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July 13, 2015

Writing About: School

I'm on the A to Z Challenge blog for Themes That Rocked! Check it out HERE.


School is a common setting in YA books. If you’re writing YA for the first time, or never wrote about middle/high school settings, I am sharing 11 things to keep in mind. I included personal stories for you to get to know teenage me. :)

1. Name

Most schools are named after people or even directions. My elementary school was Westside, my middle school was Southwest, and my high school was Bayside. You can use your old school names for inspiration or even use someone’s last name. Think: Brown, Stanford.

2. Mascot and School Colors

Middle schools and especially high schools have mascots and school colors. In middle school, we were the Broncos with maroon, gray, and white as out colors. In high school, we were the Bears with teal, black and white as our colors. You can choose your favorite animal and trio of colors, or use a symbolic animal.

Animals and their meanings:
Tiger – willpower, strength, and courage
Wolf – Intelligence
Lion - Strength, assertiveness, and power
Bear- Strength and confidence

Color Combinations:
Orange, black and white
Red, black and gray
Gold, purple and white

3. Layout of the School

Although you won’t have to describe the layout of the school in great detail, being able to picture the school’s grounds will help your imagination and aid you while you write.
Personal Story: My middle school was divided into three buildings that were painted different colors to help the students from getting lost. The furthest building had red trim, the one in the middle was blue, and the third was green. The lockers inside these buildings matched the color on the outside.
TIP: Picture your high school or design a new school in your head with characteristics from famous schools/buildings.
Example: Alnwick Castle was as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter movies.
4. Teachers

The school in your book will need teachers, but you won’t have to create a teacher for everyone class your character goes to, just the one’s you’ll want to highlight, such as math class and gym, or whatever class will be important for your character. And fashion a teacher perfect for that class.
Is the teacher male or female?What’s the teacher’s name?How does the teacher dress and act?
TIP: Use your old teachers for inspiration.
5. Classes

What classes does your character have? Is he or she in all Honors/AP classes, normal classes, or intermediate classes? Also consider the grade your character is in as math and science change with each grade.

6. Cafeteria

Lunchtime is always a scary time. Or at least it was for me. I was shy and never had friends during my lunch period, so finding a place to sit was a nightmare.

Where does your character sit? Who does your character sit with?
Personal Story: I remember groups of Goths and punks would sit at one table on one side of the cafeteria and on the other side would be the cooler kids; football players would take half a table and the cheerleaders would take the other half.
Most schools in America are usually divided like this; each group/clique of friends sticking together everywhere they go.

7. Students

Who is the popular girl/boy in the school? Is there a group of “Plastics” on Mean Girls with their own version of Regina George? Most importantly, what type of student is your main character: a nerd, outcast, troublemaker, or cool kid?
Personal Story: In high school, I was the shy and quiet nerdy girl who was too skinny and was in Art Club in ninth grade. I always had a small group of friends, but without them, I was lost.
8. Buses

Being on a bus sucks! First you have to find somewhere to sit. Then you may have to suffer the long ride with no air conditioner or radio if you get stuck with a crappy bus or mean bus driver. On top of that, there is relentless bullying and fights.
Personal Story: When I was in elementary school, I was bullied by this girl in my class every afternoon on the bus. I dreaded having to get on that bus after school when I’d know she’d be there. Moving my seat never helped, because she’d just find me and sit in the seat in front of me.

9. Hangout Spots

Where does your main character and his/her friends handout before and after school? Do they have a special spot where they always go to talk before the bell rings? Year after year, me and my friends went to the same concrete block at the very end of the school to sit and chat.

10. School Events

Don’t just write about boring classes! Write about dances and games. Does your character go to homecoming or prom? What about football games? Every year my school put together a fun Renaissance night. Add events like this to your story and let something important (good or bad) happen during it.

11. The Bad

Schools are places for learning, memory building, and first loves, but they also contain tragedies. Students are committing suicide because they’re being bullied, they’re bringing guns to school and shooting everyone they can out of hate and vengeance. These two things are growing more frequent and devastating every year.

