One Writer’s Journey

July 25, 2017

Dark, No Light: First Hand Experience vs Research

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:05 am
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Sometimes first hand experience trumps all other types of research.

I just finished listening to the audiobook for Killers of the Flower Moon, a prohibition era true-crime story.  It tells of the creation of the FBI and attempts to figure out why so many wealthy Osage are dying.  It also describes the full-on darkness of open countryside when electric lights were a new thing.

I thought I got what the author was saying.  I have experienced this type of darkness but it has, admittedly, been a while.  Saturday night storms rolled through our area.  A lot of people lost their electricity.  It was full dark Sunday when a friend asked if her son could spend the night with us.  Sure!  We have electricity and I’m more than willing to share.  I hopped in the car and headed two blocks away to pick him up. . .

Wow.  Trying to pick out the right house in a row of houses with similar floor plans was impossible.  And the color of the house?  Useless.  Our eyes need a certain amount of light to perceive color.  I could even spot the Texas star hanging on the outside of their house.

Fortunately, the headlights of another car illuminated the front of the house.  Otherwise I might still be looking.  I had gained first had experience that made the research all the more meaningful.

Do you ever try things out on your own when you are writing something?  Or do you rely on other people’s research?

Granted, first had experience isn’t always possible if your character is flying about on a broom or cloning a dinosaur.  But you can cook the foods your character would eat.  You can listen to music, hike the trails, or make the hand craft.

After all, many things are easier to describe if you have first experienced them.  Use both research and experience to bring your readers the detail that will shed light on the world of your story.

–SueBE

 

July 20, 2017

What Are You Reading?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:07 am
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What books are you currently reading?  Do you have a stack of books on your bedside table?  Beside your favorite chair?  My dresser looks like a library dumping ground and this is the shelf of items currently checked out from the library. The two books on top of the Star Wars box are both adult fiction but all of the rest are children’s books.

The shelf has had a lot picture book on it lately.  Some of them are predictions for the Caldecott.  Some just caught my eye.  In truth, I’ve been focusing on reading picture books because I’ve been insanely busy and haven’t had time to read much else.

At the moment I’m reading three books.  Sioux Code Talkers by Andrea M. Page.  Ironically, since I just wrote about the DAPL, Page is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, the reservation near which the pipeline crossed the Missouri River, putting their drinking water at risk.

I’m also reading The Photo Ark, a National Geographic book by photographer Joel Sartore.  Because of this one, I might move forward with a project I’ve been noodling over for something like 15 years.

Last but not least, I’m listening to the audio book of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann.  That’s an adult nonfiction title about a series of murders of prominent Osage in the 1920s.  The subtitle of the book also indicates that it is about the formation of the FBI.  I don’t know yet if the case helped shape the FBI or if it was simply a matter of a case taking place at the same time as the shaping of the Bureau.

History and social science.  Animals.  Nonfiction.  Those things feature prominently in my reading pile.

So what are you reading?  It doesn’t have to be exactly what you are writing.  For example, I don’t read middle grade fantasy when I’m writing middle grade fantasy.  The voice is too often distracting.  But I can read picture books when I write picture books.

Take a minute and let the rest of us know what you are reading.  Maybe you’ll help us all find a new literary treasure.

–SueBE

May 5, 2017

Fiction vs Nonfiction: The Hybrid

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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For the most part, it is fairly easy to categorize children’s books as fiction or nonfiction.  Made up story as in Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon or Linda Sue Park’s Cavern of Secrets?  Fiction, of course.  Just as certainly, books ranging from Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich to Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti that tell factual stories are nonfiction.

But what do you call a story that uses fictional characters to impart information?  Maybe you have a boy and his grandfather plant a garden.  Or a family follows a historic road such as the Nachez Trace.  The only reason these “unreal” people are there is to get something across to the reader whether that something is science, history, ecology or music.

I’ve heard these books called both fiction and nonfiction as well as faction.  Then there is the term “informational.”  More recently I discovered a publisher, The Innovative Press, that refers to ” hybrid texts that blend fiction elements with nonfiction elements.”

