I am really excited to be sharing a wonderful guest post by Holly Bodger today with you. Recently the We Need Diverse Books movement has been gaining steam, and it seems to be making a difference in books providing a range of characters and settings.
This was one of the aspects that initially attracted me to 5 to 1 and I wanted to ask Holly what research she used and what aspects of Indian culture did she adopt to help create her setting?
About 5 to 1
In the year 2054, after decades of gender selection, India now has a ratio of five boys for every girl, making women an incredibly valuable commodity. Tired of marrying off their daughters to the highest bidder and determined to finally make marriage fair, the women who form the country of Koyanagar have instituted a series of tests so that every boy has the chance to win a wife.
Sudasa, though, doesn’t want to be a wife, and Kiran, a boy forced to compete in the test to become her husband, has other plans as well. As the tests advance, Sudasa and Kiran thwart each other at every turn until they slowly realize that they just might want the same thing.
Available Now from Knopf Books for Young Readers
Guest Post by Holly Bodger
This is a tough question to answer in a short blog post because I did an insane amount of research. This is an area where I have been known to go off the deep end, and I did not fail to do so here. I spent months completely immersing myself in Indian culture (well, as best as I could from Canada!). Some of this research involved me actually purchasing things from India. For example, I bought a few of the scarves (dupattas) that were in the novel and I wore them many times. I bought the shoes (juttis) and the earrings and the bracelets, too. I watched a whole slew of movies set in India (most of my favorites I’d seen many time before, such as Bride & Prejudice, Slumdog Millionaire, and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). The rest was all reading. For every word I used, I had to do research. I had to read journal articles and reports on gender selection so I could understand the current situation. I had to research superstitions and beliefs about conceiving a child of a certain gender (this involved a lot of research on the acidity levels of certain foods). I had to research weather so I understood what it would be like outside. I had to research farming in India so I would understand what kind of crops Kiran and his father could grow. I had to research cricket and cricket stadiums so I could put in some references to Sudasa’s father that would make sense. I know this may not sound like a big deal, but I think it took me several hours of research so I could use the words “first-class century” correctly.
For everything else about life in India—customs, holidays, culture—I read a ton of novels. There is nothing more educational than reading fiction set in the country you need to research. For example, reading A Suitable Boy taught me about history, politics, religion, customs, holidays, prejudices, education, prostitution, food, music, drink. . . . It’s the second-longest English book ever written, so I’d be going on for a long time if I mentioned everything. I also read some more current novels, both by Indians and people visiting there for the first time. The latter are easier to read if you’re a foreigner (because they stop to explain things), but you have to be careful using these as research because they stop to explain things—and your characters should not do that.
In the end, I had to take all of this research and add only what made sense for the characters. I firmly believe that writers should write as if they ARE the main character, so when I was writing Sudasa, I could only mention things she would notice. It would not have made sense for her to suddenly describe the way everyone around her dressed. This was part of her everyday life. Unless something stood out, she would not notice these details any more than I would suddenly notice that one of my coworkers came to work in pants.
I realize that this is probably not convincing other writers to try a foreign setting for their next book. I will admit that it is a HUGE AMOUNT OF WORK, and if you are not willing to do a HUGE AMOUNT OF WORK, you should not even try this. But if you are not afraid of the work, I think you will find it amazingly rewarding. Although I did not leave all of my research on the page, I now have a much deeper understanding and love for a country I used to know very little about. And honestly? I love it when I see that same piqued interest in India from one of my potential readers. The world is both massive and minuscule. If you limit your reading and your interests to what’s in your own backyard, you are missing the ugly and the beauty that is the rest of this world.
About the Author
HOLLY BODGER has a BA in English Literature and has spent her entire career in publishing. She is an active member of RWA and is a 2013 Golden Heart finalist in the Young Adult category. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.