By Nancy Churnin
I just sold my 11th book, but do I get stuck sometimes? YES. One of the problems that comes back to haunt me more than I would like to admit is gathering too much information. Let’s face it, one of the reasons you’re a nonfiction writer is that you love research. I’m going to take a gamble and bet that you’re one of those people that study old books, newspaper and magazine articles, lifting up your head to exclaim, Really? She did what? That actually happened?
It’s easy to hoard all this delicious information and to get carried away by all the fascinating details. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve written in a previous Nonfiction Ninja post about A Theme to the Rescue – where a strong, kid-friendly theme helped me streamline (and, sigh, toss out) details that kept my story boat from floating. A theme is a lifeline. But in this post, I want to talk about how structure can also be your friend.
When I’m worried that I’ve got too much information or narrative for a picture book to hold, I give thanks to picture book author and Storystorm creator Tara Lazar, and pull out her Picture Book Layouts, better known as dummies.Tara gives two options below.
In one example, you have 14 spreads, plus 2 single-page illustrations. In the other, you have 12 spreads. Trying to see how your story fits into this limited number of spreads can wake you to reality very quickly. Given that you don’t want to have more than a couple of sentences on each spread, you realize you have to make big choices: do I really need this? Is this advancing my theme and doing it in a way that makes kids want to turn the page to a satisfying conclusion?
If you’ve got too much information for a dummy to hold, maybe what you really want to work on is middle grade. But that’s another story.
By Stephanie Bearce
Writing nonfiction ALWAYS means research. Sometimes it involves deep dives into the library stacks or wandering through jungles of internet information. But other times it means plunging into the ocean with a jellyfish, crawling through caves hunting for bats, or scaling crumbling cliffs collecting fossils.
I've had some of my best adventures doing research for nonfiction projects. I've crawled through rooms full of artfully arranged skulls to learn about the Paris Catacombs. I've spent hours sitting outside in subzero temperatures to understand the mating habits of Gray Wolves, and I've traveled to the rivers of Australia to watch platypus play in their own environment.
Each adventure has given me insight that I never could have found in a library or on a YouTube video. I learned that the adorable platypus is a hyperactive little bugger. He is constantly diving for food, coming back up to gasp for air with sides heaving and body still wriggling. In seconds he dives back down to waggle his bill through the mud hunting for supper. The best way to track a platypus is to watch for the air bubbles that escape when he is underwater. Follow the bubbles and eventually you will see the platy surface.
I've learned how to tell who is the Alpha male in a pack by the way the wolves hold their tails. The alpha male's is usually straight out even with his back.
I also know that the easiest way to tell a fossilized bone from a rock is to lick it. The porous nature of the bone will cause it to stick to your tongue. And yes, it is better if it is a clean fossil - but when in the field...
I'm really excited about my next adventure. I'm headed to Lyme Regis, England. Home of fossil hunter Mary Anning. I'm going to spend time in her home town, read her papers, climb her fossil cliffs, and hopefully spot a few of the fossils that made her famous.
What will I learn about her that I couldn't find in the library or on the internet?
I'm not sure!
And that's a part of the adventure. I know that by walking in her footsteps and seeing the place where she lived and died, I will learn something new. Something that I hope will make my book about her unique and enthralling for middle grade readers.
It is not physically or financially feasible for authors to investigate each of their topics in person. But on those rare occasions when you are able to dive into the ocean with a scientist or walk in the footsteps of history - take advantage. Go on the adventure and soak up the knowledge. Your story will be all the better for it.
by Christine Liu-Perkins
My favorite part of the writing process is doing research. I collect as much as I can. The upside of extensive research is having a wealth of information to draw on and learn from. But the downside is getting overwhelmed trying to process all that material.
How can one absorb and understand so much information? How do you get it off the page (or screen) and into your mind?
Studies shows that students learn best when they actively engage with material. Likewise for writers, the more we ponder, wrestle with, and ruminate over our research, the more we comprehend. And the better we understand a subject, the more deeply and creatively we can write about it.
How can we get research off the page and into our minds? "Get control over your topic by writing about it along the way," suggests one of my favorite books on academic research and writing (Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 66). Reflecting on smaller chunks of research as you gather it will help you avoid being overwhelmed by mountains of information later on.
Here are some ways to ponder, wrestle, and ruminate over your research:
Ponder, wrestle, and ruminate over your research along the way. You'll be well prepared when it's time to write that first draft!
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.