Research: How Much Is Enough

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“How much research do you need to do when you write a book?” This seems to be one of the most common questions that I get an a nonfiction author. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any easy answer.

Many people assume that it depends on the length of the project. Sometimes it does but 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. What date was X invented? What exactly did building Y require? I find myself pulling up manuals to check copyright dates and parts lists.

For some projects, much of my research is in book form. That’s always a relief because I can often find several page of useful information. But even then I need to havemore than one source.

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

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.

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. No, that isn’t an exageration. When every page has three or four unique sources, they add up fast. I am currently writing a nonfiction title for teens. I just finished roughing Chapter 5 and I currently have 118 sources. With four more chapters to go, I’ll likely have at least 200.

You probably won’t know how many your are going to have 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.


The Classes I Teach

I often write about the classes and webinars that I take. I don’t write nearly as often about the three classes I teach through WOW! Women on Writing. Read on to find out more.

Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work

Whether you write essays, short stories or novels, sending your work to an agent, editor or publisher is a daunting task. This course will teach you to assemble submission basics including a pitch and a query letter. These tools will enable you to get your work in front of industry professionals. We will also discuss how to find markets and how to manage rejection.

This is the least specific class I teach in that it is suitable for novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, and those who write for children.

Find out more or sign up here.

Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults

Nonfiction for children and teens lines the bookshelves of libraries and bookstores, fills magazines and e-zines and is used in classrooms around the world. The first step in taking your place in this market is learning to do the research. That may sound relatively simple, but done right it includes researching markets and possible topics as well as locating accurate source materials. This course will help you develop the skills you need to take on these tasks with confidence.

If you are interested in writing adult nonfiction, this class would be helpful but I know a lot less about adult nonfiction than I do nonfiction for the juvenile markets. That said, I love doing research of all kinds and end up learning about a wide range of topics from my students.

Find out more or sign up here.

Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults

Biographies, science, history, how-to, and more. Nonfiction is published in book form, online and in both magazines and e-zines. Not only do teachers and school librarians seek nonfiction for their students, children and teens read it for fun. In this course, you will learn how to organize your material, write and revise not only the manuscript you workshop in class but future projects as well.

This class is my sweet spot. All of my books thus far are nonfiction. I love finding engaging ways to bring nonfiction to young readers.

Find out more or sign up here.

Let me know if you have any questions!


How to Start Your Biography

Yesterday I blogged about how to start your nonfiction manuscript. Sharon asked how to start a biography, specifically a biography of a noted children’s author. I knew I had to look into it before I could answer her and my answer turned into this post.

First things first, lets look at the openings of several biographies for children.

Who Was Laura Ingalls Wilder by Patricia Brennan Demuth is a middle grade biography. The book opens with her birth, emphasizing that she was born a pioneer in a log cabin. Reading the description of the book, I see that it shows how similar her life was to that depicted in her books.

Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler by Kate Klimo is an early reader. The book opens with Ted Geisel sitting in his studio. The phone rings and he discovers that he has won the Pulitzer. The story line steps back to his childhood and his ever present doodles.

Sharon specifically asked about biographies about authors but I simply have to include Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor by Kate Messner. The subtitle reveals the slant. This picture book opens with a spread about how curious Anthony was about his fish and so many other things.

So how do you start a biography? As these examples show, there are many ways to do it including these three:

  1. Start with a scene of the person as a famous adult.

2. Start with their birth in a setting that supports the theme.

3. Start with a scene that demonstrates a trait that was vital in them reaching where they are today.

Often the key to knowing how to start the book is knowing exactly what story you want to tell, what you want to emphasize. If your focus is showing how Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up as a pioneer and then portrayed this life in her books, open with a scene that shows her as a pioneer.

Sharon is writing about an author. She could start with a scene that shows this person recieving an award. She could start with a scene showing this person telling a story to their friends. Or she could do something completely different that reveals something special about her subject.

How you start your nonfiction book will largely depend on what story you want to tell.


3 Tips on How to Start Your Nonfiction Manuscript

It may have been a dark and stormy night but that doesn’t mean you need to start your manuscript with that line.
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I love writing nonfiction. I’ve written about archaeology (The Ancient Maya), American history (Hidden Computers and The Assassination of John F. Kennedy), science (Evolution of Reptiles and Evolution of Mammals), and even current events (The Dakota Access Pipeline and The Impeachment of Donald Trump).

No matter what type of nonfiction book I am given to write, I need to find an interesting way to hook my reader. Here are five tipes on how to start your nonfiction manuscript.

