Posts Tagged researching nonfiction

Writing MG Nonfiction: Top Researching Tips

I think half the fun of writing MG nonfiction is done before ever beginning to write. It all begins with research. I love to do research. I can spend hours just searching for that one really weird fact that sends me down another research rabbit hole. Those strange and little-known facts are what grab kids attention and what makes your book stand out from the rest. So research is not work to me—it’s really fun. And what it ultimately leads to is the story behind the facts. You want to get to that story . . . it’s what really hooks young readers.

Through working in publishing as an editor and solo as a freelance writer/editor, I’ve gathered some very reliable resources of interesting information that I either use on the book I’m writing or that I tuck away in my “future book ideas” file. I write a lot of science- and history-focused books, so here are some of the best resources I’ve found to help me with that research. Feel free to add some of your top research resources in the comments.

 

Library Databases: Free to access (with a library account) and filled with a wealth of information, library databases can be accessed either online or onsite at your local library. You can search academic journals, historical newspapers, scientific collections, historical collections, government publications, maps, music, and much more. Onsite databases offer even more than what libraries have online. Most writers wouldn’t be able to afford one or two of the subscriptions to these databases each year, but libraries can offer them free to the public. You just have to know where to look on their website or on computers in the library—and librarians are always willing to help you find the best databases for your research needs. Here are just a few of the many databases available through my local library’s online resources:

  • Birds of North America Online: Life histories of bird species breeding in the U.S. (including Hawaii) and Canada, including maps, images, videos, and audio files of songs and calls.
  • EBSCO Megafile: Magazine and journal articles, reference books, and images. Provides general and academic coverage of multiple subjects including science, technology, religion, philosophy, psychology, and business.
  • General Science Collection (from GALE): Full-text articles from journals on physics, mathematics, nanotechnology, geology, chemistry, biology, and more.
  • National Geographic Virtual Library: Full-text magazine articles. Includes books, maps, images and videos. Goes back to 1888.
  • New York Times, Historical: Digitized images from the original newspapers, New York Daily Times (1851 – 1857) and New York Times (from 1857 on, except the most recent 4 years).

 

An LOC image of Wilbur Wright gliding in level flight, moving to right near bottom of Big Hill; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Library of Congress: I am constantly findingnew treasures on the Library of Congress website. Whether it’s a historical photograph that helps me describe a hunting scenes and near-extinction of buffalo and bald eagles in North America or Civil War maps that help me understand more about the history of the war, this site is packed with primary sources that can be used not only for research on the topic, but also for free historical images that can be used in your book. It contains digital images, music, and manuscript collections; reference guides for researchers (like this one on natural disasters); great backmatter inclusions, like this list of sites for kids and families, turn-of-the-century films of San Francisco before and after the great earthquake and fire ; articles with links and images about important inventions, like the Wright brothers’ airplane and first flight; or the America’s Story site for student use.

 

Google Alerts and GoogleScholar: If I’m working on a particular topic, I’ll set up a Google Alert on the topic. This is particularly helpful when writing about current topics that are affected by daily events. The alerts send me links to the latest news articles and research papers on the topic. For example, I found this really useful when writing a book about exoplanet discoveries, as new planets are being discovered on a daily basis. I use Google Scholar to search academic journals for the latest research.

 

Research Papers (Lead to Interviews and Much More!): Not only great for primary source information and data to support your arguments, research papers are a goldmine for interview leads. They always include author information, sometimes even email addresses for the scientists who led the study and wrote their analysis. If not, by digging a little further, you can usually find contact information through a scientist’s listing on the university website of where they work. I have gotten many interviews with top scientists in their field this way, and the majority are thrilled to speak with me. Many will even send me other papers relevant to my topic, or not-yet-published results from some of their studies.

I found this incredible photo through a research paper on earwigs and their intricate wings.

