How do you research subjects for a novel that might be sensitive? Both cultural and jurisdictional.

Example: I usually try to "research" the setting and characters for my texts from real life. When I wrote a story about a priest I visited a lot of old churches and graveyards just to get a "feeling" for the place.

Now I'm planning to write a story where the main character is a 12-13 year old girl. Since it's a long time that I was in that age myself I wanted to get a feeling for what you look like at that age, some vocabulary and so on. Therefore I sat down with my friend Google and typed in a search string looking for girls around 12 years.

Just before hitting the enter button I was struck by what I was doing. Oh-no this looked so wrong in so many ways even though my intentions where honorable.

So how do you do it?

  • 2
    Go to a mall and listen. :-) Jan 3, 2013 at 16:54
  • 1
    So, to see where I can 'help' you, which of the following are you asking: 1. How do I go about researching generally sensitive subjects? Since there are a number of subjects that are seemingly universally 'sensitive'. I can't help you with that.
    – Mussri
    Jan 3, 2013 at 19:16
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    Or is it 2. Given that I believe my intentions to be unquestionably honorable and am sure of my doings/thoughts/..., how do I hide my seemingly inappropriate activity on the Internet when researching generally sensitive subjects? Notice that I specified "on the Internet", I might be of help there if that's what you meant to ask.
    – Mussri
    Jan 3, 2013 at 19:20
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    Keep in my mind that while most men seeking contact with twelve-year-olds on the internet are "writers conducting research", the overwhelming majority of twelve year old girls in chat rooms are actually undercover police,
    – Fortiter
    Jan 4, 2013 at 3:42
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    Are you worried that the police or somebody will discover that you are doing this research and you'll come under suspicion for illegal activities? If that's the case, trying to hide it would probably be the worst thing you could do. If you try to hide it and are found out, it's awfully tough to explain!
    – Jay
    Jan 4, 2013 at 14:45

1 Answer 1


If you want to write from a child's perspective, I suggest spending time with actual children.

If you don't have any or aren't related to any, then you'll have to find some. You might try volunteering at (in the U.S.) a YMCA, or getting a job as a camp counselor. Just remember that if you're getting involved in other people's lives, take the relationships seriously. You can be a peripheral actor in the lives of adults without too much trauma, but don't ever treat kids like research.

Barring that, well, try and find your old diaries, read as many books with 12-year-old protagonists as you can, and find a good editor. JK Rowling didn't have a 10-year-old when she wrote the first Harry Potter, but her characters sounded age-appropriate to me.

  • I think the question is more general than this specific example which the OP seemed to include merely as an, well, example. IOW: "Researching sensitive subjects".
    – Mussri
    Jan 3, 2013 at 16:43
  • Yes, true. But that was the example given, so I addressed it. The OP already knows that you have to go to the source for research. Without other examples of sensitive subjects, I can't offer other advice. Jan 3, 2013 at 18:33
  • Thanks for some good advice! And Mussri and Lauren you are both right, this applies to many situations so that's why I decided to ask you guys. But the situation that made me stumble upon this issue is as the example above.
    – Vanni
    Jan 4, 2013 at 13:03
  • So I guess the general advice would be: "Find a not-so-sensitive-but-still-viable source for information. Or find a sample that has already seen what you want to research.". But then you'll be talking to living subjects (instead of reading books) and this adds lots of scruples. For example, I'm not aware of any place one can volunteer in to help rape victims, and I'd rather no such place exists as they need professional help, sometimes humane unprofessional help but that's besides the point. The point is, you can't safely research 'sensitive' subjects, neither in Real Life; nor on the net.
    – Mussri
    Jan 7, 2013 at 10:05
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    As to kids specifically, I wholly agree with Lauren. But I'll add another piece of advice and tell you not to choose one of the kids as your hero (in the story). In other words, don't wait for one of them to strike the bell, just get the general gist of their personalities and create a hero. And I never mean to sound smug but it's just my formal ESL educ.
    – Mussri
    Jan 7, 2013 at 10:09

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