Category Archives: Writing

The Juvenilia Files: Blackburn’s Bride


What ho, nostalgia-teers! This week is a deep dive back into the whirling petticoats of REGENCY LONDON. For reasons I cannot remember, I decided that I was dunzo writing contemporary after my brief flirtation with “Untitled Remodeling-Centric YA” and showed up the next November to put down some words about RAKES and BALLS and SEDUCTION and stuff. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a 19-year-old writer in want of a truly good idea will probably just go with the idea that involves the most frippery.

AND SO: Blackburn’s Bride, which, if I may say so myself, is not too crappy of a title. It certainly fulfills genre expectations. As did the rest of the book! Kind of!

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The Juvenilia Files: NaNoWriMo 2008


I found this by Googling “victorian people on porch.” It’ll make sense once you read the post.

The year was 2008. (Duh—see above.) I was a freshman in college who’d managed to amass a really great group of friends while still feeling terrifically lonely. Depression! It’s like that!

Anyway, even though I did go around a lot of the time with homesickness sitting in my stomach like an undigestable glob of gum, it wasn’t the grimmest of grim times. I was just figuring out who I was when removed from the only context I’d ever known, which is thrilling and difficult and an act of creative perseverance…

…kind of like writing a novel! (What a sophisticated segue that was.) Anyway, November came and I was ON IT, because so far in college I had basically nothing to do (I mean, classes, I guess, but compared to being trapped in a high school for a seven-hour block every day, college felt like a breeze), so I loaded up my minifridge with frozen Amy’s burritos and barricaded myself in my dorm room to write. And this time, I was writing YA. Also this time—although I didn’t know it at the time—I was going to win.

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The Juvenilia Files: NaNoWriMo 2007

Art by G.A. Bush

This painting by renowned romance cover artist G.A. Bush really captures the mood of what I was going for.

National Novel Writing Month is a thing I have been doing since I was sixteen. Sometimes I “won” and wrote 50,000 mostly very bad words and sometimes I didn’t “win” but still wrote some mostly very bad words. Anyway, intrigued by my buddy Alex’s post on her collected body of work prior to getting a literary agent, I went ahead and updated my NaNoWriMo profile with all the word counts of all the novels I had written or attempted to write since 2006, and man—almost 250,000 words! That’s…well, it’s a lot, I guess? It’s a very big number. I don’t know if it can bespeak anything to my growth as a writer because I haven’t really looked back at those old “novels” for a long, long time.

Until now.

Welcome to the rebirth of a “series” of posts I started a while ago and subsequently never made good on. You can read the first installment about my 2006 novel “His Irish Bride” here, but be warned that it’s pretty bad. Today, we will be examining my 2007 novel “Untitled Contemporary Romance About A Nanny for Falls for Her Hot Boss.” I’m positively cringing with anticipation!

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modern authors, middle ages

Author’s note: On Friday I had the pleasure of participating in a panel about medieval studies and fiction at the University of Chicago, my much-beloved alma mater. It was great! My fellow panelists—Prof. Lucy Pick (Pilgrimage) and Prof. Melissa Hope Range (Horse and Rider: Poems)—were superb: talented and so smart and medievalists after my own heart. Below are my remarks (my speech? My…apologia?) about translation, YA fiction, and retellings.


My name is Blair Thornburgh, and I write young adult fiction. I know—a very, very logical career choice for someone with a medieval studies degree, right? Except I’m only kind of joking!

My absolute favorite thing about medieval studies is the study of translation—texts and stories, people and places, iconography, whatever you’ve got. How does a word, or a character, or an artifact change (or not change) when it moves to a foreign context? Where and what are the throughlines? What does it mean to adapt something?

My favorite thing about writing young adult fiction is making up imaginary people who fall in love.

So! Like every good medieval studies undergraduate, I spent my fourth year here at UChicago writing my BA paper: an examination of the treatment of female characters in the Old French Roman d’Enéas as compared to their “original” manifestation in Virgil’s Aeneid. (Cliffsnotes version of my argument: the medieval version inserts a whole mess of courtly love language between Aeneas and the chaste Italian princess Lavinia, while dragging poor Queen Dido through the mud for her adulterous affair with the hero. Also, “original” gets scare quotes, because we all know even Virgil was just ripping off characters from the Odyssey anyway.)

