THE TWEET FILES
There are certain challenges to writing a pair of books whose action takes place on three continents, in five countries, with the main characters representing two nationalities. Some of them are cultural. Some are linguistic. And some have to do with the particularities of the health care system in the Netherlands. To wit: would dental implants be covered?
Why could this possibly matter? In a young adult novel? Well, in this YA novel, a Dutch character gets his tooth knocked out. He’s back in Amsterdam and I have an offhanded mention of him going to see a dentist to get a new tooth implanted. But the character is kind of broke and rather alone; there’s no one around to pay his dental bills. So insurance coverage is necessary for this detail to work. Getting it right matters. Getting it right can also be an enormous headache.
Or it would be—were it not for Twitter. A few months ago, I tweeted out this very question: does Dutch insurance cover dental implants? I was not besieged with answers, but I got enough replies basically saying “usually/sometimes” to know that it would be accurate to implant a tooth in a broke young Dutchman (as opposed to a broke young American, who could never afford such a procedure, because here, dental implants tend to be exorbitant even if you have insurance. And now I feel like I’m starting to sound like one of those HSBC ads).
A resounding huh
Twitter is a lot of things to writers: a promotional vehicle, a way to connect with readers, the ultimate time-suck. But increasingly it is also an invaluable research tool, particularly for young-adult authors. Certain elements of teen life—crushes, friendships, emotions, parents—are immutable. But other things, such as bands, trends and classroom technology, have changed immeasurably in the years since many of us were in high school. Authors use Twitter to ask about classroom setup (blackboards? whiteboards?) college admissions (timing, process) and other things that have changed, or to see if certain cultural references translate. I’ve certainly used it for those purposes. I once cut a reference to hot pants after I questioned whether Twitter followers were aware of this magical stylistic invention. Their answer: A resounding “huh?”
But never has Twitter been more valuable to me than when I was writing Just One Day and Just One Year, a duet of books with far-flung characters in far-off places that rendered my traditional research methods (Google, phone calls, my research librarian husband) useless. Turns out, it’s not really that easy to figure where a French barge would spend the winter when one is not a nautical type and one does not live in France. Enter Twitter. Not dry dock, but anchorage. A river marina, or a seaside one (so long as it was river-accessible). I took it from there and anchored my fictional barge in a real marina in a real seaside town.
When I wanted to create the name of a bar in this seaside town where a salty-mariner type would drink, I again hit up my followers—Twitter is delightfully borderless—and my French fans responded again with name ideas, as well as shooting down my candidate La sorcière des mers (“sea witch”), saying that a French bar would never be called something like that. They suggested Bar de la marine. To my American ears, it seemed too prosaic for a French bar, but the French insisted on it, and I then realized that poetic-sounding bar names—The Sea Witch, etc.—might be a uniquely English-language phenomenon. So in this case, Twitter offered me a cultural insight as well as a linguistic one.
Twitter has helped me come up with character names (such as Shane Michaels, the kind of guy who flirts with you for months on end as he dates a parade of other girls) and sins that begin with the letter O. Long story there: read the book, but trust me when I tell you there really aren’t that many—seriously, I browsed religious sites that list sins alphabetically (!) and the Os are, like, nonexistent. Twitter gave me, among others, onanism, ostracism, and the sin of omission, which I thought was particularly brilliant.
Almost like a relationship
To avoid my own sin of omission, I will admit here that people who know me know that I have an ambivalent relationship with Twitter. I feel scuzzy using it for self-promotion and I think that having conversations with actual friends via Twitter is rather silly—can we not just email? Or talk on the phone?—and, worse, show-offy. In spite of everything I’ve written so far, I’m not actually on it that often.
Which perhaps makes me sound like bit of a fair-weather tweeter, only going on when I need something. But here’s the funny thing: When I reach out to my Twitter followers for actual help, as opposed to the promotional stuff, I don’t feel scuzzy. I feel pretty good. They tend to respond enthusiastically, and all the back-and-forth we have over names and dental insurance and barges, strangely, feels really authentic. Almost like a relationship—or as close to one as you’re going to get in 140 characters with people you’ll likely never meet.
Because it’s a give-and-take. An actual conversation. And if my followers and I both learn a little something about the awesomeness of the Dutch national health insurance system, better yet.—GAYLE FORMAN