Research: Sometimes It Means Getting Your Hands Dirty

Boiling over during a kitchen experiment.

When we get ready to write something new, writers research. We do Google searches on our topic. We look for first hand experience. We scroll through photos. But sometimes what we need to do is get our hands dirty, figuratively if not literally.

Year ago, I was working a rummage sale when I saw an item that looked a lot like a plunger except that the handle was a bit short and the “plunger” part wasn’t rubber but metal. It was an antique washer. One brand was called the Ready Washer.

This week I’ve learned what it would be like to use. My washer died and the pandemic has really slowed down deliveries. This means that I carry a bucket of dirty laundry outside, add a dab of soap, fill it with the hose, and start plunging. Boy Scouts sometimes wash clothes like this so I knew it would work but I’ve also discovered just how much work it is.

I’ve even been making improvements. My bucket now sits on a cinder block so I’m not bent over so far. My next addition would be a wringer. And I have to say that I suddenly understand why people historically had so few clothes and wore everything multiple times.

This was not intential research. But I have gotten my hands dirty before in the name of research. I’ve taken an axe to a tree. I’ve woven cloth. I can make bread, enchilada sauce, and pizza from scratch. Wow and wonderful. Fruit compote and grape pie? So not worth the trouble for either one.

It is easy enough to read up on a lot of things but especially if you are writing about a child character who is doing something for the first time, maybe you should give it a try yourself.

You will learn exactly which muscles ache, how something feels in your hand, and the joy of something hard coming together. Or the agony of watching your hard work refuse to jell, bubble up and over the side of the pot, or otherwise go awry.


How Much Do You Need to Read?

Read, read, and read some more.
Photo by cottonbro on

Before you try writing (picture books/YA fantasy/middle grade science fiction/whatever) you need to read. Some people will say read 50 books. Some will say 100. I’d be willing to bet that some say that the number should be much, much larger.

And in a sense, they are all right.

How can they all be right? You should always be reading and, over time, the numbers will add up.

Before you begin writing something new, you should read 50 to 100 books. You need to do this to learn the conventions. How do readers at this age approach story? What types of story problems work? What part do Mom and Dad and other adults play in the story? If you are writing picture books, you need to absorb word play and learn how page turns work. If you are writing fantasy, you need to see how magic works. For mystery, how are clues presented to the reader. With science fiction, how much science presents itself in the story?

There is so much that you need to learn! And part of the problem is that you can’t learn it all at once. Maybe now you are learning about character. Next year you may be studying setting. You need to keep reading so that you keep learning.

You also need to refresh your awareness. If I’ve been working on a book for teens, switching over to a picture book means reading a lot of picture books. I need to get the feel of what I am writing.

But publishing conventions change. This means that you can read old favorites, but also read new books. This is vital because writing conventions change. Picture books are often shorter now than they used to be but many young adult and middle grade novels are longer. Children’s books today often deal with more difficult situations than they did 30 years ago. Rhyming like Dr. Seuss? Please, don’t. He already did that. You need to rhyme well and make a style all your own if rhyme is your thing.

So, how many books should you read? Maybe the answer for the next few weeks should be, how many can you carry home?


What Writers Can Learn from the I Spy Series

Yesterday I stumbled across the video on how photographer Walter Wick creates the images for the I Spy book series. I have a confession to make. My son had so many of these books! I’m fairly certain that he didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as I did. First, there was the challenge of finding the various items. But I also loved the complexity and the beauty of the individual images.

The video discusses not only how Wick came to work on this particular series, but also the effort that goes into them. Some images come together in a matter of hours.

Others take weeks. Sometimes Wick and his assistants have to build various elements from scratch. Making that paricular photograph takes more work than some of the others that may be in the same book. But Wick knows that he and his crew have to keep at it to get the result they want.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like writing? Some manuscripts come together relatively quickly. Maybe not in hours but quickly compared to other manuscripts of the same type. Everything flows and it just works.

Other manuscripts take a lot more effort. I know that often as I draft I have to go back and do more research. Why? Because there is a detail that I need in the manuscript that somehow I missed finding during my initial research.

Still other manuscripts may not take more research but finding the right opening scene takes multiple tries. Sometimes it doesn’t come together until the closing scene has been created. Only then do I know where I need to start.

For your current project you may still be looking for the right POV. Or working to bring the setting to life. Or the voice of the story isn’t quite right.

I hope that like Wick and his crew you will keep at it. It often takes a lot of effort to create a story that just works without reflecting the labor and multiple attempts that went into it.


My Book Robotics in Health Care

Robotics in Health Care by Sue Bradford Edwards

I love surprises! Yesterday I was looking for something on Amazon and spotted a book cover. Mine! The book doesn’t come out until August 1, 2021 so I was surprised to see the cover already made pubilc. The publisher is Brightpoint Press and you can find a listing for it here on Amazon.

But the good news is that once the book is online I can talk a bit more about it. This was a tricky one to write. Part of the difficulty is that it is Hi/Lo. That’s high interest level (teen) and low reading level (3-4th grade). These books are for readers who, for whatever reason, are behind. Getting them to read can be tough because they know they are behind but don’t want to read “little kid books.” Hi/Lo titles help fill in the gap.