There are also deaths from drunk driving, rape at parties, and teen pregnancies.
Personal Story: I remember when I was in tenth grade I’d see a girl walking to class early with a belly ready to pop. I also felt sympathy toward her. Also in high school, a sweet cheerleader everyone loves was killed in an ATV accident. Her boyfriend and two others were also killed. I think about her a lot...
You don’t have to write a tragedy like these into your book, but they are worth considering as long as you can work your plot around it.

A Word on Plot: A YA story isn’t just about going to school. Something else has to happen. Is there romance from your character falling in love for the first time? Does she try to fun for prom queen? There could even be a paranormal element that takes your character away from school.
TIP: If your school is in the past or future, you’ll have to adjust certain aspects accordingly.

QUESTIONS: What kind of teen were you in high school? What was your high school’s mascot? Have you written YA with the main character in school?


Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I was able to walk to elementary school, and I took public transit to high school. The only time I was on a school bus was for class trips. (Ack, it's been a long time since I've been in school!)

nashvillecats2 said...

Loved your post about school.
Mine are long gone but the one subject I really detested was......Poetry.
Little did I realise I would write poems and have books published. strange world..

Pat Hatt said...

Never would have thought about school colors. Haven't had to write about school much yet, a bit in the beginning of one but that was it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If I ever write about a school, I'll know how to do it right!

Cherdo said...

It's funny, but even though it has been years since I stepped into a school, I still love to read about kids in school. Fresh young minds are interesting; they have a new view of the world.

When I teach about color theory, I always make kids bring in college logos and mascots. Perfect examples of colors that work together - or not.

Great post, Chrys!

Sarah Foster said...

The first scene in my book actually takes place in a classroom, and there are a bunch of lunchroom scenes. Those are fun to write. One of them ends in a big fight. I'd seen a few of those happen in school so I used my own observations a bit.
I had a very similar experience on the bus. Not a fun place to be.

Chrys Fey said...

My mom used to have to walk to school every day. Even in snow. I couldn't do it.

Chrys Fey said...

That is funny, Yvonne!

Chrys Fey said...

School colors are something fun to add.

Chrys Fey said...

That's my goal! :)

Chrys Fey said...

I still love to read YA books and children's books too. School is such a big part of our loves, so it's hard not to enjoy books like that.

Chrys Fey said...

Yup, I remember fights during lunchtime.

And nope, the bus was never fun for me.

Christine Rains said...

Important aspects to remember, definitely. My high school was the Reds. It was a really rough school. I was the quiet, non-existent teen that spent all her free time in the library. I remember once when I was seven on my elementary school bus, one boy smashed another boy's head into the window. There was blood everywhere. Scary.

Stephanie Bird said...

Cool post! Love these reminders for aspects of schools to incorporate into YA novel writing because many of them I hadn't considered. Yes I have two characters in school and use the school as a point of departure to help develop each of my MC's character (bullies, drop out rate, vivid school secretary, suspension and its consequences, etc.)

Rachna Chhabria said...

I have written MG Books with the main characters in school. Thanks for the wonderful tips.

Chrys Fey said...

I was that teen too. ;)

Whoa! That is scary!

Chrys Fey said...

Whenever you're writing about teens, school is an important aspect.

Chrys Fey said...

You're welcome, Rachna!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

My first book started with a high school setting, but I never named it. With the colleges in the series, I just selected existing ones.

Kelly Hashway said...

I love schools as settings. Great tips, Chrys.

betty said...

Having trouble leaving a comment today for some reason; but wanted to say loved your tips and the school you went to that had different building colors; that is a great idea for kids not to get lost!

We were the Helix Highlanders; I graduated back in 1975; horrors 40 years ago! We had a Scottish theme; green and gold were our colors.


Chrys Fey said...

Using colleges that everyone is familiar with is always a smart.

Chrys Fey said...

I figured that. ;) Most (all?) of your NA stories are set in college settings.

Chrys Fey said...

