Writing Advice Unfollowed
by Sue Heavenrich
When I started writing, a published author passed on some Writing Wisdom: Write what you know. I have tried to follow this advice, and failed.
To begin with, as a sciency writer and environmental journalist my whole reason for writing is to Find Out Stuff. And by that, I mean Stuff I Don’t Know. Stuff like:
1. Are cement casings adequate for fracked gas wells?
2. Where are all those ants going?
3. Why did the woolly bear caterpillar cross the road?
(Answers to these questions at the bottom of this post!)
My job as a reporter was to uncover and inform, to witness, to explain. It required research and interviewing people and going to meetings and taking photos. It turns out, writing books for kids isn’t all that different. I start with an event or a question or an observation. Then I try to put it into context in a way the reader will understand. Along the way I do research … probably way more than I need.
Sometimes one idea triggers a ripple effect. I was thinking about fast food one day. Not burgers and fries, more like how fast a frog’s tongue has to move to capture a fly. As I jotted down notes, two lists emerged. One focused on animals that catch their food in the blink of an eye, eventually becoming a Highlights article.
The other became a long list of interesting flies. Here’s the thing: as an entomologist, I think bugs (including flies) are cool. For example, the fuzzy flies that look like bumble bees and striped flower flies that mimic honey bees and wasps. Flies make up a large and diverse order of insects and serve many roles in the ecosystem. They are decomposers, pollinators, predators, and prey—and it was that last that gave me an idea for a book. I joked to a friend that I had “Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover” running through my brain… but eventually I came up with thirteen distinct and grisly ways flies could be eaten. Eventually, that turned into my first picture book, 13 Ways to Eat a Fly. But it was a long, slow evolution and many revisions from first draft (a fly guide!) to final idea of a “counting backwards” book.
During the pandemic lockdown, I collaborated with Alisha Gabriel on Funky Fungi: 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More (Chicago Review Press). It releases on June 21. We started by jotting down a list of things we knew about fungi and questions we had. The question list was much longer! Then we thought about things a kid might want to know, things like how fungi help trees talk to each other and how you can see the biggest fungus from space. We asked: is this important to us? Is it important for kids? And what sorts of hands-on activities can we provide to encourage kids (and adults) to explore fungi?
After many (vague number) years of writing I’ve come to realize that doing the research, interviewing people, observing and taking notes is the way I get to that place where I can write what I know. For me, questions are the place to start. The other thing I’ve learned: writing takes time. So pack a water bottle and some chocolate and map out some rest stops along the way.
Sue Heavenrich is represented by Heather Cashman at Storm Literary Agency
Blog: Archimedes Notebook (archimedesnotebook.blogspot.com)
2 They were marching across the kitchen counter in search of molasses, though some of them preferred peanut butter.
3 I think in the fall they are looking for the perfect spot to hibernate. In the spring I think they’re seeking a place to pupate.
6/6/2022 05:52:00 am
I really liked your book about how to eat flies. I'm looking forward to reading about fungi. I had no idea fungi could be seen from space and admire your research.
8/24/2022 01:16:07 am
Reading fiction helps you understand how people respond to narrative structure; reading nonfiction helps you understand how people respond to character development; reading both will give you an even more complete understanding of what makes for good writing.
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We are so excited to be mixing things up at CBA, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with awesome multi-published former student Shirin Shamsi who will be focusing on Muslim and cultural kidlit.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with several new books.
3rd Mondays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer, man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
4th Mondays will feature STEM, STEAM & SEL obsessed author Kourtney LaFavre sharing delightfully dorky, quirky, and fun info.
And 5th Mondays we'll be taking a break