Behind the Scenes: Creating a Debut Young Adult Novel
Katie Bayerl | The Children’s Book Review | March 24, 2017
A Mashup of What Ifs
I have an exercise I do with teen writers that’s a pretty big hit: We come up with lists of all of the things we know, love, and wonder about; all of the places we’ve been, real-life characters who haunt our minds; the problems that gnaw at us; the genres we love; the tropes we adore and that annoy us; favorite books, movies, and songs of all time; etc … and then we play a little “what if” game.
What if a girl like the one in my math class (you know, the one who never talks?) lived in a world where voices hold magic?
What if a teen with a weakness like mine suddenly faced a problem like that guy I saw on YouTube who’s stuck in my head?
What if a series of strange, inexplicable events happened in a community like the one where I grew up?
There’s a twist on this prompt where we pull random characters and scenarios from a bag and force ourselves to write stories about vengeful nuns on space odysseys. Hilarity ensues. And sometimes legitimately compelling stories leap onto the page, catching us all by surprise.
I’m telling you all of this because my debut novel, A Psalm for List Girls, feels like a wild mash up of my own passions, predilections, and concerns. I didn’t plan it that way—not exactly—but looking at the final book is like looking into a weird kaleidoscope mirror of my heart.
What’s in the mix exactly?
Psalm began as a pretty straightforward match-up: What if a teen saint lived in a present-day city like mine? (What if she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a saint?)
I’ve been obsessed with lady saints (and female religious figures generally) for a very long time. I also have had a heart-tugging affection for the culturally rich and economically challenged mill cities of New England since… forever. So the brain sparks were flying right away. This was a story concept that really excited me.
And then, as I drafted and redrafted, something funny began to happen. More of my interests and personal history emerged, making the story a sendup of roughly a million things close to my heart, including:
- Tess’s struggle with her presumed gift. I was a “gifted” kid, which is not a humblebrag. Being a smart kid in my home community was not easy—in fact, it was incredibly painful at times. A lot of Tess’s struggle with sainthood reflects my experience.
- Her sister Callie’s fear that she’ll never be good enough. That’s the flip side of me, the side who’s had to grow up and move past the “gifted kid” thing and learn to become a whole, flawed human.
- Danny—oh, sweet Danny! No spoilers, but he’s got a lot in common with a guy I loved a long time a ago, a good, kind, solid boy who had no idea of his own worth.
- All of the family stuff. I come from a big, messy, deeply loving, Catholic family. While the da Costa clan is fictional, and my mom is way more chill than Callie’s, there are definitely threads of my own experience in the mix.
- The detective trope. I am a mystery addict, and I knew from the outset that I wanted Callie and Danny to act as investigators of sainthood. Callie was angry, obsessed, and a little unhinged from the second she appeared on the page—the perfect ingredients for a hard-boiled detective. I looked to some of my favorite lady detectives, including Veronica Mars and Sarah Linden, as I considered her story arc. Shows like The Killing and True Detective also helped me think about Danny and Callie’s partnership and that tricky layering of personal quest with the case at hand.
- The creepy kidnapper! Finally, all of those years of watching Law & Order have paid off! No, but really. It was a revelation when I realized there was much more to the miraculous healing of a little girl than I’d originally conceived. Ana Langone’s kidnapper was inspired by a disturbing voice I stumbled upon on the Internet one night, and while Psalm isn’t exactly a “whodunit” (it’s more of a whydunnit and will the protagonist figure things out in time?), I was able to pour years of compulsive mystery watching into Ana’s storyline. Shout-out to the serial killer in The Fall for being extra-special disturbing.
- This story has a soundtrack (as all of my writing projects do), one that is heavily influenced by Portuguese fado—old timey tunes that express bittersweet longing and bust open my heart like nothing else can. I also listened to some soulful songstresses and ragey rockeras to find the flavor of Callie and her multi-faceted, multi-lingual community. I’ve come to think of Psalm as a song, an ode to sisterhood, to a broken but beautiful city, and to every girl who feel a little lost sometimes.
So here’s my question for you: What’s on your list? What are your obsessions? What are the questions, settings, characters, songs, etc. that haunt you? What surprising match up might spark the perfect “what if” for your next story?
I’m genuinely curious. Hit me up on Twitter. I’d love to hear about the stories you have brewing inside!
Written by Katie Bayerl
Publisher’s Synopsis: I’ll Give You the Sun meets True Detective in this brilliant YA debut about saints, sisters, and learning to let go.
Tess da Costa is a saint—a hand-to-god, miracle-producing saint. At least that’s what the people in her hometown of New Avon, Massachusetts, seem to believe. And when Tess suddenly and tragically passes away, her small city begins feverishly petitioning the Pope to make Tess’s sainthood official. Tess’s mother is ecstatic over the fervor, while her sister Callie, the one who knew Tess best, is disgusted—overcome with the feeling that her sister is being stolen from her all over again.
The fervor for Tess’s sainthood only grows when Ana Langone, a local girl who’s been missing for six months, is found alive at the foot of one of Tess’s shrines. It’s the final straw for Callie. With the help of Tess’s secret boyfriend Danny, Callie’s determined to prove that Tess was something far more important than a saint; she was her sister, her best friend and a girl in love with a boy. But Callie’s investigation uncovers much more than she bargained for—a hidden diary, old family secrets, and even the disturbing truth behind Ana’s kidnapping. Told in alternating perspectives, A Psalm for Lost Girls is at once funny, creepy and soulful—an impressive debut from a rising literary star.
Ages 12+ | Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers | March 14, 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-0399545252
About Katie Bayerl
When Katie Bayerl isn’t penning stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught creative writing in schools and a variety of community settings. Katie has an incurable obsession with saints, bittersweet ballads, and murder. A Psalm for Lost Girls is her first novel.
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Follow Along on the Blog Tour
March 13 – Here’s to Happy Endings – Author Q&A
March 14 – Butter My Books – Guest Post
March 15 – Margie’s Must Reads – Spotlight
March 16 – Cynsations – Gust Post
March 17 – Ex Libris – 10 Favorite Moments from Psalm for Lost Girls
March 20 – Forest of Words and Pages – Like/Try/Why
March 21 – That Artsy Reader Girl – Debut Dish
March 22 – Twinning for Books – Review
March 23 – Mundie Moms – Review
March 24 – The Children’s Book Review – Guest Post
The article Behind the Scenes: Creating a Debut Young Adult Novel was written by Katie Bayerl, author of A Psalm for Lost Girls. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Katie Bayerl, Mystery, Saints, and Young Adult Fiction.