I found myself on a short street under the freeway where a couple of dozen homeless people clung to the shadows. They looked sweaty and miserable.
I eventually made it to the Chick-Fil-A drive thru and enjoyed my sandwich in my air-conditioned van in the parking lot. Then I had to walk the twenty feet to the trash can.
113°F is brutal.
I grew a new respect for those homeless people under the freeway.
Then I knew I blew it.
Not right then and there but with several scenes in my novel Reymons. The main characters have to fly open cockpit ultralight aircraft through one of the hottest areas on the planet. I will have to rewrite the scenes to reflect the brutal desert heat that they have to endure.
I try to set my scenes in familiar areas. Sometimes that isn’t possible. In those cases, I am seeing that it is important to visit the scenes to get an idea of what would be affecting the characters.
In the desert of Nevada and Southern California, the heat would be of primary importance to the characters. In some places, the geological features may take precedence. In others, traffic or crowds.
To build depth and realism in characters, you have to know what they are sensing and bring that to the page.
This weekend, I will be in one of the towns that inspired the fictional town of Kerryville, VA. I will keep my senses alert for what my characters should experience.
And just so you know, I don’t plan on exploring the fictional depths of Humphrey’s Peak, known in the distant future as Reymons.
For some things you just have to use your imagination.
In the hills of North Carolina stood a little country church in bad need of a paint job. The deacons got together and decided to hire a local painter. The painter arrived with a pickup filled with paint, rollers, brushes, and ladders and got to work.
The job went great and it looked like he would be able to finish in one day. When he got to the steeple, he realized that he had only one gallon left. He debated whether to run into town to buy more paint, but he would never finish that day if he did.
He had a solution. He had two gallons of thinner. Soon he had that one gallon stretched into three. Like Jesus and the loaves, he thought.
He got out his tallest ladder and proceeded to coat the steeple with the thinned paint. Nobody will ever tell the difference way up here. He was nearly finished when the sky turned dark. Thunder rolled and the painter sped up.
Just as he was making the last stroke, lightning hit the steeple and a loud voice thundered from heaven, “Repaint! And thin no more!”
Some of you started to read that joke and said, “Not this one again.” Some of you got to the end and laughed. Most young readers, if they got to the end, went, “Huh?” That’s the challenge I face as an older writer trying to be relevant to today’s young readers.
Is it even possible?
So how does this 50 something writer stay relevant to today’s young people? Here’s what works for me.
First – Hang out with young people!
I have an unfair advantage in that department right now. I currently have three teenage kids at home (we started late). There have been teens in our home for eight years now!
That’s not enough. Teen kids often treat their parents like they’re from another planet (which we are, in a manner of speaking). For most of my adult life, I have remained involved in either children’s or youth ministry. I’ve gotten to know many young people and they have shared many of the secrets of their generation.
You can also volunteer at school libraries, Big Brother/Big Sister programs, youth centers, etc. Get involved and listen with an open mind to the things they are saying and doing!
Second – Immerse yourself in the culture!
I’ve often volunteered to put together the music playlist for the hangout times at youth groups and camps. It was a proud moment when a youth told me that my playlist was “really good.” I researched what they were listening to. I listened to the songs (many today have lyrics inappropriate to youth groups), and I put together lists that would be both fun and uplifting to youth. (If you have i-Music, you can find one here.
The styles are much different from what I grew up with, but I’m learning to appreciate the drive behind them and enjoying many of them.
I also try to keep up on other entertainment that’s popular today. TikTok, Instagram, shows on Netflix and Disney+ are places that I visit as time allows, often with my kids. Mind you, I can’t spend the kind of time that many youth spend on entertainment, but I do what I can to stay current.
Third – Get their help!
Run your ideas by the youth you know. After you’ve written, have them proofread.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “People don’t say that anymore.” And “That doesn’t make any sense.” And the worst, “Boring!”
Take their advice! Rewrite, edit, and work with your helpers to create writing that they will relate to.
There are many other tips I could list here that apply to writing for young readers. White space, chapter length, hooks, and others can take your story from good to gripping. I plan on learning more about them in two weeks at the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference. There’s still space there and there’s a virtual option. Check it out HERE!
Bottom line: if you have something that you think the next generation needs to hear, write it. Bring it to them in a way they will understand, enjoy, and believe!