Posts Tagged Research

What Makes It Tick?

The creative mind is a wonderful and mysterious thing.

Serendipity. Déjà vu. That sweet feeling when one thing enters the equation and the answer snaps into place like pieces of a puzzle. The workings of the human brain are sublime. Humans have worked for centuries to define the nuts and bolts of how our brains work.  The neurotransmitters, the ion gradients, the neurons, the processing centers, and the communication patterns are biologically understood. Understanding creativity, however, is a whole other thing. We can record Peter Brown’s brain activity but we fall short trying to understand exactly how his brain can take a shipwrecked cargo of robots, a remote island, and wild animals and then create the world of The Wild Robot.

A wonderful and mysterious thing, right?

What makes the creative mind tick? That’s a question I’m constantly investigating.  From voice to style to structure to wild, unadulterated imagination, the facets of a creative mind are the gears that drive the bus to its destination. I find this creative engine that floats inside our skulls amazing and worthy of study. What makes 1000 writers come up with 1000 unique stories even after being given a fairly strict and narrow writing prompt?

I want to know! 

Several months ago, while driving home from work, a memory of author/illustrator Bill Peet’s autobiography popped into my head. I remember reading it in the early 1990s after checking it out from the public library. I always liked Bill Peet’s illustration work so I enjoyed his illustrated autobiography immensely. That said, I hadn’t thought of the book in well over 20 years. The memory just popped out of nowhere and I made a mental note to see if the library still had a copy in circulation. 

I made no mention of this to anyone and soon forgot to investigate further.

The weird, wild, and serendipitous part of the story is that last week, my wife came home with a certain author/illustrator’s autobiography she pulled out of the culled pile of books from the library at the elementary school she teaches at. As if it appeared from thin air, I stood, open-jawed, holding a copy of, Bill Peet: An Autobiography.

It is as good as I remembered. However, I’m still perplexed at the pure, blind fortune that resulted in the book resting on my shelf. Was my mind sending electromagnetic energy into the universe about Bill Peet’s autobiography? Was this simple luck and the coming together of unrelated events? The answer may never be known; at least not to my feeble brain.

The creative mind yearns to understand. 

I’ve always had this blessing (or curse) to understand how things work. I’ve dissected everything from lampreys to cow eyes to dogfish sharks to learn anatomy and how it relates to function. I’ve set up elaborate experiments in attempts to figure out how infectious diseases work and how the host fights them. I’ve taken apart old furniture, radios, televisions, and computers in an attempt to understand their workings. The problem in my case is I’m not so good at putting these things back together properly. 🙂

Perhaps this is why I became a scientist and why I enjoy writing and studying the processes of how stories are built. Yes, part of being a writer is to understand how to build a story and then how to best build your stories. It’s akin to studying how Seurat, Van Gogh, or Kadir Nelson create their art masterpieces.

In short, in order to build a house, you first have to know what a house is and understand what the important bits are. 

The creative mind is curious.

Confession time…

I like writing craft books. I own too many. I probably spend too much time reading and re-reading them instead of actually writing. I know many of you can relate. Writers also learn to read with a purpose. Reading a book with an eye on the author’s craft involved in creating the work. Reading to find out what made that story, that book, that graphic image effective. Kidlit-ology!

There’s also an often untapped resource out there to help understand what makes authors tick.

The kidlit creator autobiography. 

As I hinted at above with my love of the Bill Peet book, I enjoy autobiographies. I really enjoy author autobiographies. They are often different from true biographies because they’re told through the lens of the person and not from a third party. The autobiography is told through a completely different filter. Author autobiographies are like taking mom’s sewing machine apart to see its workings; they are a peek into what made them the writer they grew up to be.

After an “extensive” internet search, which, in my case, is typing “children’s authors’ autobiographies in the search box, I unearthed an interesting list of kidlit author autobiographies. Some I own, some I’ve read, and many are new to me but are now on the TBR list.

On My Shelf List

  • Bill Peet: An Autobiography by Bill Peet
  • Boy: Tales of Childhood & Going Solo by Roald Dahl
  • When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
  • Writing Radar: Using Your Journal to Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories by Jack Gantos

Ones I’ve Read List

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (Not exactly 100% reality but as the description says, “Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional…”)



The TBR List

  • Knots In My Yo-Yo String by Jerry Spinelli
  • 26 Fairmount Avenue by Tommie DePaola
  • A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary
  • Gone To The Woods: Surviving A Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen
  • Smile by Raina Telgemeier
  • Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up by Jon Scieszka
  • The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life by Sid Fleischman
  • It Came From Ohio!: My Life As A Writer by R.L. Stine











Have you read any of the books on the list?

Do you have other kidlit author autobiographies to share? I’m particularly interested in reading and studying more autobiographies from diverse creators, especially Native and Indigenous creators. If anyone knows of any, please share these books in the comments. I’d be very interested in adding them to the TBR list! 

Learning and growing. That’s what a writer does. Writing is a constant, ever-shifting process. Each piece is different in its own, unique way while carrying a core consistency that’s coined as “voice”. 

