Researching Teens for the Niki Alexander mysteries by Laura Elvebak

My protagonist, Niki Alexander, is an ex-cop who quit after she had to shoot a teen before he shot her. Convinced that the only way she might find redemption was to save as many street teens as she could. To that end, she became a counselor for a teen shelter. But what did I know about troubled teens?
I told myself I knew teenagers. After all, my three children were teenagers once. They were five years apart in age. As soon as one child passed through the teen phase, the next would present a whole new set of problems. As a single parent, I learned through experience.

First lesson: Niki Alexander had to teach street kids how to fight and protect themselves to survive the perils they faced.

My oldest daughter developed her strength from martial arts. She won tournaments while going to school and working part time to pay for lessons. At sixteen she worked at a Dairy Queen, a few blocks from our apartment. She would walk to work and back. One afternoon on her way home, she was approached by a young man with a knife. Instead of being scared, she was so furious she karate-kicked the knife out of his hand. The young man turned and ran.

Lesson Two: Communication and Understanding

My son had ADHD and when he was twelve, he ran away and found Covenant House. With the help of a therapist, we learned to deal with his problems.

My youngest daughter was headstrong, defied rules, and ran away for two weeks to stay with a girlfriend. It took an intervention led by the single mother of her girlfriend for my daughter and me to learn how to communicate with each other. Once I learned to accept her feelings, she began to bring home other friends whose family life was less than desirable. One fifteen-year-old ran away from home and was abducted into a sex trafficking ring. She managed to escape. Thereafter, when she felt the need to leave home, she would stay with us. Twenty years later, she and my daughter are still close friends and have children of their own.

Lesson Three: Know your setting 

It seemed a natural choice to pick Niki Alexander to tell the stories of runaways and throwaways. To learn more about present day runaways, I took a tour of Covenant House in the Montrose area of Houston. I was so impressed with their dedication and care toward troubled teens they became the model for Open Palms, the shelter where Niki works as a counselor.

Researching Less Dead, the first in the series, I was fortunate to have a former resident of Montrose in my critique group offer to give me a different kind of tour one Saturday afternoon. She took me to restaurants, and teen hangouts like Numbers, where they could buy non-alcoholic drinks and dance to live bands. We visited the Mausoleum for poetry readings, and then the gay bars. When we arrived at each place, my friend would approach the owner or manager and explain what I would be writing about, and request permission to include their business in my books. They all agreed. (I asked for a signing at these places after the book was published, but never heard back.)

For Lost Witness and A Matter of Revenge, I did a second tour of Covenant House. Another friend of my daughter’s, an older woman named Tara, who once lived on the street, agreed to be a character in both books. She took me to the street church, held every Wednesday night in a parking lot across from Covenant House and provides food and drink. Tara introduced me to the preacher who, in turn, introduced me to the young crowd. For the rest of the evening, kids came up to me to tell their story. They provided the seeds that grew into new problems for Niki to solve. 

I signed up for the Citizen’s Police Academy’s eight-week course for a realistic read on my police characters. It was an eye-opener and I urge everyone to take the course. The last class was the ride-along. We got a call about a distraught female teenager threatening her father at his workplace with a piece of glass. Bar lights flashing, sirens screaming, we raced down Kirby. We were one of five patrol cars that arrived at the destination. The officers handled the girl with the utmost restraint and calm. Talking to the parents and witnesses, they learned the girl was upset over her parents’ divorce. The girl was then taken to the state-run hospital’s psychiatric section for the standard 72-hour hold.

Finally, Lesson Four: Never stop asking questions and learning. It’s all research.


Laura studied writing at UCLA, USC, Rice University, and Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. After taking a directing class in Houston, she co-wrote, directed and acted in a one-act play. She optioned three screenplays to a local production company, and co-wrote a script for the 48 Hour Film Project.

She is the author of the Niki Alexander mysteries, Less Dead, Lost Witness and A Matter of Revenge. Niki Alexander is an ex-cop turned counselor for a teen shelter. Her standalone, The Flawed Dance, takes place in Philadelphia in the late sixties, about a young woman fleeing from an abusive lover and hides in the demimonde world of go-go bars and mobsters. 

Laura is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters-In-Crime, The International Thriller Writers, and The Final Twist Writers and has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Good Reads, and Amazon Author Central.

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Laura Elvebak said…
Thank you, Marilyn. Anyone else have similar experiences?

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