So that was my academic mind, swirling with ideas about retellings, and amour courtois, and feminism, and translatio studii. On the hardest of days, when the research was arduous or the interlibrary loans weren’t coming in, I repeated to myself my favorite line from the Aeneid: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, “perhaps one day it will be pleasing to remember even this.” Or, more loosely, “this will all make a great story one day.”

And I did want to make a great story. One day. But at the time, my creative writing mind was mostly thinking about a YA novel I was reading. This novel was—pardon my French—terrible. I will be the first to tell you that YA fiction has come a long, long way since the days of Sweet Valley High—even since the days of Twilight—and that the stories published today are engaging, well-written, literate, thoughtful, intelligent, and inventive. But this one was not. (They can’t all be winners.) It was a story of star-crossed lovers, told in dual first-person points of view. I didn’t like it. I thought I could do better. And I had just read the romance of Tristan en Prose for a seminar class.

And then the idea fell together. Tristan and Isolde in high school! How could no one have done this yet? The opening scene made instant sense to me: poor teenage Tristan, driving his beat-up car to pick up his best friend’s girlfriend, who is NOT happy to see him. The source material felt custom-made for young adult: illicit love affairs, strict social hierarchy, feats of athletic strength…plus ça change! This was going to be brilliant!

Well. As I found out, the thing about the Tristan legend is that there are two pretty major narrative linchpins that set everything in motion: an arranged marriage and a love potion. Do you know what most modern American high schools do NOT have? Plus, pretty much everyone dies at the end, and I was not going to take that dark a turn. If I wanted to translate this, I was going to have to make some changes. I had to take a story whose conflict hinges on external forces and figure out a way to make it character-driven.

This was a real challenge. (And I wrote about five drafts before I even realized that this was the challenge.) But I kept coming back to what I love about medieval romances: the so-called love triangles between king, queen, and knight aren’t really triangles at all, at least not in the Team Edward/Team Jacob sense. Each of the three people involved in these courtly affairs loves, in some way or another, each other person. Which makes it way more wrenching!

I knew I didn’t want to cheat my way into the Marc-Tristan-Isolde arrangement by trapping my heroine in an abusive relationship, nor did I want to neglect the strong feelings of friendship and loyalty between the two teenage dudes. I knew I wanted to write it from two points of view, because I didn’t want either of my main characters to be a “love interest.” I wanted them to be two fully rounded (though flawed) young people, who gradually came to meet in the middle. Yes, a reader might pick up this novel because of its high concept, but she would only keep reading if she liked the characters.

Now, retelling stories is—obviously—nothing new. Some of my favorite YA books (Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, almost anything by Donna Jo Napoli) are retellings. I still think 10 Things I Hate About You is a classic of modern cinema. But there are also a lot of pretty cruddy retellings. (I will not name names, because art is subjective.)

So what makes a good one good?

I believe that a well-crafted retelling rewards a reader who is familiar with the source material as much as one who is not.

This means a few things in practice. First, the writer can’t go overboard on winks. By winks, I mean direct or obvious references to the source material. Now, I love characternyms—characters whose names hold clues to their personality or role in the story, whence Marc LeRoy and Tristan Ritter. But I like to think that my choice is subtle. I stopped short of naming them, say, Marc King and Tristan McKnight. If my reader gets the French and German etymology, good on her! I hope she likes the Easter egg. But if she doesn’t, she’s not going to miss out. Same with Tristan’s football adversary at St. Sampson’s academy (aka his duel with the knight Morholt on the isle of St. Sampson) and Isolde’s fierce desire to attend Cornubia University (that’d be the Latinized form of Cornwall).

These little bits are fun, but in the end, I’m not writing to be clever with my translation tricksiness. I’m writing to tell a convincing love story. Remember: characters keep readers reading.

Second, a writer shouldn’t feel restricted to a completely faithful rendering of the source material. Your average teenage reader is just not willing to keep pace with a slow unwinding of events typical of your average medieval romance. Beyond that, you end up with a lot of material that just plain doesn’t work (Marc stabbing Tristan to death while he plays the harp for Isolde is just not going to fly). The writer has to make a conscious decision about what her version of the story is trying to do—what point it has to make about life, what feeling it should inspire in a reader—and edit the events of her plot to serve that artistic purpose.

