For this series of posts, we asked several authors to tell us about the research adventures they’ve had on their way to creating new work. This idea was inspired by Debbie Dadey’s astounding feats, so she gets to go first. David follows with his cave exploration, and then Sandy chimes in with her volunteer stint at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Finally, a bevy of guests take us to all sorts of unexpected places, from a Jewish ghetto memorial in China to 3000 feet into a deep sea trench in the Bahamas.
April 7, 2015
April 7, 2015
I’ve always heard, write what you know. Perhaps it should be write what you DO. I’ve always wanted to experience what I write about if it is at all possible. So, unless it’s dangerous I do it.
Ooops, wait a minute that isn’t true, because some people would say sliding into a shark tank or sky diving is dangerous and I’ve done both to help me write stories.
I guess this ‘doing’ thing all began when I was writing a Bailey School Adventure book with my friend Marcia Thornton Jones. When we first started writing the series, we actually sat side by side and worked out the story together. We were stuck on a scene when the kids were in a classroom. We wanted Eddie to do something a bit wild, but what? So we were ‘doers’. We went into a third grade classroom and sat down at a desk. Scraps of paper were spilling out, which we included in our story, but that wasn’t wild. It wasn’t the pencil stubs, but the scissors poking their blunt points out of the mess that gave us the idea. Eddie was sitting behind Liza and her long blond hair was swinging. Can you guess what Eddie was going to do? (Or try to do?)
So when we were writing the story, Hercules Doesn’t Pull Teeth, it made perfect sense for us to go to the dentist to do research. Sure, I’ve been to the dentist more times that I can remember, but I’d never really paid attention. So, going to the dentist and taking a few notes really helped bring the dentist’s office to life. The same was true for bringing karate practice alive in the book, Angels Don’t Know Karate. What better way to write about karate than to actually do it? It was a bit embarrassing though since my son was a higher belt and I had to bow to him. (He loved it!)
I think the key to being a ‘doer’ is to put a limited number of details into the natural flow of the story. I didn’t want Mrs. Jeepers in Outer Space to become a non-fiction book about space camp, but I did want kids to feel like they were really there. So I hustled myself off to Huntsville, Alabama to experience what it was really like. Spinning around to the point of nausea on the multi-axis trainer was worth it because I could write about it with a bit of authority.
For Whistler’s Hollow, I drove eight hours so I could sit on a coal train. I took notes so I could write one paragraph about what it felt like. It must have worked because when that book came out, the publisher of Bloomsbury USA told me, “It felt like I was really on that train.”
I also slid into a shark tank for Danger in the Deep Blue Sea, book number four in my Mermaid Tales series with Simon and Schuster. But probably the craziest thing I have done for writing was to fall out of a plane! I wrote a story, that I’ve never sold, where a grandmother wanted to go sky-diving. So, I figured to be able to write about it I should experience it. Big mistake!! You can see me scream on my website, http://www.debbiedadey.com.
Some folks might think being a ‘doer’ is an unnecessary extra step and perhaps it is. Probably researching or watching videos will suffice in most instances. And I’m sure going to see a real live reindeer for Reindeers Don’t Wear Striped Underwear, getting a scooter of my own for Pirates Do Ride Scooters, and creating a mess making cookies for Slime Wars wasn’t totally necessary. But for me, it’s hard to pass up the chance to be a kid again. And if it can help me write better, then I’m all for it.
Currently, I am writing a story about a mermaid who is injured and can’t swim. I wanted to write it because I think kids deserve to see their mirror image on the covers of books. I don’t see many books with handicapped children on the front. I hope Mermaid Tales #14 will feature a mermaid on the cover in a ‘wheel-chair’ of sorts. So what do I need to do? I need to experience it. Anyone have a wheelchair handy?
April 14, 2015
April 14, 2015
Debbie, I loved reading about how you prepared to write your stories. Such adventures you’ve had in pursuit of the truth and the firsthand experiences that breathe real life and meaning into your work.
Leaping from a plane! Swimming with sharks! Young people who read your descriptions are learning valuable lessons about what goes into writing before one word is put on paper.
So now it’s my turn. I, too, have gone to some lengths to prepare for my subject – flying to England, boating up the Amazon — but today I’m going to take a slightly different track. I’d like to talk about books that spring from the adventure itself. That is, instead of having a book idea and setting out to learn about the subject, sometimes a writer has an adventure and realizes that there’s a book to be written because of it.
Here’s my example. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked America taking thousands of lives in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, a cave was discovered near Springfield, Missouri by a road construction crew. Not long afterward I was invited into the cave.
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with caves. I was carried into my first cave on my father’s shoulders at age four and explored one on my own as a boy of twelve. From that one I brought home a skull from an extinct form of black bear. I wrote a book about caves in 1970 (THE WORLD OF AMERICAN CAVES) and another in 2001 (CAVES, MYSTERIES BENEATH OUR FEET). After spending a day going through the newly discovered cavern, I posed in the welcome sunlight with my three companions. Smiling for the camera, covered from head to foot in sticky red clay, what was running through my mind wasn’t that I was filthy and needed a bath. I was thinking that I was going to write a book about this cave.
It didn’t take long to learn that no one involved with the discovery of the cave knew the whole story. Everyone had a piece of the puzzle but no one had the whole picture. I began interviewing people who had a role in discovering, saving, or exploring the cave: the road construction crew foreman, the guy who set off the dynamite blast that uncovered the cave, the geologist who led the exploration team, the paleontologist who discovered valuable ancient fossils inside, the engineer who rerouted the road to one side to save the cave, the cartographer who mapped the cave, the speleologist who repaired and cleaned damaged formations . . . . Eventually I put the story together.