Sorry you were having trouble leaving a comment!

It was easy to navigate around with the red, blue, and green buildings.

Helix Highlanders and green and gold sounds cool.

cleemckenzie said...

I always say yes when invited to visit schools for the very reasons you posted about today. Seeing and experiencing the school is so helpful when writing about them later. Great post.

VR Barkowski said...

Great information, Chrys, and useful not just for YA. The protagonist in my current WIP teaches high school, and many of these elements will definitely find their way into setting. I was quiet, bored, and uninvolved in high school. I considered (and sadly, still consider) my high school years to have been a tedious but necessary step in escaping my hometown and going away to college.

VR Barkowski

Anonymous said...

I've had a few school settings in my stories. I always, ALWAYS, in the first draft and usually the second draft forget to name it. At some point I realize it and have to go through and add the name. I do that with towns too.

Rachel Pattinson said...

I'm going to bookmark this for future reference - thank you for the fantastic tips! Your no.9. personal story is exactly the same as mine - I've never had loads of friends, but I'm happy with my small circle of close friends. I can't believe American schools actually have cliques - UK schools, although they have their downsides, isn't anything like that. We kind of had the popular kids and the 'geeks'/'emos' etc but as far as I can remember, everyone just left everyone else alone, and there wasn't any bullying between cliques...or maybe I've blocked it out of my memory. It was a while ago now!

Lisa Thomson said...

Great info, Chrys. I love your personal stories added in, too. I'm sorry you were bullied by that nasty girl :( My kids took the bus often, too. Best school bus scene was at the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The little girl with the sweaty candy offers it to the Principal? Haha. I was pretty boring in high school other than I had a couple of parties at my house when my parents were away. One of them got out of hand. Luckily my older brother and his friends were on the scene to help break it up.

Jeffrey Scott said...

As you are probably aware, this is right up my alley. The series I'm currently writing takes place in a school. Here are some of the elements I have utilized in my story.
1. Name
As a place holder, (till I'm ever told I should replace it), I'm using my old High School as the name of the setting. Alexander Hamilton

2. Mascot
As above, I'd go with my old school colours and mascot. Green and Yellow / Wildcat.
However, in the number of episodes I've already written, the top of colour or mascot has never come up.

3. Layout
I do believe I have mentioned the layout when I first introduced the story, but really didn't say much about it. The school is a three story high building with a parking lot just outside the school lunch room.

4. Teachers
Mrs. Chaplet, Mr. Oswald, Mr. Brown, Mrs. Wright, Mr. Chesterfield, Mr. Williams. All teachers I've used in the story, either in reference or as characters.

5. Classes
Some of the interesting classes held for my characters.
Mr. Browns Word Processing where two of the rival characters in the story share the class. This causes some friction.
Another interesting class is the art class held my Mr. Williams, Cartoon Class.

6. Lunch Room
I've used this time in my story to have some interesting interaction between the characters. One of the main popular characters even declaring that someone was sitting in "their" section and asked them to move. They refused and hilarity ensued. (Well, for one of the characters).

7. Students
In the first two episodes, I start with a core of five main characters. In later episodes, more students are introduced. Some leave, some join. Usually, I set up the students who I will introduce in a later story by first mentioning them in an earlier story.

8. Buses
As opposed to buses, I talk more about what my High School students are driving as they are all seniors. Even still, only a few have a car. The rest bum rides off the others. LOL

9. Hangout
Another of the main places I have used and discussed is the mall. It's a great place to use when describing High School students having a place to socialize and acquire part time jobs.

10. School Event
Though I talk about the school much and use various settings. I rarely use school functions and events in the story. Though a field trip is used in a later episode, and talk of graduation is the main topic in another. Though I talk about the graduation, it's not a main topic in the story, rather, the effects of the graduation are talked about by the students frequently, especially when they ponder where they will all be "years from now" and "will we always be good friends".

11. The Bad - Rarely talk about the bad things. Except maybe using bullying to a small degree.

Well, those are my thoughts and what I have used on your 11 topics. Hope you didn't mind me hashing it all out here.