Writing this novel has always felt to me like a translation in the most medieval sense. It’s so cool to take these characters, put them in a modern setting, and figure out how they would act and what they would sound like and what their favorite snacks would be. After all, if the anonymous author of the Roman d’Enéas could do it with Virgil’s Dido and Lavinia, why not me? I’m drawn to literature for the same reason I’m fascinated by translation: they are both dialogues. The way I see it, engaging with another writer’s characters is just a natural extension of the act of reading. As the wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin—who has herself written a wonderful novel based on Virgil’s Lavinia—has said: “The unread story is not a story; It is little black marks on wood pulp. A reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

Vale bene, and thank you.


Postscript: I’ve got a tinyletter! I’m going to try out writing about the books that I read. Interested parties who’d like to receive occasional but worthwhile email newsletters may subscribe here. TYVM!


Not to brag, but I am really good at having my feelings hurt. In this particular case, I don’t remember what sparked it, but here’s how it has gone down in the past: I mention something I like—anything from puréed soups to the city of Montreal to a particularly lovely section of Bach’s “Wachet auf” cantata—and my conversation partner responds with a resounding “meh.”

Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words will never hurt me. Personal attacks? I can shrug off. Criticisms of my work? I can evaluate intelligently (and sometimes, I agree). But a that’s-so-boring dismissal of something I like? Then I’m all shimmering eyes and clenched jaw and sinking heart. And GChats to my friends, peppered with teenage emphatic consonant reduplication (“whyyyyyy,” “ughhhhh”) and demanding reassurance. Asking “when will I stop taking it personally when people dislike things I care about?”

Answers ranged from “awww” to “hahahah never.” Not the most positive prognosis.

If you love something, let it go, even if that thing is the organ that pumps blood through your body

If you love something, let it go, even if that thing is the organ that pumps blood through your body

I love a lot of things. Strange things, singular things, things with no competitive opposite to spur me into a zealous defense (Star Trek. No, Star Wars! Quit liking things I don’t like!). The things I love I love with such depth and yet such fragility that a chilly reaction on the part of my peers makes my chest ache. When eyes glaze in the face of the elegance and force of “O terque quaterque beati,” I deflate. When my boyfriend rolled his eyes at my favorite cover version of “Where is my Mind,”  I smacked the stupid car radio in my Volvo and cried for the rest of the long miles of Ohio.

See? Dumb things. Small things. Not things that normally engender steely differences of opinion and resultant emotional responses. Just trifles that come as treasures from my mind, My chouchous are personal and strange, and instead of building them up in the sights of those opposed, I just let myself crumble: this person is unmoved and bored; I am not. I am boring. I am wrong.

But, Phil-Collins-style, I can’t stop loving stuff. Stuff is so neat! Epic poems, graying tapestries, sweet potato fries, peculiar turns of phrase, really good cups of coffee, Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, slang and junk and brussel sprouts with bacon. Knicknacks, kickshaws. Moments of magic in the late night and early morning. I want to pluck every charming chunk of creation and put it in my self, like a reverse horcrux, a jingling curio cabinet I carry in my heart (I carry it in my heart). So when these things bore others—or worse, merit no attention at all—it hurts.

After I asked the first question, I moved on to a second. What is it about passion that makes it so painful? And after I asked the second question, I was all, hahaha, doy. I’m the Worst Medievalist Ever! Answer: everything.

Passion—it comes from patior, pati, passus sum; I suffer. Yes, Latin! Roll your eyes all you want, but as far as unlocking long-hidden arcane power goes, etymology is the closest thing we have to runic inscription. Roots are radical*! And beyond that, this particular truth is strengthened by one of Western thought’s most insidiously fundamental ideas—no, not Jesus, but good guess. Fin’amor! Courtly love! You know, love is pain? You don’t even have to go all the way back to the twelfth century for that one; just listen to practically any pop song.

So passion is suffering, but to suffer is really just to experience (verb, trans. “Experience or be subjected to.”) Think of it this way: in Latin, the word altus can mean both “deep” and “high.” Passion’s the same: it cuts both ways. Profound all around. And if pain is part and parcel to being passionate, then suffer it unto me. I’d rather get bent out of shape when people roll their eyes at this beautiful expression of nostalgic futility (do they not GET how hard those Newfoundlanders had to struggle for their cod?!) than just smile dopily along to some Dave Matthews song. Passion, but not passivity. Ughhhh with the yayyyyyy.

*obnoxious tautology alert

à la recherche

We need to talk about the Renaissance.

