Middle grade research, or How I overcame my fear of heights/amusement park rides

The great thing about writing middle grade fiction is that you can draw from a deep well of memory. Your own, your friends’, your children’s (okay, I don’t have kids yet, but say, my nephew’s life experiences), etc. Even when I’m writing from the point of view of characters that I don’t have a ton of similarities with on the surface, I’m always amazed by how, the deeper I probe, the more I find our commonalities.

Still, there are some parts of a story that you just need that actual life experience. There’s no substitute. And so when I saw the Ferris Wheel looming over us at the Woodstock Fair a few weekends ago, I knew I needed to take the plunge.

Yes, I am over the age of thirty and I have never in my life been on a Ferris Wheel. I know! I wish I had a good explanation why I haven’t been on one. (Though my mother’s words of warning, as I told her of my intention– “those things are so rickety, Jenn . . .– miiiiiight be a clue.)

As a kid, I was pretty prone to dizziness. The “spinny” rides didn’t sit so well with me. I felt dizzy even after the merry-go-round. And, okay, I was a little anxious and high-strung as a kid. But I still rode the roller coasters! The old wooden ones AND the newer ones that went upside down. (Peer pressure. Had to think I was looking cool, even if I, um, wasn’t.) I’ll admit, my favorite ride was always the flume boat. Boring, I know.image1 (1)

ANYWAY! Back to the Woodstock Fair! Labor Day weekend! In my next middle grade novel with Knopf, due out in summer 2017, a traveling fair comes to the town where all the action is set, and in a pretty meaningful scene, the main character, Maddie, rides the Ferris Wheel with her crush, Avery. Now, when I initially wrote the scene, I figured, eh, I’ve seen a Ferris Wheel. I know how it works. I’ve got this covered. But having just experienced my first book go through copyedits, I started getting wary. What if I got important Ferris Wheel details wrong?! Better ride that thing to make sure.

So, that’s what led to me taking my first trip on the Ferris Wheel in the name of research. I’ll admit, the view from the top (and the middle) was pretty awesome. Like my main character, I had a strong desire to keep my eyes closed and just wait for the whole thing to be over. But, like my main character, I was riding the Ferris Wheel with a boy I liked — okay, my husband. So, I guess the view wasn’t so bad.image3 (1)

In the end, I discovered that I had some definite things wrong with my Ferris Wheel scene. For starters, not having ridden a Ferris Wheel before, I realized I’d based the sensations on my (actually quite terrifying) recent first trip on a ski lift last fall. Legs were dangling. People were sitting next to each other. Um, it turns out that is decidedly not how a Ferris Wheel is set up! People sit across from each other in little gondolas. Also, for the smaller Ferris Wheels that travel to local carnivals, you don’t just go around once. You go around a few times kind of fast, and then they start letting people off, so you stop a lot. Oh, and that time when you stop at the top is definitely the most anxious moment of the Ferris Wheel ride . . . especially if you are me.

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Overall, I’m really glad I took the plunge. As Avery reminded Maddie, your chances of dying in an amusement park accident are exceedingly rare. Also, the Ferris Wheel is definitely best enjoyed with your eyes open.

Now, my best friend’s dad offered me a trip up in his plane to view the path of the EF3 tornado that hit my hometown in 2011, which inspired my 2017 middle grade novel. (Note: I refuse to fly on small planes.) We’ll see if I take him up on that offer. I’m not making any promises, though, I bet it would be pretty amazing to see the lingering tornado damage from that vantage point.

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