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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Developing a YA novel about a real town, with help from kids who live there

This morning I got an email from an eighth grader in Ohio who had read my YA novel Falling for her advanced language arts class, and would get extra credit if she could get my responses to some followup questions. Falling is set in a real community, the place where I was living and raising my son when I wrote it — and this reader's questions related to the experience of developing a novel in, and about, the place where you're living. 

Here are the questions she asked:

One of the things I liked that you did in the book was how you made all of the characters different in their personalities, and home lives. I think this helped make them all their own type of person, especially Katie and Matt. When you wrote the acknowledgements, you said you grew up in the town the story takes place, and that Grove Street was real too. Were the characters and events in the book based off of people and real events that you experienced in that town? Also, I liked that you took the lyrics Matt was listening to and put them in the book. It helped me understand his feelings, since what he listened to usually related to his mood. I was also wondering, did you write those lyrics yourself? If so, how did you come up with those lyrics?

My answers:

Thank you for reading Falling, and for asking these questions. This is not my best-known book, so whenever it finds its way to a new reader I'm happy to hear about it.

I didn't grow up in Rutland, Vt., the setting of this story, but my son Brad did. I've lived in Vermont since before he was born (I grew up in New Jersey), and he went K-12 in local schools. Rutland is a small, working-class city that shares two characteristics with so many other American communities: high-school sports are very big there, and so is the drug problem.

Brad played football and basketball for Rutland High School, and the idea for Falling began to develop when he was doing that. Thankfully, he never got involved with drugs, but he once said to me, "Dad, I could get anything you want in 15 minutes." I thought, What is that like, for a kid trying to grow up in the midst of that much availability of serious hard drugs? (Rutland's main problem is with heroin and crack.) I was also reading about drug busts almost every day in the local section of the Rutland Herald. It seemed like those arrested were almost always kids not long out of high school. Too often there were also stories of deaths from drug overdoses — again, usually of young people in their late teens or early 20s.

At the same time, I was volunteering in Rutland Middle School, going in every Monday afternoon to help lead a student writers' group, and visiting English classes for one or two days a year to talk about my work in writing realistic novels. In RMS I got to know kids, and when I was developing and working on Falling I sometimes asked my young writers for feedback or advice, so those real kids did contribute — although not in the sense of being models for characters. More as expert advisors.

RMS is in the same location as Jeffords Junior High in the story, on the corner of Library Ave. and Grove Street. Grove Street is very much as it is described; so is State Street, which Matt and Katie walk along after school on their first day together, and the wooded park up above State Street. Even the odd little hump of trod-over ground at the edge of the park, where they eventually kiss, is something I did see in that location.

When I had basically come up with the ideas for each major character — Matt, Katie, Matt's brother and friend, and Katie's friends — I spent an afternoon in a series of RMS English classes. In the first one, I described what I knew about Matt, plus my basic idea for the story, and I asked the kids to tell me more about him. They had lots of ideas and suggestions, and I wrote down the ones I liked on a big piece of flip-chart paper. In the second class, we did Katie. In the third, I described each of those supporting characters, and the students went to the ones they connected with or wanted to give ideas about; they filled all those flip-chart pages, one for each character.

Later, when I was drafting the opening chapters, I asked for a group of excellent eighth grade readers at the school. We met for lunch once a week for several weeks. I brought in copies of each new chapter, and they gave me critical feedback, which helped a lot in getting the story started well.

The hiphop artist Jai Quest that Matt, when we first meet him, is walking the streets alone listening to on his iPod, is completely fictional. I knew that to quote an artist as extensively as I did with Jai Quest, he would have to be made up. (I also wanted to include two short lines from Tupac Shakur, but my editor in New York City said, "You would have to sell your house to raise enough money for the permission to do that.") So I listened to a lot of hiphop, guided by my son and by the English class that had helped me brainstorm Matt. Those kids had told me Matt would listen to "lone warrior against the world" music, and Brad gave me names like Tupac and Nas. I also liked Wyclef Jean a lot. Those three became my biggest influences and models.

I found that it's quite challenging to write song lyrics that can work within a story without music! The music contributes so much; most song lyrics are pretty simple when you see them alone on the page. Luckily, hiphop depends very much on the rhythm of the lyrics. I'm a percussionist, so rhythm appeals to me and I had fun with that aspect of developing the songs. It was also very challenging, though, to do that.

I hope this answer is helpful. Thanks for asking, and again for reading my book. If you'd like to read more of my work, I would suggest my newest novel, True Shoes. That story has some similarities to Falling: it centers on a romance, it involves basketball, and it has a lot to do with the friendships kids form and the pressures they feel at this intense time in their lives. So far, though, Falling is the only book that I've set in a real town, which I called by its real name. That was definitely an interesting experience! 

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