Before I could write it, I had a lot to learn. First of all, I had to figure out what exactly a robot is. I discovered that the definition is much broader than I expected.

Some robots have operators, someone who guides their movements. I didn’t know that these were robots. I thought that drones were . . . drones . . . distinct and very different from robots. Nope. They are in fact robots although they are not the kind that are in my book.

Other robots interact with people, collect information, and move based on a program but have no one “driving” them.There robots can act as guides, leading people through complex collections of buildings. They can make deliveries.

The automated dolls that play music and respond when you walk past? Robots. Creepy little robots. Definitely not my favorite.

Not that I have a favorite unless you’ll let me count C3PO or R2D2.


5 Things To Know When Writing Your Scene

Scene by scene the story unfolds.
Photo by Alex Powell on

Ever since I took Save the Cat Breaking the Beat Sheet, I’ve been noodling over scenes. Specifically, I’ve been noodling over what a scene is and what it has to have. I think that part of the reason for this is I have a love/hate relationship with scenes and it all starts with the definition.

At its most basic, a scene is a story telling unit.  

Is that not the worst defiition you have ever heard? But that means that the first thing you need to know about a scene is what it is. Really.

A Scene Is

A scene is a combination of character, setting, activity, and dialogue. My opening scene in Air Stream is the Air Stream reactivating. That’s the setting and the activity. None of my characters are present yet so there is no dialogue. As soon as my first character enters, it is a whole new scene because she is driving the action. And that leads us to. . .

A Scene Is an Action or Activity with a Purpose

Something has to happen in each scene. It might be a romantic scene. It might be a tense, dramatic scene, but something happens. What happens is generally based on your character’s goal. Your character wants X or is trying to accomplish Y. Then something gets in the way or otherwise messes up this goal. During the course of this activity, three things happen. . .

Something is Revealed

There is always backstory. There is always something your character is hiding or discovering. Bit by bit this information is revealed throughout your story.

The Character Develops

At the beginning of your story, your character presents herself as she wants to be known. But there are things she is hiding. Each scene must test your character, showing her flaws and the real HER that she doesn’t always want others to see.

The World Develops

Just as your character develops in the eyes of your readers, so does your world. You can’t reveal everything about your story world within the first fives pages. Well, you can, but info-dumps don’t work. So this information must also be shared bit by bit.

The a look at a book you love. Pick several scenes spread throughout the book and see how the author accomplishes these various things all within the scenes that make up the story.

I have so much to get done but I’m really jazzed about it!


The 10 Most Challenged Books in 2020

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom recently released their list of 10 Most Challenged Books in 2020. To prepare this list, they reviewed 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2020. Interestingly enough, there were 156 challenges but 273 books challenged. Here are the 10 most challenged. First I’ll give you a graphic with the information and after that text.

  1. George by Alex Gino
    Reasons: Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community”
  2. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds
    Reasons: Banned and challenged because of author’s public statements, and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people
  3. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”
  4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
    Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint and it was claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity
  5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author
  6. Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
    Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views
  7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience
  8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students
  9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse
  10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message

I hope you’ve read all 10 of these books. If not, why not request the unread from your local library?


Research: How Much Is Enough?

Research. You need as much as you need.
Photo by Pixabay on

“Just how much research do you need to do?” While I often get this question from my students, it doesn’t have any easy answer.

Many people assume that it depends on the length of the project. Not really. A 500-word magazine piece can have as many sources as a book for 3rd graders. A picture book can have as many sources as a nonfiction title for teens.

A lot depends on what you are finding in each source. Sometimes I’m looking for a very specific fact. Since I often write about current events, news sources can tell me what someone was charged with. But when it comes time to reveal whether or not the person was convicted? There is seldom less reporting on the verdict especially if it is innocent. But that also means that when I find that key source, I may be using it for only one fact. Lot’s of sources that reveal specific facts result in pages and pages of bibliography.

This doesn’t mean that if you find a source with a lot of information that you can use, you should use only that one source. You don’t want to duplicate someone else’s writing in your own work. That is why you need to find your own slant and additional sources.

You don’t need to find a magical number of sources. Three sources per fact? Five sources per manuscript page? Pffft.

What you do need to find is enough. Enough to tell the story. Enough to back up your facts. Enough to know more than you are revealing in your story.

For a how-to with a brief introduction, you may need only two or three sources. For a teen nonfiction title you may need 400. You probably won’t know until you are done. Because no matter how much research you do, as you write you will discover that there is something you still don’t know. And off you go in search of another fact.

To find out more about doing your own research, check out my WOW! Women on Writing class, Reseach: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults.


Is It Really Bad? “Bad” Books and Manuscripts

Is it BAD or do you just not like it?
Photo by Kulbir on

Last week, I was discussing critique with my mystery writers group. Soon we were talking about the “worst” manuscripts that we’ve ever had to critique. I say “worst” because we all acknowledged that there are just certain things we don’t like to read or don’t know enough to critique well. As a group, our list included novels in verse, poetry, board books, and toddler picture books.

