Go and enter to win a copy for yourself.
Follow along with the blog tour:
Aug. 22 – Kristin makes a guest post on Making Connections
Aug. 26 – Kristin interviewed on Fiction Over Reality
Aug. 30 – Kristin interviewed on A Leisure Moment
Sept. 1 – Kristin interviewed on Crazy Book Obsessions!
Sept. 4 – Kristin makes an appearance on blackplume
Sept. 6 – Kristin makes a guest post on Books Are Love
Sept. 8 – Kristin interviewed on Alice Reeds
Sept. 12 – Release day post on Making Connections
Sept. 12 – Kristin makes a guest post on Books & Tea
Sept. 12 – Kristin is interviewed by her agent, Carrie Pestritto, on Literary Carrie
Sept. 15 – Kristin interviewed on Books Are Love
Sept. 20 – Kristin makes a guest post on The Reading Date
Sept. 23 – Kristin makes a guest post on Twenty Three Pages
Sept. 26 – Kristin interviewed on Literary Rambles
Sept. 28 – Kristin interviewed on Wandering Educators
Oct. 5 – Kristin interviewed on Operation Awesome