Unknown said...

My High School was your typical Texas Friday Night Lights school. If you weren't on the Varsity Football team you were a nobody. I was in band so at least I had my whole band nerd thing going for me. ;-)

sage said...

This brings back too many painful memories... The bus, the cafeteria (food fights were welcome breaks), teachers, bullies, principals I knew by their first name... We were the Vikings. In high school, I had a split-personality disorder as I was in Navy Jr. ROTC and also on the debating team. The two groups didn't see eye to eye so my ROTC friends would call be Fidel (ie, Castro) and my debate friends ragged on me for being military.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Great post. All through school I was shy, but still participated in things I enjoyed, like band and being a majorette. I walked to school until high school when my boyfriend picked me up, my senior year.
I've used characters in school in some of my stories and try to remember back to my teaching years. So much has changed though. :)

dolorah said...

High school was a long time ago for me, but I never fit in quite anywhere. My last teen doesn't seem to be in any cliques either, but seems to have a lot of friends with different interests and grades.

Too much drama in schools; I don't write or read YA. All that angst all the time is just weird.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I loved high school and loved teaching high school. It can be a tough time for some kids. I don't write and seldom read YA. When you're taught teenagers for so many years, it's not much fun to read about them too.
Susan Says

Chrys Fey said...

That's awesome, C Lee. I bet all the kids love you. :)

Chrys Fey said...

You're right. This can be used for any generate. And not just for the students but the adults. I was uninvolved in high school too. If I could, I would change that.

Chrys Fey said...

Sometimes it's hard to name places in the first draft. I skip naming minor characters! lol

Chrys Fey said...

You're welcome, Rachel!

In high school there are definitely distinct groups. I was in the "nobody group" sort of nerdy, sort of goth, sort of everything.

Chrys Fey said...

I never even had a party! I was DULL!

S. L. Hennessy said...

My MC is in middle school and it is definitely a challenge to make sure you feel like you're really there! This is a great list of ideas to help! I never even thought of

Chrys Fey said...

Sounds like you've used all of my points in your story. You made a good point about seniors not using the buses and driving themselves to school. Your characters hang out at the there a spot the like to hang out at in school? My friends and I always went to the same area to wait for the bell to ring and after lunch. And maybe you can get some bad stuff to happen...a lot of bad things happen in school, especially nowadays.

Chrys Fey said...

Band nerds are the best nerds!

Chrys Fey said...

High school (and even middle school) brings back a lot of painful memories for me too. That's strange and not fair that your two groups of friends picked on you for your other school activities.

Chrys Fey said...

I think it's great that you were in band and a majorette although you were shy. My shyness stopped me from doing a lot.

New Release Books said...

Loved this post and it would make writing easier. It also evoked memories of my time in high school.

Chrys Fey said...

I was the same way I was in a group of nobodies. I've dabbled in writing YA and I love to read it.

Chrys Fey said...

I can understand that. You need a break!

Chrys Fey said...

I am glad to help, S.L.!

Chrys Fey said...


Sharon Himsl said...

Chrys, this was wonderful. You say so much I can relate to and unlike you, high school was a long time ago! Especially the 'where to sit' problem at lunchtime. Boy do I ever remember that. You never wanted to sit alone. Thanks too for highlighting the bullying problem. Sad what can happen when it gets out of control.

Birgit said...