Or, okay, I need to talk about the Renaissance. I’m having some confusing feelings. If you’re anything like my dear roommate, whom I will very kindly tell you dated Chaucer to “at least a hundred years ago,” you might not get why a Medieval Studies lady wouldn’t like Shakespeare, but the fact is that that the 400 years that separate my period of expertise from the Renaissance is roughly the same amount of time from the construction of the Globe to 2013. They are Different Eras.

But! I think I’ve finally shrugged off the Medievalist chip on my shoulder about anything post-Columbian and, well, it’s not so terrible. I still won’t go so far to say my thinking has been reborn (because, seriously, Renaissance? That’s just propagandistic. The term implies that all the important scholarly work fueled by Charlemagne and his contemporaries was just a looooong, dark, gestational period of the soul. To call the post-Medieval era a “rebirth” implies that Alfred the Great was NOT SO GREAT AFTER ALL, and I just cannot cotton to that).

However—as any Canterbury-bound Nun will tell you—Amor vincit omnia, and I have gone all weak-kneed and swoony for Elizabethan England. Love is strong as death, especially when a centerpiece of said love is death (Plague outbreaks! They are fascinating) There is beautiful, heavy-looking clothing, and religious unrest, and deep inquiries into what it means to be possessed of a human psyche. There are plays and poems and songs and dances. And it’s all so sexy. Seriously, I don’t think there could be another word for it (well, sensual would do in a pinch, but real talk: sexy just sounds sexier). All those John Donne poems and close-clutching gaillards and codpieces and farthingales are just bursting at the seams—mostly metaphorically—with a peculiar human ache. It’s enough to make you want to go all “PLAY A VOLTA!”

I can see you now, and you’re all like, okay, way to go, girl-who-finally-got-around-to-appreciating-a-significant-portion-of-English-history, but what does burgeoning humanism have to do with YA novels? OMG—or as Ye Old Teenz would say, God’s wounds. Everything.

The Renaissance was an adolescent age. Everything was new, possible, exciting, and strange*. For the first time, like Copernicus’s Earth-and-Sun switcheroo, people entertained the idea that man might make God, and not vice versa. And speaking of entertaining…there is the theater.

It was an art form without precedent. Greek tragedy and medieval mystery plays aside, the synthesis of the Latin-learned philosophy of the University Wits and the rustic comedy of tumbling and jigs brought forth something new, peculiar, and…still strange. O My America! Behold a wonder heere! The sentiment echoed across artistic media, but I have to suspect—and I do have to, because now I’m writing a novel about it—that when these young men got onstage and “not described, declaimed, or didactically evaluted, but rather dramatically recreated” the human thought process, the lines that they spoke were the best form of this new self-awareness. The thrilling adrenaline of being onstage for the first time echoes in every line of iambic pentameter, “the most natural verse rhythm there is, corresponding both to natural speech and to our heartbeat…” I mean, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what art should do: magnify.

Swooning aside, and down to hard facts. I’m writing a book about young actors on the cusp. It’s the best. There are vulgar jokes (the wordplay! Ughhhh all the wonderful chances for wordplay!) and allusions to Ovid and hotblooded men in shirtsleeves. There are Lost Plays and Early English Playbooks and inns, playhouses, and guildhalls. There are morris jigs and Squeaking Cleopatras and bits with dogs. It’s really exciting and I’m really excited about it, partially for the long-lost joys of scouring articles, getting to know scholars by name, and making endless interlibrary loan requests, and partially for writing all the kissing scenes.

A thing that I learned: at the end of all Elizabethan plays, the company would come out again (or rise up from the floor, if they were dead), and dance a jig together. Since that is obviously THE BEST, I’ll leave you with this:

*Especially, ahem, these guys, AKA my bro-tagonists.

the road re-taken

Last Friday, for the first time in five years, I took the 23 bus. Ten minutes, a handful of stops, a shortcut from gym to home. Or new home, I guess.


I’d always hoped I would get to live in Philadelphia as an adult. I’m not an Eagles fan and I can’t remember the last time I ate a cheesesteak, but my roots run pretty deep. Growing up, I had a dad whose job it was to inspire the whole Philadelphia region and remind it of its own greatness and a grandfather who’d saved Pennsylvania from nuclear holocaust (among other impressive feats of office). It rubbed off on me—not because of tribalism or sentimentality, but because I come from smart stock. They—we, I guess—know good things when we see them and don’t give them up. And this place is one hell of a good thing.

