One Writer’s Journey

April 19, 2018

Writing Nonfiction: What to do when you’re stumped

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:16 am
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Recently someone asked me how much research I do for a book.  Really, it all depends on the topic.  My current book, which I can’t discuss in detail just yet, is STEM title.  I have 142 sources but part of chapter 2 has been giving me a hard time.  The topic is full of medical jargon and I thought I had figured it out, but my husband wasn’t sold.  He’s my first reader and the paragraph just didn’t hold together.

So today I called a friend.  He’s not a writer but he is a nurse.  He’s my go-to source for all things medical.

Diet and nutrition?  One of the women at our church writes and tests recipes for the cooking show sponsored by a local grocery store.

Economics?  My husband has a degree in finance and is a cost analyst.

Engineering?  It depends on the type.  For some things I go to an electrical engineer who was friends with my dad.  Aeronautic?  My brother-in-law.  Chemical?  My son.

If I don’t know anyone who specializes in whatever is confusing me, I start looking for museums, state parks and universities.  I’ve contacted biologists, geologists and more. I even contacted someone who was quoted in an article I used as a source.  “This is what you are quoted as saying.  What did you mean by this part right here?”  When I explain that I am a children’s writer, people are generally willing to help.

When I go to someone for help, I always have my specific questions ready, but I also discuss what I think I know with them.  That way they can tell me if I have something wrong.  Today I actually read part of a source.  “Can you explain this to me?”

You can’t write about something if you don’t understand it.  Be willing to approach someone and ask for help.  So many people will share what they know if it means they have the opportunity to educate young learners.



February 2, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Start with Knowledge

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:17 am
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If you’ve accepted that you can accomplish amazing things writing for five minutes a day, good for you!   That’s a big part of the process. You won’t try if you don’t think you can succeed. But you also have to start with a plan.  And the first step in that plan?


I bet you expected me to say an outline.  And we’ll get there.  But first you have to start with knowledge.

What do you want to write?  Do you want to write poetry?  A picture book?  Humorous middle grade? A young adult fantasy?   Then you need to know the parameters of the genre.

If you want to write a picture book, you need to know something about the structure.  How long should be manuscript be?  Read picture books and observe how each spread is a scene and how page turns function.

If you want to write middle grade or young adult, spend some time learning how the two differ.  It is more than the age of the reader or character.  It also impacts the type of plot whether it is humorous, fantasy or both.

If you plan to write fantasy, read about the different types of fantasy.  How does magical realism differ from high fantasy or space opera?  Learn what is expected of each.

My five-minute project for the year will be a mystery.  I’m going a bit wild here and throwing caution to the wind.  I’m going to attempt a cozy for grown ups.  Oooooo.

Of course this means that I first had to discover whether or not a cozy requires a corpse.  In reading up on this type of mystery, I’ve also discovered that my knowledge of same is dated.  Or Australian since the newest cozies I’ve read are by an Australian author.

Spend a few minutes reading up on your genre.  Once you’ve done that?  Request something from the library.  You’ve still got a bit more reading to do.

5 minute tasks to boost your knowledge:

  • Read about the type of project you want to write: children’s poetry, picture book, etc.
  • Check out lists of books.  What published books fall into this category?
  • Request several titles.  If you haven’t read relevent titles published in the last 3 years, request several.

Get started and we’ll be back next week to talk about outlining.




January 23, 2018

Research: Accidentally Discovering What You Didn’t Know

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:37 am
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When Anna Rosling Ronnland talked to students who lived in Sweden, she asked them where they thought that the fit on a global scale?  Were they rich? Were they poor?  Or were they somewhere in the middle?  She was surprised to discover that they thought they were somewhere in the middle – not rich but not terribly poor.  (You can view her TEDD talk below.)

Ronnland realized that the perspective most people have has been skewed by what they see on media – natural disasters, horrible diseases and war often give a view of the poorest areas.   Beautiful vacation destinations and wildlife showed what was accessible to the very rich.

But what most of these students didn’t realize is that they were actually on the wealthy end of the global scale.  Media had skewed their perspective.

To help correct this, Ronnland created Dollar Street.  This site imagines the world as a street.  The poor live at one end.  The wealthy live at the other.  Everyone else is somewhere in the middle.  She sent photographers out to take photos of common things in homes throughout the world.  They take photos of bedrooms and bathrooms, where food is prepared and where it is eaten.

What Ronnland, and those who view the photos on Dollar Street, soon discovered was that in addition to material life based on culture, economics may actually play a stronger role.  Food preparation for the poorest people looks much the same in the Americas, Africa and Asia.  View the bedrooms of the wealthy and they look much the same.

This has me contemplating how we set our characters up to discover things.  We always portray confusion when someone moves from one culture to another.  And certainly language and customs will vary.  But there seems to be just as much variety from one economic level to another.  Maybe Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper wasn’t that far off.

Just a little something to consider as you craft your stories.  I know I have a new story idea thanks to watching the video.


December 28, 2017

Research: An Opportunity to Set the Record Straight

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:43 am
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My not especially accurate nativity.

Tuesday morning I was reading through various articles when I came across a piece on flaws in the traditional nativity narrative.  In short, looking at the original text and knowing a thing or two about the local culture allows contemporary translators and scholars to straighten out a few kinks concerning where the baby would have been born. He would have been born in the family quarters and laid in the manger located in that part of the home.

The article I read appeared here on the Presbyterian Outlook web page. It included research into the culture of that area at that time.  Instead of going back to the Latin text (the Latin Bible from which the King James Bible was created) scholars went back to the original Greek.  This meant that they were one step closer to the story as originally told.

It can be easy to see why you need to use current research when writing about science, but people who write history often wonder why they should look for new scholarship on their topic. Writing a story or article using only older sources means that you will be rehashing what has already been written.  Yes, you may write it better.  And you may write it for a new audience.  But the information will be the same old same old.

If, on the other hand, you look at more recent scholarship, you will have the opportunity to create an updated, more accurate narrative.  This is especially important when the updated account allows for a more complete story that doesn’t malign a particular cultural group, race, or religion. It helps readers, even young readers, move from a story based on preconceptions and misunderstandings to a more complete picture.

For more on research, check out Research: How Much is EnoughResearch: Organizing What You Find, and The Library of Congress: Research and Idea .


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.



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.


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.


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.





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.


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.


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