Oh my...I hated my high school because I was so severely bullied and scared for my life. I was the nerdy geek who tried to stay hidden-didn't work. Mascot?? Whatever Notre dame had-can't recall but I think the colours were green and gold. The layout was silly and they tried to make some corridors one way to ease congestion-never worked. Teachers-Had the nice teacher who helped me a lot. The 4' 8" nun who was strong as a brick. The French teacher who wore the worst suits ever in bright reds and yellows. The teacher who threw chalk at you. The teacher who looked down girls' tops. The a-hole teacher-typical fare. We had the typical science, English and Phys-Ed classes and typewriting classes which I never took. The cafeteria was scary for me also. I ate and went to the library. I often would get a sandwich thrown into the back of my head. Students never change-popular ones, nerdy ones, the freaks and geeks but we had the stoners instead of the punkers. Oh I took the bus and it was an hour ride if not more. Once I got on the bus I was safe and couldn't wait to get home. My hangout place was the library and this remote area in an old part of the school that no one went to and I could be there and read. Every year they had a huge walk to raise money and I finally did this once....barely made it back. The bad-it was bad. I was told how ugly I was daily and one hallway, the boys were lined up and spat on me and told me to wear a bag over my head. These group of girls one came up to me and one had me by the throat and I was lifted up against the lockers and was told they were going to slit my throat from ear to ear. Another tried to convince me to commit suicide because everyone would be better off. Every year I ended up at the hospital because they tried to break my fingers. Thankfully, due to my joint disease, they could not break but I suffered severe sprains. So all in all not great. I thank my family

J.L. Campbell said...

Lots of useful information, some of which we can miss if we don't think about them, Chrys. My NA novels did have school involved, but I didn't go too deeply into what happened there.

Yolanda Renée said...

I've not written a school scene, but my high school years were, well, odd. My favorite school's mascot was the Blue Devil, there I had friends and was at the top of my class. I loved school, love learning!

Slamdunk said...

It is fun to think back to those days. My elementary school was in a town called Moore, but the elementary school was called "Northmoor" with no e on the end. It had to be the most misspelled school in the state.

I was a shy jock who was essentially invisible in hs. I will never have to worry about the old me as a character in a book--too boring!

Liz A. said...

And school layouts are different in different parts of the country. In California, we're mostly outdoors--all classes have doors to the outside, and one goes outside to go from class to class.

One of the schools I sub at has guitar classes. From time to time, I'll find kids playing guitar or ukulele as they're walking from class to class. Or they'll take it out in class (usually I frown on that, but if the class is just about over...).

Sunni said...


What an interesting post and good points. I've written one Y/A story but it was more focused on the boy's home life because it wasn't all that pleasant and he hated school. I have a couple of scenes taking place there, but that's all. The story takes place when there were still one-room school for all grades.

I was a bit of a rebel in high school I guess. I had a few friends but not many and I just wanted to be out of school and get on with my life. I hated getting up that early, but I did it for art class. That was my favorite. I had all my credts except math and English by the time I entered junior year, so I went to school a half day and worked the other half.

We were the Mustangs in high school and our school colors were blue and gray. I joined the pep squad and loved traveling to the out-of-own games. It was exciting to me because we lived on a farm and the only time we were ever away from there was when we were school, or on dates as we got older.


Cynthia said...

Chrys, my current novel is YA, with scenes set at a high school. Your tips do come in handy. Oh, it would take a whole series of blog posts to convey how I was like in high school, LOL. I think there was new stuff, though not necessarily good stuff in retrospect, going on every year.

Jeffrey Scott said...

Currently, I use the lunch room as the main meet and greet for most of my students. All the main characters have the same lunch period. Outside of school, the main character and his rival meet in the schools editorial room with other writers on the school newspaper.

As for bad things happening. Well, something bad and traumatic does happen at the end of the second story. And that sets up another story or two down the road. But I won't say what it is just yet.

Chrys Fey said...

Hanging out in the editorial room would be fun. I was part of the newspaper in 10th grade. It was fun.

Now I'm interested. ;)

Chrys Fey said...

Thank you, Sharon! I'm glad my post related to you. That's what I was trying to accomplish. :)

Chrys Fey said...

A French teacher in hideous red and yellow suits would make a fun character in a YA book. So would the chalk throwing teacher.

I am saddened by how badly you were bullied. Your story breaks my heart. I can't believe the things you went through. But I'm sure it made you a survivor...stronger. Hug!

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks for your comment, J.L.!

Chrys Fey said...

I loved school because I was away from home, but there were so many things that I hated about school.

Chrys Fey said...