Philadelphia is a city of contrasts—colonial elegance and urban sprawl, world-class universities and a shamefully low literacy rate, endless, verdant parks and scraggly empty lots. There’s the perfect, classical order of the grid streets—numbers one way, tree names the other—and the do-what-you-want, shortest-distance diagonals of the well-worn Lenape footpaths that eventually hardened over into real roadways. And the names! Unpronounceable festivals of consonants and double sibilants. I was born by Tulpehocken, grew up following the Wissahickon to the Schuylkill, cut my teeth on Wawa hoagies, and now I’ve got a new home on East Passyunk avenue.


PASH-yunk, not PASS-ee-unk. I’ve actually had to practice this. My landlords did a good-natured double-take when I said I was born here. My right-side-of-the-tracks prep-school upbringing scrubbed out any hints of regional accent: I put a t in “water” and “orange” (color, flavor, or fruit) has two syllables, not one. But I’m intractably proud of Philadelphia, even if I don’t sound like it.

The 23 bus starts at the former site of Borders Books and Music in Chestnut Hill, where I would go after school in 7th grade to drink (and spill) Italian sodas on magazines that my friends and I never actually paid for. It cruises through the hippie-topia of sustainable, diverse small businesses in Mt. Airy straight on to Germantown’s Revolutionary War mansions cheek-to-jowl with check cashing joints and gas stations. It stops at Coulter Street for my pre-driver’s-license self to alight and go to homeroom in the Classics office at 31 West—“And to the church in Philadelphia, write Behold, I have set before thee an open door.” But it keeps on going, through North Philadelphia, to dim parts of the city I still haven’t seen, and then, when I’m ready, it grabs me at 12th and Locust, because I’m back, somehow, in Center City. It deposits me almost two miles further south, and from there, it’s only a few blocks walking to Passyunk. PASH-yunk. My home—all my homes—have a backbone, a current, a physical conduit to match my travels through time and space. It’s cool.

I haven’t been everywhere, man, but I’ve been a few places, and what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not the journey, and it’s not the destination either. It’s the revisit, the revision. It’s There and Back Again on Tolkien’s bent road. And this city—by design and by happenstance—is just that: the prescribed, dance-step precision of William Penn’s neat corridors and the heart-following, instinct-honing, and literal trailblazing of the Native Americans’ secret A-to-B routes. Either way, you get there and look back at everything. Life isn’t a trip, it’s a whirlwind—revolving around the same things but always lifting you up.


Welcome back, welcome home. My door’s always open.

ars longa

My mom cleaned out some bookshelves the other day—the horror. She sent me a list of potential jettisons, just in case, and THANK GOD, because in addition to Anastasia Krupnik (taking this to my grave) and and The Aeneid, Book VI (ditto, since it’s only thematically appropriate), she was going to give away The D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.

I got this book from my fifth-grade teacher. I didn’t know it, but it contained my life’s mission.

photo (1)

Upper-right-hand proof that this is ex my own personal libris

Of course, I had no idea at the time. I was just a weird girl with a bad haircut who who still liked dressing up in her queen costume instead of getting ZAPPED. (Getting ZAPPED was a short-lived trend among my more preternatural classmates that involved writing a time of day on the back of the hand and the name of a member of the opposite sex on the palm. Flip it over before your time is up and you’d have to ask them out. Out where? Nobody knew.) We were assigned to read one story one morning per week and look up and define certain words therein in a notebook. For the first time, I had a planner: different subjects blocked out, assignments (plural) to juggle. I cried a lot (in class and out. I was a stressed-out kid.) But I loved to read.

Myths are funny things. They’re kind of like words—it’s hard to think back to a time before you knew them, like they’ve always existed in your Campbell-meets-Jung mental miasma. But there was a time, specific Monday mornings of my 10th and 11th year, when I was turning the pages fresh. I didn’t know that Athena was going to pop out of Zeus’s head or that Atalanta was fast or that Aphrodite was going to wash up on shore like a plastic, dolphin-killing six-pack holder. I also, for obvious reasons, did not learn the extent of (or even the meaning of) philandering in Greek myths, though I did get to unlock other new and arcane-sounding words: aphrodisiac, athenaeum, cairn, even cereal. Fourth and fifth grade were like a secular age of reason; I was ready to learn and everything I learned stuck. The Middle Ages, the Greeks, and how to write a check (Mrs. Hineline was comprehensive). And every Monday, more stories.

The year waned, middle school loomed, and I ran out of book. No more colored-pencil D’Aulaire illustrations and no more myths. There can only be so many, after all. The book’s ending made me sad—not how the stories terminated, but that they had to stop, period.

