Deb Sarah’s blend of imagination and research

Sarah_Bella_03-5The first thing most people ask me when hear the premise of my book (it’s about twin sisters who couldn’t be more different – or so they think) is whether I’m a twin. Nope. I don’t even have a sister.

Most people – myself included – often assume first novels are autobiographical, but mine is pure fiction. I’ve always been intrigued by the rich, complex relationships my friends have with their sisters. It seems a connection unlike any other, with threads of intense love, rivalry, loyalty, exasperation and fondness all woven together. So part of my research was just observing: Watching sisters together. Listening to my girlfriends tell their sister stories. Asking questions about their interactions and feelings.

In college, I also took a lot of psychology classes, and I think some of those lessons found their way into The Opposite of Me as well. I find the notion of identity fascinating. How is it that we all get assigned certain roles in our family – like the pretty one, the smart one, the drama queen, the peacemaker, the funny one – and what if those roles don’t fit who we truly are inside? I spun that idea around in my mind for a while, and it turned into a central theme in my novel.

In terms of traditional research, I needed to learn about the world of advertising, and several people helped me. In one of those quirky twists of fate, I’d just decided to make my main character a stressed-out advertising executive when I opened my new O magazine and saw a profile of a former advertising executive who’d quit her all-consuming job to open a new shop that sold gorgeous paper products. So I cold-called the woman – Chandra Greer is her name, and her shop is Greer Chicago – and she couldn’t have been more gracious. I interviewed her and took copious notes.  I called my brother’s old college roommate, who also works in advertising, and interviewed him as well – then followed up with yet another interview with a third advertising executive. I loved learning about their world, and peppered my novel with aspects of advertising that most interested me (did you know there’s something called a Recall Test? It basically tells how many people who watched your commercial actually remembered it).

There was one other subplot in my novel requiring medical expertise, and my father – a medical writer – helped enormously with that. As a former reporter, I love interviewing people and diving into research – but sometimes, it’s even more fun to make stuff up.

Now I’m curious: What would you say your childhood role was in your family? Do you think it fit how you felt about yourself? And does your family still see you that way today?

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Sarah Pekkanen

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9 thoughts on “Deb Sarah’s blend of imagination and research

  1. I’m not sure what my childhood role in my family was. My mother and sister used to fight like crazy, so I was tried really hard to not rock the boat. We all get along great now.

  2. I, too, called on several folks to double-check details, including my cousin, a firefighter, who answered a procedural question; my friend Tim, who knows a little something about search-and-rescue operations; and my former boss, an artist, who told me all about colored pencils. Thanks, guys!

    As far as childhood roles go, my family seemed to consider me an entertainer. Maybe I was for a few very early years, until I became old enough to know myself and accept my introversion.

    Lovely post! Thank you.

  3. In my family I was the responsible one. However, my first husband was the unreliable one in his family and it took me a few years of marriage to realize that simply by marrying him, I had been assigned that role in his family. At first I could never understand why the women didn’t want me to help in the kitchen, why we could show up late and they’d hold dinner for us, why everyone was so surprised when we brought food to contribute to the meal. I was still the responsible one in my own family, and I have to admit, once I realized this was my role, I kind of enjoyed it. I loved this freedom! It was so relaxing!Even if it wasn’t very responsible of me!

  4. I’m the oldest, imaginative, and “always there to listen to” one. Also my friends tend to either be only children or they don’t have a sister.

  5. I’m glad I came back to read this! My book (as I think you know) is also about family and leans heavily on sibling relationships. People also ask me about my own siblings. In my book, there are three, in this order. Girl, boy….much later, late in life “surprise” girl.

    Someone asked me if I had researched “birth order” and I thought that was a nice compliment, but replied that no, I didn’t, unless you count being a sister for 30 years. I then asked the crowd to guess my birth order in the family.

    They guessed youngest. I’m actually the oldest. (Maybe they thought my portrayal of the oldest daughter was too unflattering!)

    Sarah, I can’t wait to read this!

  6. I was always the never-in-trouble child. Though my role was a little more complicated since my family was dysfunctional. Unfortunately, that role I took on is something I fight with every day, because what was life saving back then can become poison in my relationships now.

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