I can see how everyone would misspell that name.

Aw! But the shy jock would make a cute MC in a YA love story. ;)

Chrys Fey said...

You're right. My first elementary school was mostly outside then my second (also in FL) was all inside. I liked the second best because I didn't have to worry about the wind picking up my dress. :P

Guitar class sounds like fun!

Chrys Fey said...

I loved my art class! I really felt at home there with my group of outcast friends.

I never went to an out-town-games but I envied the cheerleaders who did.

Chrys Fey said...

Great! I hope this post truly does help.

LOL! I could so a series of blog posts about my time in high school too. Not always pleasant.

emaginette said...

Well, this post was brilliant and helpful beyond words. Thanks for sharing. :-)

Anna from Elements of Writing

Birgit said...

Yes, It was bad and I bring it up when someone asks about high school. I don't hide from it any more but even after decades, it can still affect me but the best is to always rise above and know that these gals are probably stupid, fat and ugly:) Is that too harsh??:)

Anonymous said...

All really good advice! The YA I've written has had a lot of scenes in schools. I never thought about the mascots or anything, but now that I am I'm wanting to plan the school for my one YA series better. They're rivals, but I haven't delved into why. Not super important in the first two books, but I may eventually dip into it.

In high school I was a loner, for the most part. I bumped around a lot of different groups - band nerd, art nerds, skaters, stoners, nerd nerds, metalheads. Never was very popular, but once I got into high school I wasn't bullied as much. Middle school was complete and utter hell for me. I feel you on your bus bullying story. When I was in middle school I had one of those and escalated to the point where she brought a lighter on the bus and tried to set me on fire. Never rode the bus again.

Romance Book Haven said...

All very good advice and bringing back memories of my time in school!

Carrie-Anne said...

My Atlantic City books have a lot of scenes and chapters set in school, which is so old-fashioned it houses all the grades under one roof. The building is divided by high school, junior high, upper elementary, and lower elementary. For a long time, the school also offers thirteenth grade and Final Year, sort of like junior college classes for those who are interested. I've created some very colorful teachers, and am not looking forward to dear old principal Mr. Robinson (now retired) someday dying of old age. The school is going to burn to the ground on prom night in 1999, with two brothers and one of their cousins saving a lot of people, including old Mr. Robinson. One of the rescuers, 17-year-old Oskar, ends up knocked down by a pipe in a bathroom, and wakes up some months later to discover he's paralyzed and that his girlfriend (also his first cousin once-removed) is seven months pregnant. He's in a wheelchair at their wedding shortly afterwards.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Ugh, my school mascot was a fictional (I think) creature called a Kadet. It basically looked like a bald eagle. I went to school on a Air Force Academy, though we weren't Air Force. It's a weird setup. We had a couple tragedies I'll always remember, as well. One involved a traffic altercation where a retired Air Force sharpshooter "accidentally" shot a senior through the heart when he approached his car. Stupid way to die, and I've never believed for a moment that a retired military sharpshooter could accidentally shoot someone. Especially through the heart. But he got off for it.

Chrys Fey said...

You're welcome, Anna!

Chrys Fey said...

If you're talking about rivals schools you have to mention the mascots! :D

I was a pretty big loner too. Still am, actually. :P Middle school was my worst time too. OH MY GOSH! She tried to set you on fire? That is horrible. Quite a few people have commented about being bullied and it breaks my heart.

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks! I hope they are good memories. :)

Chrys Fey said...

Writing about schools in different time-periods will of course be very different from this post here. I'm not qualified to write a post about what school would be like in different countries or eras.

A fire that burns down the school on prom night reminds me of Carrie. :P That sounds really exciting though.

Chrys Fey said...

Whoa! My thought exactly on how a retired military sharpshooter could accidentally shoot someone. That doesn't just happen.

Chrys Fey said...

It would still hurt. Even how I was bullied, which was nothing compared to what you endured, still hurts me when I think about it. And no, that is not too harsh. It's karma because I bet it's true. ;)