One of their books, Zoey and Sassafras: Dragons and Marshmallows by Asia Citro, is the story of a girl who can help magical creatures.  That is, rather obviously, the fiction part of the story.  But there is no veterinary guide on how to do this so she has to use what she knows to ask questions, discover new things, and keep searching for answers in a way that teaches readers about the scientific method.

I have to admit that I like this.  A hybrid.  A mixture of both but neither one or the other.  Of course (sigh), now that I have a name for it, I have an idea that would be perfect for this hybrid form.  After all, the manuscript was inspired by nonfiction research.  With the fictional characters, I can turn the story into something of a reverse scavenger hunt — they have found something that they need to put back but they have to learn beyond their assumptions, observing the natural world, to do so.

I’m still noodling this one over so it isn’t quite ready to draft, but I am looking forward to creating a new-for-me type of manuscript and a fun-for-my-reader story.

–SueBE

April 25, 2017

Fact vs Fiction When You’re Making Things Up

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:03 am
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Just how fictitious is too fictitious?  That’s the question that I’ve been asking myself as I research a new picture book.  It isn’t fantasy in the unicorns and elves sense.  There is no magic.  But there are animals doing things that animals simply do not do.

Without giving it all away, I have animal and human co-workers, specifically human and penguin co-workers. They are employed on a joint project in the Antarctic.

Obviously not realistic but how fanciful do I want to get?  I want my penguins to act like penguins which is going to require reading up on penguin behavior and watching scads of videos.  Oh, the horror.

But not every penguin behaves like every other penguin. So what kinds of penguins do I choose?

Obviously, I have to pick an Antarctic penguin which rules out Galapagos penguins.  But it still meant that I had to chose between King, Emperor, Adelie, Gentoo, Chinstrap, Macaroni and Rockhopper.

There were several criteria that I could use to choose.  I could pick a penguin with specific characteristics.  Some penguins nurture both chicks vs simply the one that hatches first.  Others are more social.  Some are noisier than others.  They vary in what they eat, where they live and how long they mate.  Yeah, that last one never really featured in the decision process. This is, after all, a picture book and not that kind of picture book.  Enemies are pretty consistent — adult penguins have to watch out for leopard seals and chicks are preyed on by skua.

I finally decided to select the penguin that researchers would be most likely to encounter.  This meant comparing maps of penguin nesting locations with maps of human activity and habitation.  There really wasn’t as much overlap as you might think.

Penguin type – check.  Now I’m ready to start watching those penguin videos and working to weave penguin fact into my highly fictitious penguin story.  Fact definitely blends with fiction in unique ways when you are writing a picture book.

–SueBE

 

 

 

April 20, 2017

The Library of Congress: Research and Idea Generation

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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I’ve just become aware of two amazing resources at the Library of Congress.  Or at least I’ve become newly acquainted. The first is a series of primary source sets and the second a especially helpful publication for idea generation, or at least that’s how it works for me.

As many of you probably know, finding primary sources online can be tricky.  It isn’t that nothing is available.  There is actually quite a bit out there.  But finding it when you need it can be another matter altogether.  But authors aren’t the only ones looking for primary sources.  Teachers realize how primarcy sources can entrance young readers.  To help teachers access sources available at the Library, the staff has put together primary source sets ranging from topics as diverse as “found poetry” to “children’s lives at the turn of the twentieth century.”

The first is not a grouping of found poems but resouces that students might use increating their own.  The set includes a teacher’s guide as well as a variety of documents such as copies of print documents and photographs.  The latter set includes historic photos of children at play, a children’s parade and even a children’s book from the time.

The Library of Congress Magazine is published by-monthly with each issue focusing on a theme such as World War I, Presidential Elections, Photography or Food Collections.  The magazine is approximately 32 pages long and a PDF of each issue is available.

Take a look at several issues of this magazine and see if you don’t come away with some new ideas.  I paged through the issue on Food Collections and quickly jotted down three book ideas — a cookbook, a food history/cookbook and a biography.

