Guest Post & Giveaway: Everything I Thought I Knew by Shannon Takaoka
When a writer writes a story that feels personal, I’m always curious about what their research process. Shannon Takaoka’s debut, Everything I Thought I Knew, is one of those books. We asked Shannon to share her research process in honor of the book’s recent release. Check out why Shannon writes and how she researched such a complex story and be sure to pick up this beautiful book, out now!
Everything I Thought I Knewby Shannon Takaoka
Published by: Candlewick Press
on October 13, 2020
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
A teenage girl wonders if she’s inherited more than just a heart from her donor in this compulsively readable debut.
Seventeen-year-old Chloe had a plan: work hard, get good grades, and attend a top-tier college. But after she collapses during cross-country practice and is told that she needs a new heart, all her careful preparations are laid to waste.
Eight months after her transplant, everything is different. Stuck in summer school with the underachievers, all she wants to do now is grab her surfboard and hit the waves—which is strange, because she wasn’t interested in surfing before her transplant. (It doesn’t hurt that her instructor, Kai, is seriously good-looking.)
And that’s not all that’s strange. There’s also the vivid recurring nightmare about crashing a motorcycle in a tunnel and memories of people and places she doesn’t recognize.
Is there something wrong with her head now, too, or is there another explanation for what she’s experiencing?
As she searches for answers, and as her attraction to Kai intensifies, what she learns will lead her to question everything she thought she knew—about life, death, love, identity, and the true nature of reality.
Curiosity May have Killed the Cat, but Writers Can’t Live without It
Why do you write? It’s a question that authors get asked all the time and one that can have many answers. The first time I was asked it, I wasn’t exactly sure what to say. Why do I write? What compels me? I love daydreaming about characters and the lives they might inhabit. I love the act of creating, even when the ideas in my head are not quite coming out on the page in the way that I imagined and finding the right words is difficult and frustrating. Because when I do find the right words, it is it is so, so satisfying. I love it when the pieces of my story click into place, like a puzzle.
But most of all, I think I write because I’m curious. I’m curious about the world around me and especially the people in it. I’m always thinking in questions. What would happen if… ? What is it like to…? Where would I go if I… ? Research is a natural companion to curiosity. For me, it’s as much a part of writing, as, well, actually writing. Research helps me generate ideas, it helps me refine them and it’s sometimes even how I get myself unstuck when I feel like I’ve written myself into a corner. But too much can sometimes be counterproductive. When it comes to book research, here are the two most important lessons I’ve learned:
Know when to lean in. When I’m in the ideation stages of writing, research, in a very loose sense, serves as a big source of inspiration for me. I make it a point to read broadly, and not just novels. Sometimes I read memoir and biography, sometimes I read magazines like Scientific American. I read good journalism. I listen to podcasts. I watch documentaries. I visit museums. And when I can, I travel. Not only do I find all of these things enjoyable for their own sake, but it’s also research. All of it is fodder for fiction. There isn’t necessarily something specific I’m after when I’m looking at an Italian painting from the 16th century or listening to an episode of Hidden Brain, it’s more that I’m keeping my antennae up. You never know when a transmission is going to come in. Once I have a solid idea, I lean way in. For Everything I Thought I Knew, I read books about heart research and the history of transplant surgery. I read patient stories. I watched surf documentaries. I read Brian Green’s writing on quantum physics and parallel universes. I consumed anything that might help me channel the story that had started to take shape in my head, and then I wrote. And when I got stuck, which was often, I took a break from writing and did a little more research. Usually, it helped. Until it didn’t.
Know when to let go. I am one of those writers who has an annoying inner critic who sometimes worries way too much about getting something “wrong.” (Hello, past Catholic-school-girl self!) So, while research is fascinating and inspiring and helpful up to a point, I’ve also had to learn when to let it go. Getting too deep in the research weeds can be a real source of procrastination and over-thinking for me if I’m not careful. But how do you know when it’s not enough, the right amount or too much? For me, I think it depends on how essential certain details are to what’s happening on the page. It’s not an exact science and depends a lot on the genre you are writing in and the nature of your story. Writing a fantasy set in a completely fictional world, a speculative story set in a realistic world and a historical novel where events that actually happened are driving the plot all might involve very different levels of research. And when it comes to details that involve a character’s culture or identity, accurate research is really important. But there are also countless smaller details that you could spend hours thinking about (or not) and you have to decide: how much? Take locations for instance. Getting the specifics right on a real-world landmark that most people would be somewhat familiar with, like the Golden Gate Bridge, is probably a good idea. In other situations, too much research might get in your way. Here’s an example that tripped me up a bit when I was writing my book: two of my main characters meet regularly at a beach to surf. The story is set in the San Francisco Bay Area and there are a number of real-life locations where that would be possible. There was one area I had in mind so I put on my research hat. Did the conditions – the size of the waves, for example, and the level of experience that might be required to surf them – match what I imagined? What if they didn’t? I started to spend waaaay too much time looking at surf and weather reports until I realized it probably wasn’t necessary. I was not writing a travel guide for people who want to explore surf spots. I was not writing an article on tides for a scientific journal. I wanted the beach in my fictional story to have specific conditions that made sense for my plot, so I gave it a name that was fictional. Was I inspired by certain Bay Area locations in terms of describing what the beach in my story looked like and how the air smelled and how cold the water might be? Sure. But it really didn’t matter to my story that the beach described in it be the exact mirror, in every way, of one that actually exists. I was overthinking details that weren’t even likely to make it into the narrative. The research was getting in my way. I had to let go.
As a writer, I enjoy research. It feeds my sense of curiosity. I use it as inspiration and to help me create a nuanced, thoughtful and believable world. But at the end of the day, there’s a reason that fiction writers choose fiction. Half the fun is in stepping away from reality and letting our imaginations take over. So I consider research a base layer that helps inform, but that doesn’t necessarily guide every creative decision. My very best writing happens when I lean in to all the things I’m curious about and then let go and take a leap into the unknown.