Two experts (Larry Dane Brimner and Connie Goldsmith), plus moi, speak up on research by Marsha Diane Arnold
Although my preferred reading material is non-fiction – everything from Walden to A Neotropical Companion - I’m not comfortable writing it. Except for two non-fiction magazine articles and two board books coming out next summer, I fancy myself a fiction writer.
But even fiction writers, in order to develop well-rounded characters and settings, must do at least minimum research, which at its most basic is simply checking our facts. So in this month’s blog, I’ll note a few of my research experiences, then share tips and knowledge from two of the brightest children’s non-fiction writers around, Larry Dane Brimner and Connie Goldsmith.
Two of my early picture books, Heart of a Tiger and The Pumpkin Runner, were set in foreign countries, countries I’d never visited. For the first, I researched India, its flora and fauna, and tigers at a university library. For the later, I read lots of National Geographic stories about Australia. Those National Geo stories also helped me get a feel for my character and inspired me to choose his name: Joshua Summerhayes. I knew my research had paid off when people from those countries told me I had the feel and details of their country exactly right.
The picture book I’m working on now is not only a challenge of characters and plot. It’s a research challenge. I’ve read an entire book and scores of articles, discovering some fascinating facts. Did you know 400 to 500 different species migrate at night, that there are 2,000 species of fireflies in the world and that my new home state of Florida has more firefly species than any other U.S. state? If the book is never acquired, at least I’m more knowledgeable on night migration and fireflies.
But I’ll never be as knowledgeable as either of my guests. I’ve known Larry Dane Brimner for years. Not only is he an exceptional author and speaker, he's a supporter to new writers, as he was to me. This is Larry’s advice on researching historical nonfiction books, but it’s sound advice for any writer seeking information.
"When I research an historical nonfiction book, I like to read newspapers of the day. This often necessitates travel, but not always. With down-loadable articles, websites like newslibrary.com, newspapers.com, newspaperarchive.com, and the New York Times archives can help you research from home.”
Archives and history museums and societies are valuable sources of information, Larry says. He provides this example of how librarians can lead us to more than we expected: “For my fall 2015 book, The Rain Wizard: The Amazing, Mysterious, True Life of Charles Mallory Hatfield, I wanted to know what the weather was like in Fort Scott, Kansas, in July 1875. I contacted the Kansas Historical Society with that question, and the reference librarian there provided me not only with detail about weather conditions at that time, but also mentioned that many of the articles from the Fort Scott Daily Monitor had been digitized and were available online.”
Larry advises that for narrative nonfiction, research is vital. He offers questions the nonfiction writer should consider, but I think fiction writers would also do well to consider these when plotting their stories. “What was the general atmosphere like in a place during the time under study? Who were the key players? What were their attitudes? What else was going on in the world during the time you’re writing about?”
Here’s just one of Larry’s marvelous non-fiction books, Black and White.
Connie Goldsmith’s not only a talented non-fiction writer whose 17th book is coming out in 2016, she’s an open and sharing friend. I’m so glad I got to know Connie better when we shared a room at our Firesiders’ annual writers' gathering. Her Bombs Over Bikini is a Junior Library Guild Selection.
Knowing the time and energy research takes, Connie likes to make some of the research come to her. So, among other things, she creates a Google alert on her topic (https://www.google.com/alerts) and signs up to receive press releases from organizations that write about her topic.
Two other helpful tips from Connie are:
1) She usually buys several used books on the subject of her current work-in- progress. They’re inexpensive and she can mark them as needed.
2) She also advises that we all learn how to use the footnote feature in Word. As you move blocks of text around, your footnote/endnote goes along for the ride. For Connie, who writes mostly about health and science topics, nearly everything requires complete reference notes.
For my board book research, I used Evernote for keeping notes. It worked beautifully for my purpose of gathering information on how baby animals nap and bathe. Evernote makes it easy to pull in websites and images, which I wanted to have.
So don’t forget the appropriate research when writing non-fiction or fiction. It can inspire you, lead you to amazing facts you didn’t even know you were looking for, and take your non-fiction or fiction to a whole new level, one an editor will be happy to read.
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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