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Book discussion, writing workshop highlight author visit

February 12, 2020

When producing a novel, some authors rebel against the advice of writing what you know. Michael Belanger is not one of those writers.


Belanger, a Greenwich High School history teacher and author of “The History of Jane Doe,” told Cheshire Academy students on Feb. 10 that, because of his busy schedule, he focuses on what he knows when he writes.


“I have limited time because I’m always teaching and grading,” Belanger said. “I write what I know because I keep that (time for) writing to really enjoy and dig into (the story).”


“The History of Jane Doe” was published in 2018 by Penguin Random House. Writing the story took roughly three months, but it took three years to edit the novel into what it is today—a coming-of-age novel that ties in a love for history with issues such as relationships and mental health.


When Belanger first sat down to begin drafting his book, he had little in mind. There were no characters, plot, or direction set. What he did begin with, however, was an emotion.


“I had no idea who the characters were, I had no idea what was going to happen, I had no idea how the book was going to end—I started with an emotion,” Belanger told the students.


As part of Belanger’s luncheon and presentation, he prompted the 20 students to begin writing their own stories based on an emotion. He listed a series from which to choose, including being sad, nervous, angry, impatient, shy, anxious, and others.


A couple of minutes later, a few students read their stories aloud. From there, Belanger asked that they add another element to the story: a passion or hobby. Finally, they concluded their pieces by incorporating a place.


“We need to put your character in a place,” he said, “but remember, those two things we did before are going to shape the place.”


Throughout the workshop, Belanger read pieces of the first chapter of his novel. The story follows the main character Ray, who tells the story of the new girl in his school—Jane Doe. Belanger also taps his own experiences with his grandmother, who suffered from depression, for his story.


Growing up, Belanger admits he had a confused view on depression that he only was able to understand after becoming an adult. His confusion is reflective in how Ray perceives Jane in the book.


Belanger told students that research is critical to ensuring a story is properly told. With young adults being the target audience for his book, Belanger said that information on depression and resources available to help those struggling with the illness had to be accurate.


“You really have to get it right,” he said. “I did a lot of research on—in particular—teenage depression. I also did research into therapy, and I also had a mental health professional read my book and give me feedback.”