Whenever I speak to groups about writing nonfiction, I get some variation of the following question: What can I write about? Can I write about science if I’m not a scientist, history if I’m not a historian, or art if I’m not an artist?
This is a subjective question, of course, and opinions vary. But I thought I’d share mine.
I don’t believe you have to be an expert to write about something you’re interested in—writing is a great way to explore new things. But at the same time, accuracy is critical in nonfiction. So if you’re not an expert, you need to be willing to do your homework.
My background is in science, so I’ll use that as an example here, but the same principle applies to other topics as well.
When I critique stories from non-scientists, I see two common issues:
The remedy for this is twofold.
Here’s what this looks like for me. While most of my books are science-themed, I’ve also written middle-grade books on the Titanic and Ancient Egypt. Since I was starting from scratch, these took a TON of research. I needed to figure out which authors are considered reliable and which are controversial. Then I immersed myself in documentaries and stacks of scholarly books. I created timelines, charts, etc. Each book was then reviewed by an expert before publication.
Even for topics in my field, I often get an expert review. It’s easy to overlook something or for errors to creep in. When I wrote about physics, I ran the text by my engineering professor brother. For Amazing Amphibians and Marvelous Mammals, I found reviewers with PhDs in herpetology and mammalogy. All of them gave valuable insights.
So to return to the original question: Can you write about something if you’re not an expert? Of course you can! Just make sure you’re willing to do your homework. Kids deserve no less!
By Peggy Thomas
Happy Book Birthday! Today my new book Lincoln Clears A Path comes out from Calkins Creek Press, with amazing illustrations by Stacy Innerst.
In a previous interview I talked about my struggle to find the narrative thread in that book. I couldn’t manufacture the thread or it would ring false. I had to reveal it through research. Once I did, I also found the key events that would, like stepping stones, lead the reader from beginning to end through the story.
The thread that I pulled from all my research was Lincoln cleared a path. He had a lifelong drive to help others. “Clearing a path” was a phrase he used in letters and speeches.
The first main path-clearing event occurred when Abe was seven in Indiana. He literally cleared a path through the forest. He felled trees, cleared brush, pulled stumps, and plowed fields. I could hear the sound of an ax on a tree trunk, a scythe sweeping across grass, a tree stump being released from the ground, and a voice encouraging an ox. I wanted kids to hear it too. “Thwack! Abe helped his father fell trees. Swish! He cleared brush. Thwump! He pulled stumps. Yah! He plowed fields.”
In Rob Sanders NF FEST post last year he said that repetition can “evoke emotions, provide continuity, and leave a lasting impression with listeners.” I would add that it also provides indicators or sign posts for your reader. Every time the reader sees “Thwack! Swish! Thwump! Yah!” they’ll know the scene is another example of Lincoln’s path-clearing.
I used it seven times, not on every page. That would have become tedious. Sometimes I only used one sound. “He pulled off his boots and--swish—waded across the stream.”
I didn’t always use the sound effects literally, but also metaphorically as in, “Abe marveled at how the founding fathers--Thwack! Swish! Thwump! Yah!--cleared a path for folks like him."
Of course, to show how someone cleared a path, you have to show the obstacles too. By 1862, the war was going badly and Lincoln’s son had just died. “The president’s world seemed darker than the densest forest at midnight. How would he get his family and America through this heartache?”
By this point I’ve (hopefully) set up the metaphor and its meaning, so the next 4 double-page spreads simply reveal Lincoln’s ground-breaking acts accompanied by one of the sounds in the illustration.
I end with Lincoln's greatest path-clearing effort, the Emancipation Proclamation, and this quote:
“’Liberty to all’…clears the path for all—gives hope to all.”
Now it's time for cake!!
Peggy Thomas is the author of dozens of NF books for children including Full of Beans, AFBFA Book of the Year.
By Pat Miller
Are you a fiction writer who is curious about writing nonfiction? Do you already write children’s true books but want to improve your craft?
Either way, you will want to sign up for the Nonfiction Chicks’ second annual NF Fest 2021 Challenge in February.
