by Whiney Writer
Writing about teens is hard. I’m doing character profiles for my contemporary prequel to my YA SF/zombie/romance/mystery/thriller, and that means I’ve got teen pre-zombie backstories to build. But not having been a teen for a while (and I wasn’t even that good at it when I was one) I needed a way to know how they think, talk, dress, and behave today. I mean, I took notes after I talked with my teen bagger at the grocery store, but I got the distinct impression she was trying real hard not to act like a real teen. I mean she wasn’t wearing gobs of makeup, didn’t have a piercing anywhere but through her ears, and she called me “Ma’am” and asked if she could help carry my bag of ice cream and potato chips to the car. That is NOT normal teen behavior based on every show currently on TV!
So speaking of TV shows, that night I watched a National Geographic channel special about lions while eating my ice cream and potato chips. The wildlife researchers installed a special blind that blended in with the grasslands. Then they observed lions in their natural habitat. They filmed them and took notes on everything from the pride hunting zebras as a team to caring for cubs to … well, you know, that stuff that lions do to make cubs. Every wildlife special has to show that! Then it dawned on me how I could see and hear the real-life world of teenagerdom. I would observe them in their natural habitat!
I didn’t try to be sneaky at first. I simply lied to the assistant high school principal that my niece was moving to the district and asked if I could sit in on a couple classes. I went to sophomore English and social studies. And guess what? I got to see lessons in sophomore English and social studies—and remember how much I’d forgotten. Then I went to the cafeteria with my Hello Kitty lunch box and tried to blend in, though my handheld parabolic microphone might have been more noticeable than I’d have liked. Groups of kids seemed to get nervous when I pointed it at them. But how else was I supposed to learn how many times a teen uses “like” in a sentence? Or find out what the latest teen slang is? (I mean do teens even say “Holy Smokes!” anymore? Or call each other “Doofus”? Or yell “Far out!”? Those kinds of details can clue kids in that an author doesn’t have a clue about what’s really going on in their lives!) Anyway, I could tell that my presence was keeping them from doing the stuff I know teens do when they aren’t being observed by a barely noticeable stranger with a notebook who’s sneaking up behind them to see what snacks they like to eat. You know, that stuff teenagers do.
I had to try another tack. So after promising to fill up the gas tank, I borrowed my friend’s rusty white van with the windows tinted so dark no one can peek in. I parked it across the street from the school grounds where some kids ate their lunch. I rented a video camera with a powerful zoom lens. I mounted the parabolic microphone on the roof so it looked kind of like a satellite dish. Then I tuned in to observe teens in their natural habitat! I heard two real-life teens talk about a science project! And I got great video of several real-life teens sending real teen texts!
I know I would have gotten a whole lot more and written the most well-researched YA SF/zombie/romance/mystery/thriller ever! But then someone pounded on the side of the van. And someone said “Police! Open up!”
It’s kinds of sad how suspicious people are these days.