Research papers may also include photos and diagrams related to the study. Some include a release for media professionals or contact information for media inquiries. I’ve never had a problem getting permission to use these images in the books I write, and since they are so specific to the topic, they can show exactly what’s described in the text (rather than the typical stock images, which is often what publisher’s use when specific images are not available). Authors of these studies will often send me laboratory photos to use in my books as well, which cannot be found elsewhere. For example, for a book on animal and plant longevity, a scientist studying Greenland sharks sent me the most amazing photos of him tagging the sharks for further study and of the shark’s eyeball (which is used to determine its several centuries-old age). Scientists rock! Their willingness to help authors educate others leads to some of the most interesting angles and stories behind the data of their studies.

And just a few more . . .

Digging deeply into your research will lead you on pathways you had no idea existed for your book. So have fun and dig as deep as you can as you work on your nonfiction. Kids will notice your work!

Traveling Africa in Pursuit of Research

Most authors spend many hours researching topics before they begin writing. For fiction, getting details right is important, but for nonfiction it’s essential.

I recently returned from Kenya after gathering material for a story I’m writing. Yes, I saw many different parts of the country, but my goal was getting background material for a biography on one of the leaders of the Mau-Mau rebellion, when Kenya declared its independence from Great Britain.

To do this, I traveled over back roads to meet the man’s son, who was a schoolboy at the time his father was arrested. When I say back roads, I don’t mean the usual country roads. These were roads typically traversed on foot or motorbike. While we jounced along, huge chunks of rock and piles of dirt scraped the underside of the van. At times we could only pass by driving with two wheels in the ditch at the side of the road. Sometimes the van tilted so much, it seemed as if we were riding on two wheels rather than four. This harrowing ride was made more difficult when we needed to pass an occasional vehicle by a hair’s breadth.

After more than an hour, we came to the remote village in the mountains. We took a tour of the extensive farm, then settled in for the interview, while his wife cooked beef stew over coals in a small metal fire pit in the kitchen. Chickens wandered into the screened-in porch, while a goose pecked at the screen as his story unfolded. He began with the family tree, so I would know his father’s history. He rattled off names and dates. What an incredible memory! And I left his farm with a full stomach and many memories of my own.

The next day we visited the prison where many Mau-Mau revolutionaries were held. Because the prison is still in use, we had to wait for the guards to clear all the prisoners from the areas we would be touring. And we received special permission to take a few pictures. The prisoners watched from behind barbed wire fencing while we entered the older buildings on the grounds. It was an emotional day for the independence leader’s daughter because this was the first time she had seen the cells where her father was held for seven years. Throughout the tour, the guards were very respectful of the descendant of a man who’d helped secure Kenya’s freedom.

I spent one day at the area considered the “Eden” of the Kikuyu people and heard their origin story and history, and viewed historical artifacts, granaries (pictured), and homes. The fight for independence mainly began with the Kikuyu, who wanted to stop British settlers from taking over their land. Ancient and modern history combined later when I got to hear about politics from an official in the present-day government who is Kikuyu.

Another stop was the archives in Nairobi, which has a museum on the first two floors that added to my knowledge of history. My main goal, though, was to look at official records. Although they could not pull the specific records I requested, they did bring me a file from 1954 titled “Information and Propaganda,” which contained British records of the revolts, arrests, and killings. It was jarring to read the British accounts after hearing the Kenyans laud the Mau Mau as freedom fighters. The British called them “terrorists.” Interesting to see how people with opposing points of view can describe the same events so differently.

Before I’d left for Africa, I’d read books about the period recommended by my Kenyan friend, and those accounts by Kenyan writers gave me a greater understanding of the culture and history. In addition, I had a long, handwritten account of family stories from the man’s son. Armed with that knowledge, I returned home to begin my library and online research. Having firsthand experiences and good official records will add richness and detail to the story that I would not have had otherwise. When the book is written, the manuscript will be sent to all the sources to check it for accuracy.

Reading about my travels and research might give some insight into how much background work can go into writing a children’s book. Stories come from the heart, but they need to be backed up by extensive research. Once the book is written, I hope sharing this small piece of history and one man’s commitment to Kenyan freedom will inspire children everywhere to dream big.