Board books and toddler picture books were my contributions. Every once in a while, I come across a board book or toddler picture book I love. We’re talking published books here. But most of what I read in these categories, I just read. Do I love them? No. Do I hate them? No. I’m pretty much indifferent. This is a type of work that just doesn’t click with me.

So when a manuscript doesn’t click, I’m not sure why it is failing to click. Is it me? Or is it the story?

Then there are the types of books that we read, and love, but we come across a published book that we just do not like. For me it occurs most often when a book is overwritten to the point of purple prose. I was surprised when I learned that not everyone knows this phrase. Purple prose is overly ornate. It is elaborate to the point of being ridiculous. I see it most often when someone is trying to sound literary.

My other pet peeve is when a character, often a female character, does something absolutely ridiculous. By ridiculous, I mean illogical and it is clearly done just to advance the plot.

When you come across a published book that you think is bad, think some more. Why did the publisher say YES? Because someone, or several someones, did unless the book was indie published. It might be because the author is a NAME that will sell books no matter what. It might be that the topic or theme is hot and will sell books . . . can you fill in the rest . . . no matter what.

And, it might just be that this is not the type of book you like and it is really perfectly fine. Still, you should note which publishers but these books out because they probably aren’t the best fit for the writing you do.


Call Me Max: A Picture Book Challenge

Call Me Max by Kyle Lukoff

April is Celebrate Diversity month. One way we can celebrate diversity is by supporting those whose books are being challenged. It is amazing how many books are challenged because characters are in some way diverse.

In March, a teacher in Austin, Texas read Call Me Max aloud to her class.

For those of you who don’t know the book, it is about a transgender boy who asks his teacher to call him Max. When friends, ask him why, he explains that he knows he is a boy because he wear’s boys clothes, climbs, trees and more. Various friends object to parts of his statement. A girl also likes to climb trees so it can’t be a boy thing. A boy likes to wear dresses so they can’t be girl things. Max considers what they have to say and then repeats that he knows he is a boy.

The beauty of this book is that although it is for transgendered children, it is a beautiful exploration of self. Any boy who wanted a doll, the girl who was criticized for wanting short hair, and more would benefit from this book.

But the teacher who read this book was criticized. Some parents demanded that she be fired. In response, Eanes Independent School District’s chief learning officer, Susan Fambrough explained to parents that the book, part of a diversity reading list, was admittedly inappropriate as a class read aloud. Any child who needed help dealing with the aftermath would be given counseling.

Think about it. A sweet book is inappropriate.

Counselors have been made available. As if there had been a school shooting. Or a natural disaster.

Not all parents objected to the book. Some objected to the district’s response. One couple, Jo and Jon Ivester pointed out that this response tells transgender children that they need to be invisible. They also pointed out that their transgender son would have benefited from this book when he was a student in the district.

Kyle Lukoff, the author of this book and a former elementary school librarian, wrote a public letter. He explained that he knows what it is like to put a book out for students and have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you hope that the right student finds it. On the other? You dread the anxiety and self-doubt that comes every time a book is challenged.

Don’t get me wrong. I encourage parenting. If you don’t think your child is ready for a book, don’t read it to them. Discuss things with your children. But don’t try to have a teacher fired for reading to your child. Don’t try to keep other children from hearing a book an age appropriate. You never know who may need to hear it or why.


4 Reasons to Use a Themed Word List

This is National Poetry Month. I may be many things — writer, blogger, teacher — but I am not a poet. Still I’m attempting a poem a day as a form of writing play. As I attempt each poem, I find myself noodling over words that have to do with a set topic. One tool that would help me spin a poem on topics as diverse as the future and silence is a themed word list.

Dictionaries, thesaurus and themed word lists.
Photo by Nothing Ahead on

Many writers I know create their own lists, looking up sites, reading books, and skimming articles. They jot down the topic-related words that appeal to them. You can also visit  To access the word lists, find the blue ribbon at the top of the page and mouse over “Subject Word Lists.” The science lists include the themes of bees, bamboo and chemistry. Under vocational education, I found culinary arts as well as fire prevention and safety.

There are a variety of reasons you might need a themed word list.


Poetry is a compact writing form. Each work has to have maximum impact. A themed word list can help you find just the right word.


In a picture book text, I needed a variety of words to describe animal movement.  This text is super brief so the words needed to be descriptive and very specific. What word best describes a ptarmigan strolling across the tundra? I know it isn’t strolling but a themed list may give me some ideas.

Character POV

I have written about characters that knit, swim, and speak to wolves. Writing from each unique POV requires a specialized vocabulary when I look at the world through that character’s eyes. This means finding words that have to do with knitting or fiber, swimming, and wolves.


A friend of mine wrote a book that involved treasure.  She wanted to strengthen this theme in the story so she used words associated with metal to describe various sounds throughout her book.

Any time that you are working with a theme or a character’s interest, using related words strengthens the relationship between the layers in your story.  When I go looking for themed words, I don’t always end up using the exact words that I find, but these found-words are usually good for nudging me along and helping me think of my own list of words.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some writing to do.