Create a Scene

Every one of the books listed above starts with a narrative nonfiction scene. This means that I create a scene nonfiction scene complete with a setting, tension and characters. Because this is nonfiction, every detail in my scene has to be based on research and fact.

Choose the right scene and you not only hook your reader but you also leave them wanting to know more. They turn the page and read on.

Beware the Question

Do you know something? It can be tempting to start with a question as I did in this paragraph. But that sort of start is hard to pull off. If your reader can answer “no,” they may very well stop reading. In this care, the risk is that the reader will simply think “I know lots of things” and that is the end of their reading experience at least with this paragraph.

Did you know . . . what about . . . and have you considered are other ill-advised story-starts.

You have to make your reader think or surprise them in some way to make a question work.

Beware Time and Temperature

It was a sunny 4th of July.

That’s nice, but it isn’t a very effective begining. Unless the time and weather are unique or surprising or set up a contrast, you can probably come up with a more effective beginning. What do I mean by contrast? Keep in mind that I’m making all of these examples up, but . . .

“In spite of the frigid temperatures, sweat ran down the faces of the crew . . .”

“The birds chirped and the sun shone on this beautiful spring day as the workers put the finishing touches on the gallow that was to be used later that day.”

“The streets were dark although it was dawn as everyone headed to work . . .”

You may discover several different ways to start your manuscript. The one that you ultimately select may depend on your themes, what you choose to emphasize, or how the story ends. This isn’t the first thing you need to figure out but it is something you need to consider before submitting your work to an agent or an editor.


3 Tips on Conducting an Interview

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Yesterday, I spend the better part of the day writing interview questions. That’s one of my jobs as a blogger at The Muffin, the WOW! Women on Writing blog. I interview writers who have placed in flash fiction contests. I’m also interviewing Sioux Roslawski. Her book, Greenwood Gone: Henry’s Story, is going to be featured in a giveaway on the blog.

Interviewing someone isn’t hard once you learn the tricks of the trade. Here are three tips to get you started.

Yes or No

First things first, do not ask questions that can be asnwered “yes” or “no.” Whether you are interviewing someone for an article you are writing on plankton or because you are posting a Q&A on your blog, you want the person you are talking to . . . talk. The more they talk, the more likely they are to say something that hasn’t been said before.

That said, as hard as you try, some people are going to give short abbreviated answers. Some people are more likely to do this if they answer your questions via email. Others do this on the phone or in person. Some people just don’t have much to say.

But you can do your part by making sure that they cannot answer “yes” or “no” to your questions.

Question Sets

If at all possible, keep your interview time to 15 of 20 minutes. I try to limit myself to 5 or 6 questions. But these aren’t necessarilly single questions. I tend to go for what I call “question sets.” That way if one doesn’t get the person talking, perhaps the next question in the set will.

A question set has to consist of related questions. It can go something like this.

“Some writers are plotters, carefully outlining their work. Others are pantsers. Which method do you prefer and why? How has this changed throughout your writing career and from project to project?”

“…And why” keeps the person from giving a one word answer and the second half of the question encourages them to elaborate.

Give It Some Thought

Working up interview questions can be really easy. What was your inspiration? What are you working on now? And questions like this can bring a lot of information but if this person has been interviewed before, like Sioux, they’ve probably already answered the easy questions.

Because of this, I read what the interview is based on (such as a winning story) or the summary of the book. Then I go work on something else for a while. Then I come back and draft my questions. But I still don’t send them. Instead, I work on something else, often something fascinating like folding laundry, then I take another look at the questions. If I’m still happy with them, then I send them out.

As a writer, you want to cover ground that no one has covered before. Otherwise you are going to have a hard time interesting publishers in your story. As an interviewer, you want to encourage the person you are talking with to say something interesting, informative and natural. You will have a much better chance of getting them to open up if they are interested in your questions.

Interviewing is one of the topics I cover in my WOW! Women on Writing class on research. I also teach about writing nonfiction and submitting your work.


Help! I Found a Book on My Topic

When you find a competing book, slant yours for a different market.
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Yesterday, one of my students contacted me. She was in a panic because, while doing research, she found a book on the same topic she is working on in class. All of her energy had ebbed away as soon as she saw the title that will be coming out in a few months.

But I told her that finding this competing title is a good thing. Why? It shows interest in her topic. This is especially important when you are writing biography because it means your person isn’t too “niche” to appeal to a national, or perhaps global, audience.

