Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Never-Ending Education

By Sarah Pekkanen

Before turning to fiction, I was a newspaper and magazine writer for nearly a decade. And while I didn't always love the beats I was assigned to cover or the people I had to interview (a few dozen Capitol Hill politicians spring to mind), now I can look back and appreciate those hours spent tracking down sources and absorbing the background on complicated issues. My workplace provided a constant, vibrant education on topics that were both eclectic and obscure - and now that I'm penning novels, I'm still doing the kind of reporting I did back in the days when I obsessively carried around a little spiral notebook and pen.

For my first book, The Opposite of Me, I was struggling to settle on an occupation for my main character. Then one evening, as I sat by the edge of our neighborhood swimming pool, watching my kids splash around and idly flipping the pages of a semi-waterlogged O Magazine that someone had left behind, I stumbled across a feature about a woman named Chandra who'd quit her stressful advertising job to open her own paper store. I tore out the page and tucked it in my pocket, and the next morning, I tracked down Chandra at her new store in Chicago. We spent a few hours on the phone over the next two weeks, as she patiently answered my questions about the culture of the advertising world. I also read books written by ad execs, and called a few copywriters and account executives to get a glimpse into their workday worlds. I loved being educated about a brand new field, and happily wove realistic details into my book - such as a mention of the Recall Score (which tells you how many people who've watched a certain commercial actually remembered it).

For my second book, Skipping a Beat, I wanted to write about a main character who went from having no money to becoming fabulously wealthy. I toyed with the idea of making my character an Internet guru, but I lack the kind of brain that easily absorbs technical details (even spell check can be a challenge) and I knew writing about that would be a stretch for me. But there was a guy in my hometown who'd started a little beverage company in his kitchen and sold it a few years later, to the Coca-Cola Company, for something like sixty million dollars. So I emailed the guy - and he ended up inviting me to his headquarters for the Honest Tea company, letting me taste test a new drink, and answering all my questions about his professional journey.

I'm hooked on the experience of being educated through my novels, because getting glimpses into the lives of others has always fascinated me, and now I have an excuse for my nosiness. For my upcoming book, These Girls, I decided to have two of my main characters work together for a magazine based in New York City. I found a writer for a big glossy magazine who was willing to sneak me into the offices early one morning for a behind-the-scenes tour (and a lot of juicy gossip) - and you can bet those details will be appearing in my pages.

When people ask what it's like to be a writer, I tell them one of the best parts is that every page, every story, every book is a new experience - and a new learning experience.

Please visit Sarah Pekkanen's website at for more information about her books, or find her on Facebook and Twitter!


  1. Loved this post, Sarah! One of my favorite things about writing is doing the research. I'm deep into 19th century sea travel right now--facinating.

  2. Thanks Sara! It's great, isn't it, to get to learn so much about different topics? They always say education is wasted on the young, and now we get a second chance.

  3. I so related to the "having an excuse for my nosiness"! Years ago, I worked for a local newspaper, and just holding a tablet and a pen gave me license to ask all sorts of questions.

    I need to do more of what you talked about,though, for my books. Get out of google and find a warm body.

    Appreciate your sharing your stories.

  4. Delightful blog. I usually come up with a story/novel idea from some image that haunts me. I don't always know where they come from. For my third novel, I saw a girl carrying homemade wings onto a bus. From there, I somehow got to Lithuania in the 1940s to the late 80s. Now, I am determined to go there--to Vilnius, Kaunas and Palanga. One of my favorite parts of writing is researching. It's fun to learn new things. Next year, I'm going to Ireland. I'm going to visit County Carlow where my family once lived. I know that even though I don't plan on setting a novel there that something will inspire me and that it will become a part of me. Life is to be lived. Without that, who could write anything? Thanks for an inspirational blog, Sarah.

  5. Thanks Crista! And Michele, that's so interesting. You must be very visual!

  6. Sarah, I'm so behind but I love how you've learned so much to create the right authenticity to your novels. I can't wait for These Girls, of course, but reading your fb, tweets, and blog posts really helps!! Thanks for sharing.

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