The Trojan War happened. The last story was about Aeneas escaping. Right-side pages were getting thin. But when I turned the last one over, there they were again, all the Gods on little name-tagged clouds: Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Athena/Minerva.

Salvete, amici novi!

Salvete, amici novi!

I remember the feeling so clearly: it didn’t have to end. There could be more. I don’t think I’ve felt so powerful an emotion reading, before or since. It was wonderful. From then on, my destiny was written—not in the sense that it was predetermined, but that it consisted of things written down. Scripta manent.

But that was it, for then. I didn’t know. Later, there would be French, and Latin, to layer one understanding of stories on another, and then history, and then college, and then writing, and then back to my old house and my old book where I’d refind the stories I’d traced in endless iterations.

Look; they’re all still there.

Having a life mission sounds quaint, self-important, and dramatically dire by turns. But if I have one—and I think I need one—this is it. That turning-the-page feeling. It’s a kind of quod est demonstrandum—what IS to be done—which is just a present refreshment of what was, once, to be done (QED, as it were). In other words, the same thing as other people have done. The same stories they’ve told, but in other words. The form of QED is an impersonal imperative, a form that English lacks. The idea that something can be universally necessary—it’s very Latinate, I think, and very wonderful. Or I wonder about it, anyway—what it means for everyone and what it means for me. What is to be done, in the face of so much time, so many stories? Participate. I want to take things from one place to another, because that’s what stories do. Translato studii: the translation of knowledge. Tell and re-tell. One day it will be pleasing to remember even this.

Keep your books. Keep your word. Keep going.

just add water

On Sunday I bought a bag of something called “freeze-dried coconut water.” Let that logic sink in for a minute.

I haven’t actually tried it yet, but I have read the package, and it seems to be the result of taking actual, watery coconut water and sucking away the water part until all that’s left is the essence of coconuttiness. A stupid, Whole Foodsy product—the kind of thing that my dad will be really mad that I used his credit card to pay for—but surely not the first time the siren song of convenience has melted the earwax of a spendthrift. People make complicated decisions, I contain multitudes, etc., etc.


But enough about me and my luxury food purchases. Let’s talk about characters.

I am, as of approximately Monday, a reformed reticent about character-creation exercises. I hatehatehate those character charts that demand you spit out everything from name to height and weight to favorite food and dream vacation spot. Filling those out elicits a creative joy somewhere between medical paperwork and a coloring book. It’s busywork! Unless she’s playing MASH on the school bus, no character is ever going to be called upon to recite a litany of her quirks and preferences. And if she does, you, the author, should really re-examine your strategy for crafting dialogue.

What I DID used to believe in is a mystical, unknowable mental alchemy of holistic character formation, a theory that now sounds even more ridiculous with a name like “holistic character creation.” Fortunately, my fledgling publishing career has not only taught me volumes of practical skills, but has also done some good descaling of my bright little eyes. That is to say: books—and all the multitudes they contain—are made, not begotten. Characters are devised, or built, or hewn with rough and angry chops, not granted fully-formed from on high. (I don’t think authors who talk about “discovering” their characters are wrong, per se, but I suspect it’s just their subconscious blushing and waving off admirers with an “oh my, you’re too kind.”)

This should be a relief! It was to me. Lately I feel like I’ve done enough bashing my head on a desk in frustration to make my skull crack open like an eggshell, and yet: no Athena. So now I’ve got a patchwork, slapdash, stopgap, bric-a-brac way of building my characters into real, imaginary people…with some prefab ingredients. It’s the literary equivalent of “cheater” recipes that rely heavily on canned biscuit dough and premixed taco spices, only a little more nutritious. Look:

Myers-Briggs types. Look them up—the theory is complicated and based on Jung but apparently sufficiently rigorous to get the stamp of approval from my old therapist, and I think she went to school for Understanding People. You answer some questions and get assigned a type (I am, personally, an INFP: Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving).

The method: figure out your character’s type, either by taking the test for/as them, or by looking at the profiles and guessing which one fits. Boom: instant list of virtues and flaws that work together as a sensical, cohesive whole.Work them into your external conflict and your story is just humming along, isn’t it? As it happens, the character I’ve been struggling to understand is my polar opposite: Extroverted Sensing Thinking Judging. It all makes sense! The more you know™!