Then I reminder her that her job will be to make sure her book doesn’t compete with the one that is coiming out. Without giving away her topic, she is writing a picture book biography. The book on the same subject is a graphic novel.

Right away she has one plus. She isn’t writing a graphic novel. But there are other things she can do to make certain her book doesn’t compete directly with the one already in the works.

Pick a Different Slant

Very few biographies for young readers are birth to death representations of the person’s life. Because they tell about part of this person’s life, it is easy to pick a slant that is different from the one already in print. By doing this, you are still writing about the person but telling a different story.

Let’s say that they person you want to write about is an inventor. The book already in the works is about how she revolutionized the modern classroom. You could write about how she overcame a reading problem or learned to try again when she failed.

Select a Different Audience

Let’s say that the book about the inventor is written for middle schoolers. No worries. You can write a picture book about her work and appeal to an entirely different audience in terms of reading level. But there is another way you can appeal to a different audience as well.

Look at the Publisher’s Niche

Let’s say that the soon to be published book about the inventor is being published by an educational publisher, maybe even Abdo, the publisher for many of my books. This means that they expect the buyers for this book to be schools and school librarians.

Appeal to a different pocket book. Write your book for a trade publisher such as parents.

If there are no books on your topic, it might mean there is no interest. One or two? Not a problem. It is simply up to you to write a different type of book for a different audience.


3 Tips on Writing Humorous Nonfiction

Raise your hand if you remember the nonfiction students read in the 1980s. The material in the textbooks and readers I remember often made the encyclopedia look like a humorous romp through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

One of my favorite humorous nonfiction titles.

Because I grew up with this type of writing, I love creating fun, engaging nonfiction for young readers. There are three ways that you can work humor into nonfiction.

Start with the Topic

Sometimes the humor begins with your topic. Young readers especially love things that my mother would have described as “off color.” Topics that are gross or strange are often easy to make funny. I’ve written about both vomit and horse poop. No, not horse vomit. Horses can’t vomit. The vomit book is about people vomit, buzzard vomit, vampire bat vomit and more. By choosing an off color topic, it is easy to make it funny because your young reader is probably already laughing when he reaches for the book. “Mom, look!”

Create Fun Descriptions

Even if you are writing about something that isn’t naturally funny, you can up the humor by creating quirky descriptions. Some time ago, I was reading Highlights in my library and found an article about howler monkeys. The author compared how loud these monkeys are with the blare of an air horn. I was so surprised by the description that I laughed out loud! Fortunately, that’s an okay thing to do in the children’s section of the library.

Have fun when creating turns of phrase. How big is it? What does it remind you of? Pick something funny/surprising.

Sarcasm and amazing historic facts can also be spun in humorous ways which is a pretty accurate summary of How They Croaked. The topic is serious. The coverage? Not so much.

Make Your Writing Fun

Another way to introduce humor is to make your writing fun. Play with your word choice. What do I mean? If you were writing about the fancy gait of a Paso Fino horse, you could simply call it fancy. Or lively. Or you could describe how the horse tippity-tippity taps around the ring.

Adding levity to your writing doesn’t mean the reader has to be laughing out loud with every sentence. Word play is only mildly humorous, but it can be as engaging as a humorous, quirky subject.

Read what is being published today and you’ll see what I mean. Then you just have to match the level of humor and play to your topic. Some can handle a lot. Others wouldn’t be appropriate. As the writer, you will have to decide.


The Question You Should be Asking about Research

When new writers ask me about writing nonfiction, most of them ask about research. “How much research do I need to do?”

In the past, I tell them to do research until two things happen.

  1. You aren’t finding out anything new.
  2. You can recognize the information that is innaccurate.

From now on I will tell them to research until they reach the bottom of the iceberg. I heard this term in relation to cultural information. Things that everyone knows are the tip of the iceberg. Things that someone has to really dig to learn are near the bottom. As Linda Sue Park put it, It isn’t kimchee but it is still Korean. Note: I didn’t put that in quotes because I’m paraphrasing.

But it hit me how well this idea applies to my own research. I am working on a manuscript called Wild Cities, about wild life in our urban areas. I just completed a chapter about mountain lions.

What? Yes, they sometimes live in urban areas. No, I don’t think someone needs to kill them. But that leads us right to the idea of the iceberg.

The tip of the iceberg. Mountain lions are big, terrifying predators. They are dangerous and we should kill them.

Midway down the iceberg. Mountain lions are big predators that have evolved to be the best at what they do – hunting. Their favorite food is deer.

