High school these days

As writers we’re often faced with having to write about things we have no personal experience with and are unlikely to (being shot at as an example from my current WIP that jumps immediately to mind). A lot of these things we can bluff our way through because it’s easy enough to imagine how we’d likely feel or react in the circumstances, and chances are our readers aren’t going to have experienced the thing, either (at least, I hope most of my readers have never been shot at).

But high school’s a different situation. Nearly everyone who reads a YA novel is going to have experience with high school, and a large portion of them are going to have experience with high school now. If the high school in your writing is the high school of your teen years and not today, your teen readers are going to notice and feel disconnected from the protagonist and setting.

There are two ways to get around this, of course. The first is to avoid putting any high school scenes in your story. This worked for me for Magestone and 619 just because of the particular story and settings. But the setting for Secrets is very contemporary, and while most of the action takes place outside of school, there’ll be one or two scenes there. It’s been a while since I’ve been in high school; this poses a problem in two ways: first, my own memory of what high school was like grows a bit foggy after thirteen years, and second, the high school experience has undoubtedly changed a fair bit since I was there. How do I make it feel authentic?

Well, short of actually going to the high school and sitting in on classes – and I’m not sure how they’d be likely to take that – the next best thing I can do is research the web and talk to people. I unfortunately don’t personally know many teens anymore, really, and none for the particular region (Secrets is set in Toronto), but I do know a couple teachers. And because they’re there every day, teachers are a pretty good source of information on both the classroom experience and the social dynamics of the students.

An author whose day job is as a high school teacher recently did a series of posts on a blog I read, talking about what school’s like these days. And while he’s obviously drawing on his own experiences for these, what he says can be broadly applicable. They’re definitely worth checking out if you put any or all of your story in school:

General daily logistics and operations

Technology: cell phones and computers

Consequences of technology: plagarism, grades, etc.

The Cafeteria

This is an ongoing series he’s working on, and he indicates he’ll be posting more so it may be worth checking in if you’re interested in other details.

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2 responses to “High school these days

  1. I would think you don’ t want to date your novel too much with very specific references though, if you don’t want your teen readers ten years down the road to feel disconnected.

    • That’s true, too. But I’ve also read from a number of authors/readers that stories that try to depict a modern setting but without the modern conveniences and lifestyles that teens are familiar with will also come across as written by out-of-touch adults. The bulk of the readers of a book come in the first year or two after it’s published, so that’d probably be the main audience you’d want to craft your technology to.

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