The mind is indeed a weird and wonderful thing. A writer’s mind is doubly so. A middle-grade writer may triple or quadruple that!

Have a creative spring and then carry it over into summer. Take inspiration and knowledge from those who came before us. Be a source of inspiration and knowledge to those who will come behind us.

Learn and grow. Every day.

You got this, friends.

Read. Write. Repeat.

Vanishing Hitchhikers and Ghost Dogs! An Interview with Kerrie Hollihan

Hey Mixed-Up Filers!

Kerrie Hollihan

I jumped at the chance to interview author Kerrie Hollihan about her new book, Ghosts Unveiled!, because it’s exactly the sort of book I would have fought over with my friends in the school library when I was a kid. It’s spooky, well-researched, and best of all, it’s part of a series of similarly enthralling titles (the next one is about bones – how cool is that?). I asked Kerrie about her experiences, her writing methods, and obviously her favorite halloween costume. 

CL: Thanks for talking with me, Kerrie! In the introduction of Ghosts Unveiled! you write about some of your personal experiences with the supernatural – were there any specific experiences in your life that motivated you to explore the topic of ghosts?

KH: Are you surprised if I say “No”? Abrams Books for Young Readers had Mummies Exposed! in the works when they proposed a series called “Creepy & True.”  They had my proposal for a next book (Bones Unearthed!), and suggested I write a second title for the series about ghosts. Little did I know how much I’d learn.

CL: The book lists LOTS of different kinds of ghosts – do you have a favorite? 

KH: Hmmm. I think my favorites arise out of doing research, so my favorite stories have pointed me to my favorite ghosts.  One would be the ghost of the English soldier from the Gallipoli battle in World War One, and another is whatever tugged at the leg of Vernon Peterson, the elderly cemetery groundskeeper who questioned the odd-looking Civil War grave and spurred the identification of the Black soldiers buried there.

CL: Yes! I really loved that part of the book! Ghosts Unveiled! is full of well-researched anecdotes and snippets from historical accounts. Can you share some tips or strategies for doing research?

KH: Often I dig into my memory bank for events I’ve studied or places I have been, and then my research starts. Unlike Mummies Exposed! or the new book I’m writing, Bones Revealed!, for Ghosts Unveiled! I pinpointed “my” ghosts, then I went to historical societies, old newspapers…and online research is a godsend when you want to dig up old accounts of ghosts, so I started with contemporary reports published in the early 1900s, 1800s, or even earlier on or Project Gutenberg. Some accounts are online, but for others I relied on my wonderful Cincinnati Public Library for old books, many of which are referenced in the endnotes of Ghosts Unveiled! (Hereward Carrington’s Psychical Phenomena and the War, for one!) Magazine articles and blog posts are also a good start, though I pay careful attention to the details, because often these are wrong. For fact checking, I go to—and not Wikipedia, although their footnotes often lead me to other prospects.

CL: So how do you organize all that information?

KH: I organize my research two ways: I find three or four big nuggets of info that will become individual chapters in each book, and then I spend time thinking about other chapters that will round things out. I use Evernote to clip articles and posts from the web and organize these by topic.  When I want to get an impression of a very long passage in a book, I often dictate a note into Evernote as I read through.  If I find a good quote, then I dictate that with the citation, as well.  Ha…in the end…it’s all about the endnotes!

CL: Well, speaking of individual chapters – one of my favorite parts of the book is the section on animal ghosts (which I did NOT realize was a thing!) – was it hard to find research on that subject?

KH: Surprisingly, no. They just appeared as I was looking things up. The “black dog” ghost is a super big presence in the British Isles, but I was looking for an American dog ghost.  I wrote an entire section on the ghosts who hung out with of the famed dog author Albert Terhune from the early 1900s, but then I read that he was a notorious racist. I decided not to get into any controversy, so I ended up with a better choice, and that would be the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills, whose tale I found on 

CL: The haunted locations in the book span the entire globe. Are there any specific locations you’ve been to or hope to visit?

KH: I’ve been to many, as it happens. I think after I’ve traveled someplace, my psyche is left with a bit of the vibe, as it were.  I’ve traveled in the UK and Ireland, the American Southwest (my dad lived near the scene documented by Antonio Garcez of the ancient ghost that creeped out the boys on the road outside Tucson.) In 2011 I was in Japan as they prepared to celebrate Obon, to welcome back the spirits of their ancestor, by lighting up a massive display on a hillside – little did I know I’d be writing about Japanese ghosts a few years on! 

CL: Yeah, really! Was there anything else that surprised you as you were working on the book? 

KH: At first my research covered ghost legends and ghost folklore, and I learned that these are meticulously cataloged in volumes of books. About 1950, students at Utah State collected and cataloged ghost stories. Here’s an example from the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” … 

  1. Supernatural Non-Religious Legends

2.1. Revenants

2.1.1. Revenant or Evidence of Appears Along Roadway Vanishing Hitchhiker (Folder 1)

… Driver vanishes. (Folder 2) In Payson, Utah, female appears in middle of road, is hit and leaves blood and scratches on car. Old woman appears in front of car at place where she was killed long before. White ghost dog appears and disappears along roadway. Old sheepherder who was beaten to death searches roadway for his lost body. Mysterious man gives aid at accident site. …


CL: Wow – that’s really wild that it’s part of recorded history like that! Your books all focus heavily on history and science. What motivates you to write on those subjects?