The base of the iceberg. Mountain lions are big predators that sometimes live in urban areas. Even in urban areas, they prefer deer. Scientists have never found dogs, cats or people in mountain lion poop.

To write a marketable manuscript, you need to do enough research to introduce the topic (big predator), draw the reader in (here is what they eat), and bring it home (even when they could be eating pets and people). When you’ve done enough research to anchor your piece in something new that your reader will not know, you may be done.

May be.

You’ll probably find something else to research once you start writing. Who am I kidding? There will be things you need to look up.

But that’s okay, because now you know what to ask. Not how much research should you do but how deep do you need to go.


Three Things to Remember about Diaologue in Nonfiction

One of the things that new nonfiction writers find confusing is how they can possibly include dialogue in their work.  It is easy enough if they are writing up an interview, but what about historic pieces that include dialogue?  Here are three things to remember.

Dialogue Provides a Connection

Whether you are writing a piece about a NASA scientist today or you are writing about mapping Africa, dialogue helps readers connect with the people they are reading about.  They may not be engaged in the conversation but dialogue provides them with the opportunity to overhear what was being said.

Something Else to Research

Writing nonfiction requires a lot of research and dialogue doesn’t help.  Each and every word you include within quotation marks has to be researched.  This is especially important because you are not only reporting something as fact, you are attributing these exact words to someone.  This means that to use them, you have to find them.

Where do you find quotations?  Diaries, letters and speeches are all great sources.  Autobiographies and biographies are good as long as they were put together by trusted writers working with reputable publishers.  But it is definitely worth it when you find something that packs a punch.


But quotes can also be problematic if the statement is long and rambling or is simply too difficult for your readers.  I run into this when I am research science topics and the quotes I find contain a lot of jargon.  The good news is that you can paraphrase although that does mean you cannot put it in quotation marks.  I recently found the following in “Six Months of Coronavirus” by Ewen Callaway, Heidi Ledford, and Smriti Mallapaty in the journal Nature.  First, a direct quote:

“People are equating antibody to immunity, but the immune system is such a wonderful machine,” says Finzi. “It is so much more complex than just antibodies alone.”

This is exactly what virologist Andres Frinzi said.  The next isn’t a direction quote but something the authors paraphrased:

But protective immunity, which can prevent or ease symptoms, could last longer than that, says Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology in California.

Paraphrasing can allow you to clarify a confusing quote or express something using words your reader will understand.

Dialogue, scene and action are all topics that I cover in my class “Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults.”  The next section begins on Monday with another section following in October.  Nonfiction writing is a great way to get your work into the hands of young readers.



Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults

Do you want to write nonfiction for young readers?

On July 6, the first session of my course Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults will begin.  Here is a detailed weekly plan.

Week One: Starting with a Plan

Whether you are interested in writing history, STEAM, or crafts, it is important to start with a plan. We will discuss the various projects everyone wants to work on.  Then the lesson will explore how to organize your material. Often this takes the form of an outline. Some outlines are spare and simple while others are more complex. You will also learn what to do when your outline fails to come together.

Assignment:  Complete and turn in an outline for your project.  Be prepared to discuss the various options that you tried.

Week Two:  Drafting Your Manuscript

Once you have a plan, you are ready to start writing your first draft.  We will discuss why it is important to keep the age of your reader in mind as you write and how you can use fiction techniques to build scenes that will pull your reader in.  This lesson will also cover what to do when the words simply will not flow or you find a gap in your research.

Assignment:  Working from your outline, rough out your manuscript.  You may not get it all done in one week.  Don’t panic!  Prepare up to twenty pages to submit for this assignment.

 Week Three: Rewriting and Revising

Roughing out your manuscript is only the first step in actually writing.  Next you will learn how to evaluate your draft and how to hone your work in subsequent drafts.  Yes – it will almost certainly take more than one pass to revise and rewrite your manuscript.  This lesson will also discuss identifying what you can cut from the manuscript.

Assignment: Rewrite your draft, submitting up to 20 pages for review.

Week Four:  The Extras that Can Help Make a Sale

You’ve drafted a smooth, well-written manuscript but there is often more than you can do to help make a sale.  This is your chance to add extras that will help make your work more appealing to readers, teachers, and/or an editor.  We will discuss sidebars, activities, marketing strategies, teacher’s guides, and more as well as what to include when.

Assignment: Write at least one “extra” or develop a marketing strategy for your book manuscript.

I am teaching this through WOW Women on Writing.  You can find out more about the class here.  Do let me know if you have any questions!