Every day in February, a NF author or illustrator will inspire and instruct you in a facet of writing true. Candace Fleming, Melissa Stewart, Kathleen Krull, Carole Boston Weatherford, and Kate Messner are just five of the guests who will visit your writing space via their NF Fest post.
But reading isn’t writing, so you will also be expected to participate. Each faculty member will end their post with a related activity you can choose to do. Or you can choose one from a list of 30 other activities that will grow your NF skills.
Join the NF Fest Facebook page now, (NFFest) to meet up with more than 1400 international “Festives” who are waiting for registration to open. Meanwhile, it is a great home for your interest and questions about writing true books for kids and young adults.
All posts from NF Fest 2020 are archived here to help while you wait. During registration, we will post daily a pair of upcoming faculty members and their topics. It’s going to be an exciting preview of NF Fest 2020. See you in February!
By Stephanie Bearce
Today marks the end of the 121st annual Christmas Bird Count. It’s an event that started in 1920 when Audubon Society officer, Frank Chapman offered an alternative to the annual Christmas hunt. Instead of holiday hunters competing to see who could shoot the most birds, Chapman suggested a national bird census.
Today thousands of citizen scientists across the Western Hemisphere participate in the count that starts on December 14 and ends on January 5. The Christmas count has informed conservation programs for generations and provides an invaluable historic record of bird species.
It’s such an amazing event that Ninja author Lisa Amstutz, knew it would be perfect material for a book. Thus, was born FINDING A DOVE FOR GRAMPS, a charming story about a boy participating in the Christmas bird count and his quest to spy Gramps’ favorite bird.
I caught up with Lisa and asked her a few questions about taking a famous even and turning it into a book.
I asked her how she came to know about the event and if she had participated.
Lisa: The book was inspired by a bird count I accompanied my father on as a child. I've since participated in several other bird counts, and I always learn something new. For those just starting out, the Great Backyard Bird Count is a good way to ease in - it can be done right in your own backyard. This event takes place in February each year (see https://www.birdcount.org/). Project Feederwatch is another great option that runs from November to April (https://feederwatch.org/). These citizen science projects collect data that is very useful to scientists who study bird populations.
Q. Are you a Birder?
Lisa: Yes! I love watching birds, identifying them, and keeping track of the species I see each year. But I'm not nearly as good at it as I'd like. We hang out several types of feeders to attract birds to our yard and look for them on hikes. One of my favorite places to visit is a nearby nature center where visitors can hand-feed titmice and chickadees. There's something awe-inspiring about having a wild bird perch on your finger!
Q. As a scientist, could you explain why you think birds are important?
Lisa: Birds are an important part of the ecosystem. Larger animals rely on them for food. Birds in turn feed on insects, rodents, snakes, and other small animals. If birds disappeared, these animal populations would explode, destroying crops and affecting animal and human health. Some birds also play a role in pollinating plants and dispersing seeds.
Q. What is your favorite local bird? (Lisa lives in Ohio)
Lisa: Wow, that's a tough question! Not sure I can pick just one. I do love the mourning doves found in the book, and the cardinals and chickadees that come to my feeder always make me smile. But it's also exciting to spot a less common bird, like a bald eagle, an indigo bunting, or a bobwhite. If any of you reading this would like to share in the comments, I'd love to hear what your favorite birds are!
FINDING A DOVE FOR GRAMPS is a great example of how to take an annual event and use it to create a successful manuscript. Her experience enriched the story and caught the eye of an editor.
What events are you involved in that might make a great book?
Here are a few celebrations to help spark the writing process.
You can find more at https://www.calendarr.com/united-states/observances-2021/
January 2 - National Science Fiction Day
January 4 - World Braille Day
January 11 - National Milk Day
January 29 - National Puzzle Day
February 3 – Feed the Birds Day
February 11 – National Inventors’ Day
February 15 – Daisy Gatson Bates Day
February 21 – International Day of Forests
March 4 – National Grammar Day
March 15 – National Napping Day
March 21- World Poetry Day
March 23 – National Puppy Day
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.