 

The Library of Congress is both a national treasure and an amazing resource.  Take the time to look through some of the educational guides and the magazines.  You won’t regret it.

–SueBE

April 14, 2017

Research: Organizing What You Find

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:13 am
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I have to admit it.  When I numbered the items on my Dakota Access Pipeline bibliography, I expected it to top 200 by a comfortable margin.  But I only had 156 items.  It probably seemed like more than it was because I was a bit organizationally challenged on this book.  Yes, there were things I did right (yay, me!).  But there were also things that I did wrong and with so many PDFs, mistakes add up fast.  Here are three tips to help you organize your research.

Whenever I save a downloaded PDF, my computer wants to save it in a “Downloads” file folder.  Unfortunately, this  file folder is under my user name which is under my drive name.  I override this and save everything in my documents library under the name of the manuscript.  No, I can’t open these PDFs with Word but I can find things a lot faster when it is all in the same folder.

Many of the PDFs that I used are online as PDFs.  That means that I did a Google search, found this awesome article or publication, clicked and opened a PDF.  I can include these in my bibliography as “online” and provide the URL.  Or I can include them as “PDF of print publication,” which is what I tend to do.  When you do this, save the PDF in your documents folder.  It’s easier when you need to go back and verify specific phrasing on something.  Believe me.

When you save a PDF, save it under the author’s last name and first three words of the title. Yes, wherever you are downloading this will likely have given the file a different name.  Override it and save it as something that will be easy to locate when you look on your bibliography and see that you cited John Doe’s “Big Stinking Article.”

Not only will these steps make it easier for you to relocate things, when your editor asks for copies of all your PDFs they will be easy to find and to identify by name.  I’m just saying.

–SueBE

April 6, 2017

Nonfiction Research: What If You Can’t Find the Facts that You Need?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:21 am
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Monday I’ll be turning in a book on the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Invariably 25% of the comments/questions that I get from my editor will be requests for more information.  Why did this person do X instead of Y?  Where did he get this idea?  Why didn’t he do Z instead?

Most of the time, I can see why she wants me to add these things, and sometimes I actually manage to pull it off.  But there are other times that the information just isn’t anywhere that I can find it.

That’s the wacky things about doing research, especially historic research.  You may suspect that a give fact is out there in the world someplace, but that doesn’t mean that it is indexed or searchable.  Someday, someone may stumble across it but you haven’t managed to find it yet.

When I can’t find the information needed to answer my editor’s question, that’s what I tell her.  “Wow. I’d love to be able to answer that but I can’t find the information.”  Fortunately, that has never been the case for a critical fact.  It has always been something she was just curious about or thought would make a nice addition.

But what do you do if the fact is essential?  The problem with writing nonfiction is that you need to find the facts.  If the information you find says “we talked about how to spend the money” but doesn’t quote any specific dialogue, you can’t write out anything in quotation marks.  You may know that a soldier or a student did X, but have no idea what that person’s name was which means that in your telling, they must remain nameless.

If your story doesn’t work with only facts that you can find, try writing it as fiction.  In your author’s note, you can always explain which information is factual and which was cooked up in the author’s brain.  Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you have to be able to create a solid story.  Which way you choose to go with it depends on your idea, the facts that you can find, and your inclinations as a writer.

–SueBE

 

April 3, 2017

Fact Checking: Finding Out You Wrote It Wrong

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:06 am
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Even when you are writing fiction, your facts need to be factual.  Fantasy, science fiction, whatever.  Your facts have got to add up.  So we research and write and research some more.

But sometimes it isn’t the research that reveals a mistake in your data.  It’s just life.  Just over a week ago, we sorted out a box of cooking stuff in my dad’s basement.  There were baking pans and skillets, including one that wasn’t cast iron but sure looked a lot like it.  My husband snagged that one and a smaller cast iron, came home and started doing research.

What he found included information on skillet sizing.  This one is clearly a #4.  The number doesn’t have anything to do with inches in diameter.  It corresponded to the key hole size on the wood stoves where these skillet were originally used.  Use the right skillet and it fit perfectly in the key hole.

