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I read a lot of YA fiction, a lot of which happens to take place in schools. Recently, an idea jumped into my head for a YA-ish story and told me that it was going to take place in a school.

The idea came to me, and the only way it was working when I thought it out would be in a school setting. The way the story works simply wouldn't work otherwise - I needed a young adult setting, with other teenagers around, deadlines, coming back home every day, an opportunity to set up good and bad authority figures, over a story extended over a period of months. A school checked all the boxes. I chose the US because I did live in the US until I was around 8, and I'm a bit more familiar with US context than, say, Europe. (The story also wouldn't work where I currently live.)

So, listening to the demands of the story, I started to write the story. However, I ran into a problem: I've never been to school.

I've been homeschooled since first grade, meaning I've never been enrolled in school after kindergarten. I don't have first-hand experience with the school system. On top of that, my story is taking place in the US, and I don't live in the US, so my friends in the school system here don't know what the school system in the US is like.

How do I make sure that my story is realistic in a school setting, when I've never been in that school setting?

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    Does it really HAVE to be in a school? I bet homeschooled kids would love some representation by an insider. If you had meetups or events at museums or other things where you had a shared set of "classmates", that may be enough of a group setting for parts of the plot that need more people. – April Feb 21 at 18:23
  • I agree with @April. Sometimes you do want to write about stuff you've never experienced. You have to to some extent, if you don't want to just write memoir. But I wonder why your first project is one with not just 1 but 2 settings you're unfamiliar with. Writing something set in a place you're familiar with will help your writing flow, and is, in my opinion, a stronger choice for your first written work. (Maybe it's not your first work, but you're young and it will be an early work.) – Cyn Feb 21 at 18:44
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    @Cyn - The idea came to me, and the only way it was working when I thought it out would be in a school setting. The way the story works simply wouldn't work otherwise - I needed a young adult setting, with other teenagers around, deadlines, coming back home every day, an opportunity to set up good and bad authority figures, over a story extended over a period of months. A school checked all the boxes. I chose the US because I did live in the US until I was around 8, and I'm a bit more familiar with US context than, say, Europe. (The story also wouldn't work where I currently live.) – Mithrandir Feb 21 at 18:52
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    That makes more sense. Thank you for the clarification. You might consider editing your question to include that. It will help others as well. Ideally, you would do field research. Since flying over isn't reasonable, maybe you can make friends with an American high school student whose teacher would let you Skype into some classes (and the student can take you around in hallways) as part of a cultural exchange and for your homeschooling project (not a project? make it one). (1 of 2) – Cyn Feb 21 at 18:59
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    If that doesn't work, get some pen pals. Movie/TV depictions of school are usually way far off the mark. One good one is Freaks & Geeks. (2 of 2) – Cyn Feb 21 at 19:00
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Well, it may seem obvious, but you need research.

From your point of view it may seem really difficult, since you didn't have any experience of schools after first grade, but don't worry. Most of us writers don't have direct experience with dragons, wars, swordfights, eldritch horrors, torture, espionage, terrorism, distopian dictatorships, and so on. Researching on what you don't know about is a core point of doing a good job, so chin up.

If you have already read some YA stories, you may notice that a lot are set in schools. So you probably have a quite clear idea of what is the representation of school life in the genre. Moreover there are at least a million of tv series (not only teen dramas, I hope, even if maybe they will have a lot of what you are searching for) and films set in a US high school. Again, you may be familiar with those representations of school; if you aren't, you may consider watching some as source material.

If you want to avoid the risk of giving an overly cliché, or incorrect, representation, you could always ask someone that attended an US school about what his/her daily routine was like. This is actually a very good method of research - think about it as like having beta readers for a very specific topic. You may find people willing to help on facebook, discord servers, online communities, foreign exchange communities and of course writing forums.

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    You also have some leeway in how the school works if you go the private school route, the complication being that in the US, non-religious private schools generally cater to the wealthy. Your public school variation would likely have to be a charter school of some sort. – pboss3010 Feb 21 at 15:33
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This is a classic problem for writers. I once heard a lecture by Isaac Asimov, a well-known science fiction writer, where he said that his first attempt at writing fiction was set in a small town, and people told him that was a bad idea because he had, at that point in his life, never been outside New York City. But, he said, he went on to write stories set on other planets, and he'd never been to another planet either.

The answer is: Do research. If you know people who have attended public school, ask them about their experiences. Read other books set in public schools. Etc.

Think about what matters and what doesn't. Avoid glaring errors. Like if the story is set in the United States, a school run by the government is called a "public school". In the UK, a "public school" is a school that is NOT run by the government, what Americans call a "private school". The meaning is exactly the opposite. Maybe you would never make that particular mistake, but you want to watch for that SORT of mistake.

I saw a documentary about a murder in the town of Wendover, Nevada. My daughter lives in Wendover so I've been there many times. (Which is mostly why the documentary caught my interest.) The documentary had many re-enacted scenes. One was set in the parking lot of the local high school. And so we see two people standing by a car in the parking lot, and behind them is a thick forest. Except, umm, Wendover is in the desert. I don't think there are ten trees in the entire town. I've been to the high school, I think there's one scraggly tree in the parking lot. Clearly this scene was filmed nowhere near Wendover. I found it laughably out of place. Did it affect the story? No, not at all. But to me it was glaring.

Get the physical environment right. Get names of things right.

Much tougher: Get the "general way things go" right. I saw a movie once that was supposed to be about a group of American missionaries in South America. At one point they split up, and as they're separating, one says, "The Lord be with you", and the other replies, "May God watch over you", and they go back and forth with religious sounding goodbye statements for five or six rounds. I've attended evangelical churches all my life. I've spoken to many missionaries. I once visited one of our church's missions in another country. And I can tell you, we don't talk that way. Someone might make one such statement of farewell, but if he gave a string of two or three in a row, the other missionaries would be staring at him strangely wondering what had come over him or what he was trying to prove. Whoever wrote this script apparently took all the "religious sounding" sentences he knew and tried to cram them into one conversation. Any one would have been believable, but putting them all together sounded simply silly.

My point, of course, is not this particular mistake, but mistakes LIKE this. In your case, how do students talk when they're in math class? What do teachers say when they meet the principal in the hall? What do students and teachers wear? What really happens every day in a typical classroom? Etc.

You can get away with unreality that is necessary to your story. I don't suppose that vampires really wander the halls of American high schools, but they put that in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the audience accepted it because that was the story.

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