The Sims. I’m sorry, shut up, whatever. We all play it, and we all know that after you go through the makeover-montage blitz of dressing up your Sims, the only interesting part of this game is what goes on in your head. You invent personalities! You get emotionally invested! You tell stories, admit it! Ain’t nothing in the rules that says a writer can’t make digital versions of their characters and watch them scurry around a virtual ant farm for a while.

Other people’s friends. Oh God, this method made me laugh so hard I’m not sure it even counts as a writing exercise. And it could happen to you!

Pick a friend of yours that didn’t go to the same high school as you and ask them to describe as many of their classmates as possible—not their friends, or anyone they knew that well, but what amounts to the secondary characters in their personal narrative. They’ll give you fun-sized mini-stories, one or two sentences that amounted to these strangers’ epithets during their formative young adulthood. What about the kid with the unfortunate nickname? What about the kid who interrogated everyone IN SONG about his missing pudding cup in 7th grade? What about the girl who let guys service her in the parking lot of Panera? What about the kid who was not only caught masturbating in class but was also—and I am not making this up—named JAMES EARL JONES?!

You’re bound to get a grab bag of high drama and utter mundanity, but that’s exactly what real high school is. And once you’ve stopped hiccuping with giggles, steal. Line up your cast of characters and dole out these ripped-from-the-yearbook quirks as you see fit.

Questionnaire. If you’re going to do an actual Q&A for your character, I think it should be the one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What is your name?
What is your quest?
What is your favorite color?
What’s the land-speed velocity of an unladen African swallow?


These four questions actually cover most of what a person is about.

What they’re called (duh)
What they’re all about
Something about their taste or personal aesthetic
How they react when thrown into situations they don’t immediately understand—someone asking them an absurd question, say.

So…these are my character-mettle-testing supplies. They might not be the most efficient or sensical or “normal” ways of understanding the fake people you’re trying to make real people care about, but It Worked For Me! Delicious, piecemeal, semi-homemade characters, or my name isn’t Sandra Lee.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some coconut water to rehydrate.

i was a teenage teenager

When I saw a video entitled “Phonetic description of annoying sounds teenagers make,” I was like YES! And then I was like, NO! And then I was like, “breathy voice long low back unrounded vowel with advanced tongue root.”

Because while I love a rigorous breakdown of adolescent speech patterns as much as the next linguistics-obsessed young adult writer, this video kind of encapsulates a writing problem I’ve been having lately: I’ve forgotten how to sound like a teenager.

MUSICBAND totally sold out after their first album, dude.

MUSICBAND totally sold out after their first album, dude.

Well, not totally. At the wizened age of 23, I’ve just just passed the pivot point of language shift from “hip young thing of today” to “old,” and so I can still trade fluently in the slang and speech patterns that define millenials or Gen-Y or whoever. I know enough not to say things like “I wrote a blog” or to put a definite article before the names of websites. The expressions are easy, but they’re not the problem. It’s the expressed.

One of the reasons I love reading (and writing) YA fiction is because teenage feelings are, to borrow an appropriate phrasing, some intense shit. Besides the inner turmoil engendered by ungodly amounts of hormones coursing through your body, you’ve got a new external experience practically every day, whether it’s driving or taking the SATs or making out with someone you really really want to (or don’t want to, for that matter). And while fiction is, by definition, fictive, that doesn’t preclude it from telling the truth, and I think YA fiction operates with a singular understanding between the reader and the writer to translate the specific details of one character’s ups and downs to the larger, universal curves of the teenage human experience.

Getting the feelings right is crucial, in other words. And when your point of origin is no longer the chemical cocktail of adolescence but a conscious recipe of one part imagination and one part memory, inspiring that same buzz of immediacy and intensity is tricky business. But besides the rusty archives of your own recollection, where can you find teenage truth?

Du-uh. The internet.

I’m not saying you need to go out and #followateen-stalk actual, individual teenagers. That would be weird. But you also shouldn’t go out and read think-piece essays about Those Kids Today, because that is looking at teenagers with all the subtlety and understanding of that song from Bye Bye Birdie. Don’t have a cow, man!

Here’s my curated list of true teenage stories. These kids aren’t always going to be neat, or dynamic, or well-edited or -rounded or -spelled, or even interesting, at times. But then again, none of us was. The stories are still valid.

Are you wincing? Are you feeling it? Are you optimistic and cynical all at the same time? Good—or as the kids would say, “voiceless velar affricate”—that’s the place you want to write from. And if I missed anything good, hook a girl up and let me know.