Oh, snot.  Now I have to rewrite part of that scene.  I had done all kinds of research on wood stoves and I even got to check one out in person.  But I had never seen anyone cook on one.  That skillet goes on that keyhole.  This one goes on this slightly larger keyhole over here.  And the covers?  They have to come off.

It seems obvious in hind sight.  But I still have a scene to rewrite.

Do your research.  Do it as well as you can.  But keep your eyes and ears open.  You never know when you’re going to hear encounter the information you need to make your facts factual.

–SueBE

 

March 23, 2017

Scenes: Creating a Sense of “Being There” in Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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My most recent batch of students is busy writing away. They are deep enough into their work that they are attempting to create scenes.  A nonfiction scene is a lot like a fiction scene in that it is a great way to pull your reader into the story.  It uses dialogue and characters, setting and action.  Unlike the fiction scene, it all has to be true.

That means that if you include dialogue, you have to have dialogue to quote.  It has to be word for word.

That means that if you find “someone mentioned needing to buy new shoes” in a source, that is all you can write.  You cannot write ‘One of the students said, “I need to buy new shoes.”  Nope.  The problem is that the quotation marks imply that it is a direct quote.  To use the quotation marks, you need to have found those exact words.  “And I said to him I need to buy new shoes.”  “Marcus said to me, ‘I need to buy new shoes.'”  Something like that.

There are times that you have a bit of wiggle room.  When I wrote about a family of armadillos, I could describe the four young armadillos digging into the dirt and tearing into a fallen log when they heard insects.  Why?  Because they are typical armadillo behaviors.

But when I wrote about the protests in Ferguson in Black Lives Matter, I couldn’t say that a protestor did X or a protestor did Y unless I had that information from my source material.  Even if X and Y are both fairly innocuous actions, when I’m talking about people, I need to know that someone did it.  Otherwise I have to say, a protestor may have done X or may have done Y and that isn’t the sort of thing my editor is going to let stand.

Creating a scene can be tricky but if you have the facts to pull it together it is one of the best ways to pull a reader into your writing.

–SueBE

 

February 27, 2017

Research: How much is enough?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:40 am
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books-1605416_1920Recently someone asked me how much research is enough to write a book.  Do I use 20 sources?  Thirty?  Do my books for teens require more than the third grade books?

I wouldn’t say that age level plays as big a part in the amount of research that I need to do as the topic itself.  If there are books that you can use as resources, I may not have to use as many sources, especially if one or more books has a lot of information.  But if the topic is something new with fewer books already on the subject in print?  Then I am going to have to use more sources. If you have to use a lot of articles, you will have a huge bibliography.

Perhaps these numberw will show you what I mean.  For Ancient Maya, I used 52 sources including a number of books. when I wrote Black Lives Matter, there were no books for teens and almost nothing for adults on this topic.  I used 188 different sources.  The Zika Virus was similar with so much new material coming out and my bibliography had 120 sources.  But what about a book that is something of a survey?  Women in Sports covered the history of women in modern sports. Not baseball.  Not basketball.  Sports.  I used 206 sources.

These books are all 15,000 words long.  My books for 3rd graders are much shorter at 3500 words.  12 Incredible Facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis required 43 sources and I used 48 for the book on esports, both of which are comparable to the number of sources I used for the Maya book.

Although I understand why I teacher would tell a student to use 5 sources or 10, I would never answer this question with a number.  There is just too much variety depending on the topic and what else is in print.  Instead, I would say that you should research until you can start writing.

Just start.  Develop an outline if you are writing a longer book.  If you are writing a picture book, outline it and maybe rough it out.  This will tell you where you information is scant and what you still need to research.  I don’t worry about researching too much.  Research is too much fun to get stingy about it.  But I also don’t worry about researching too little.  If you’ve come up with a topic that has never been covered, which is what you need to do to sell, you are going to have to put in the work required to write a full and satisfying manuscript.  That is what is necessary much more than a specific number of sources.

–SuebE

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