KH: It’s truly gratifying for me to read your observation, though I’m not quite sure why I write like this. I guess it’s how I look at the past and how I like to explain things to my young readers. The crossroads of history and science is fun to research and to write about.  “You can’t have one without the other…”—like that old Sinatra tune😊

CL: And what would you say to a skeptical reader who doesn’t believe in ghosts?

KH: Seeing ghosts is a personal experience. I could go into a long discussion about God and science and worldview and so on, but let’s leave it at that! 

CL: Okay, Kerrie – now comes my favorite part…the lightning round! Here we go…Favorite place to write?

KH: In my son’s old bedroom, still with the stars he pasted on the ceiling for nighttime.

CL: Favorite authors?

KH: George Saunders, Jennifer Winspear, Eric Larsson, Ian McEwan

CL: The BEST scary movie is…

KH: The Exorcist

CL: Do you have any pets?  

KH: A black Ausiedoodle named Maleficent for my favorite Disney (cartoon) villain. But she’s Malley for short.

CL: Best desert? 

KH: Cherry pie a la mode

CL: Spookiest book you’ve ever read?

KH: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Spooky, informative, and theological all in one.And a short story!…“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

CL: Best Halloween costume? 

KH: My Maleficent costume that I sewed myself about 30 years ago….I still have it.

CL: Thanks, Kerrie! It was so fun getting to talk with you!


Kerrie Hollihan writes award-winning nonfiction for young people. Her new book is Ghosts Unveiled!, second in the Creepy and True series for Abrams Books for Young Readers. The first, Mummies Exposed!, garnered four four-star reviews.  Kerrie’s books have been honored as “notables” by the Children’s Book Council/National Council for the Social Studies and more. She’s especially thrilled that Mummies! is accessible for vision impaired readers through the Library of Congress.

To learn more about Kerrie, you can visit her on her website, and Kerrie also belongs to the highly regarded nonfiction author group iNK Think Tank and its interactive partner, Authors on Call – She blogs with other authors at Hands-on-Books, and you can catch her three-minute talks about lots of things at iNK’s Nonfiction Minute. 

Thanks, everyone…and don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a free copy of Ghosts Unveiled! 

See you next time!

Weird and Wacky Facts

worstSometimes while authors are researching books, they run across strange and interesting facts. Some of these discoveries make it into the book, but others don’t. Editors may decide certain facts shouldn’t be included. Other times there isn’t enough room to include them all.

I recently finished writing a book called Exploring Ancient Rome that will be coming out next year. The editors wanted to include information about government and road building; I want to include odd and unusual details about daily life.

If you were reading the book would you rather know that Rome was once an empire, or that the emperor Caligula built his horse a marble stable and gave his horse a top government position? Or that gazing on the emperor’s balding head was a capital offense?

Would you rather know that Romans used the arch to create the Pantheon, or that they ate flamingo tongue, stuffed dormice, and pickled sow udder?

Would you rather know that the Romans adopted ideas from other cultures, or that they washed their clothes with urine? The ammonia in urine gave a washing solution good whitening power, so Romans also used urine to brush their teeth. Other cosmetic tips from ancient Rome:horrible

  • To dye hair black, let leeches rot for 40 days in wine
  • Instead of soap, rub your body with oil and scrape off the dirt.
  • Hippopotamus skin helps prevent balding.
  • To cover gray hair, boil walnut shells, earthworms, and ashes.

egypt For me, quirky information like that is what makes a subject come alive. A few books that provide unusual facts about Rome are Horrible Jobs in Ancient Greece and Rome by Robyn Handyman, The Totally Gross History of Ancient Rome by Jeremy Klar, and Top 10 Worst Things about Ancient Rome You Wouldn’t Want to Know! by Victoria England and David Antram. Other books in these series cover different countries.

For a little extra fun, author Bobbi Miller volunteered some interesting tidbits she unearthed while researching her book, Girls of Gettysburg. 51nj-iaqbkl-_ac_us160_

  • The youngest soldier serving in the Civil War was a nine-year old boy from Mississippi.
  • In a single day, the one million horses serving in the Civil War would have peed enough urine to fill more than 12 swimming pools.
  • Robert E. Lee had a pet chicken named Hen. Every morning, Hen laid an egg under Lee’s cot, which Lee then cooked for breakfast.
  • The artillery barrage during Picket’s Charge could be heard 100 miles away in Pittsburgh.
  • After President Lincoln was diagnosed with a mild form of smallpox, he said, “For once in my life as President, I find myself in a position to give everybody something.”

Perhaps people who find history boring are reading the wrong things. What fascinating facts have you discovered?


A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author. In addition to Exploring Ancient Rome, she has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names. Some of her other books on history include Pirates through the Ages, Imperial China, West African Kingdoms, Exploring Ancievt Rome.  Visit Laurie at