Now I could almost imagine that quiet day when the blast tore a hole in the earth and ripped off part of the ceiling in the cave below. Almost. I had everything but the sound it must have made! What did that blast sound like? I called the guy who set off the blast and asked if he had any blasting to do, and he did. I met him at a quarry, walked along the limestone bluff where he was working, looked down into the holes that would soon be packed with explosives, and then, from a safe distance, I heard and recorded the sound of dynamite blasting rocks into powder and small chunks. It sounded like – ready? – a waterfall! Like water pouring over a cliff onto rocks below. Who knew? I did! Now.
So I had my story and the sound of discovery. Back into the cave where I spent hours walking, slipping, crouching, and crawling through red clay that sometimes came over shoe tops. Marveling over tracks left by peccaries thousands of years ago that were still moist. Sitting beside wallows scooped out by enormous short-faced bears that became extinct more than ten millennia ago. Gazing in awe at claw marks left by American lions, saber tooth cats, and the bears. Holding a fossil peccary’s foot bone that had been crunched off in an attack.
Then I wrote the 48-page book. Piece of cake.
April 21, 2015
April 21, 2015
Most of my research over the years has dealt with folklore or history and has involved the library, Internet, and vast store of knowledge preserved in my historian husband’s books and brain. Although the development of my play “I Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp” began with the book of the same name, it was in every other way an out-of-the-ordinary experience. And not just because I met Paul Newman.
It all began with a visit to a children’s theater in NYC, where the artistic director asked if I’d be interested in writing a play about children with cancer. Everything about that previous sentence is out-of-the-ordinary. I was living in Springfield, MO, at the time, did not get to NYC often, had never been to this theater, had not met this artistic director previously, and don’t receive these kinds of invitations often. Top that off with a visit to a NYC bookstore later that day and the discovery of the above mentioned book, propped up on a table as if intentionally placed there to attract my attention. Serendipity!
As you may know, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is a summer retreat founded by Paul Newman for children with life-threatening illnesses. For their book, I WILL SING LIFE: VOICES FROM THE HOLE IN THE WALL GANG CAMP, counselors Larry Berger and Dahlia Lithwick ran a summer-long creative writing program at the camp and also lived for a month with each of seven campers, observing their daily lives and interviewing each of them and family members. The book pulls together those observations and interviews, plus a wealth of poetry, stories, and plays written by the seven highlighted campers and others who participated in the creative writing program. It is so jam-packed with wisdom, humor, joy, and drama, I immediately wanted to share it with the world.
The artistic director, on the other hand, did not feel this was the basis for the play she needed. Too late, I was hooked. I had to write it. I’d find a theater to produce it later. (As it turned out, theaters were leery – a play about children with cancer? — until I produced it myself.) First step: I wrote to the camp office and received permission to adapt the book – and a warning that others had tried to make it stageworthy and failed.
I remained undaunted. Or maybe just driven. But no sooner did I start writing than I realized I needed to experience the camp for myself. I applied to be a volunteer for an 11-day session. A detailed written application, several references, and two long phone interviews later, I was accepted. Now, I was terrified. What did I imagine lay ahead for me that summer? A kind of sepia-toned movie ran in my head: gloomy, slow-motion images of desperately sick kids and their grim caretakers struggling to make the best of a tragic situation.
I could not have been more mistaken. Bright sunshine, brilliant colors, frenetic activity, funky music, endless chatter, and shrieks of laughter filled the Wild West-themed bunks and buildings and spilled out across the spacious green areas and deliciously heated pool. Sure, there were catheters, crutches, and wheelchairs here and there, and a few children who needed to be carried from activity to activity. But whatever each child needed, that is exactly what he or she got. And more. And every minute. The boundlessly loving staff never wavered or weakened in their dedication to giving those children a great camp experience. The overall mood was one of pure, unstoppable celebration. I took my place assisting the creative writing teacher and helping out with a bunk of pre-teen/early teen girls and received far more than I gave. I learned what it meant to “sing life.”
I wished that experience for everyone, so that’s what I tried to put into the script. I’m happy to say that it’s been produced and published and that a percentage of the royalties are returned to the camp – small payments on the huge debt I owe those counselors and children for their lessons on appreciating the gift of each and every day.
Oh, and I did meet Paul Newman, a small, quiet man in his early 70s riding a no-speed bike to and from his home on the premises, eating meals with the children, watching them rehearse a play, and mostly being ignored. I introduced myself as a volunteer and thanked him for the opportunity to participate in such an amazing program. “It is nice, isn’t it?” he replied, softly.
April 28, 2015
VEDA BOYD JONES
For Nellie the Brave, an historical about the Cherokee Trail of Tears, I went to Tahlequah, OK, to the Cherokee Nation headquarters and saw objects that were brought to OK on one of the wagon trains from the Indian removal. I also took the tour of the grounds to learn more about Cherokee culture.
For First Cousins (out later this year from Schoolwide) I went to Washington D.C. and toured the White House and other historical sites.
Because I write for adults, I’ve researched occupations I’ve given my heroines. When I wrote about a newscaster, I spent two days at at TV station, interviewing folks with different jobs and going into the studio, the engineer’s booth with at least 30 screens, even crawling into the remote van. When I wrote about a professional baseball player, I toured a ball stadium, even going into the locker room. When I couldn’t go to a place, I interviewed people with the jobs of my main characters.
The book I’m just now planning for this MFA thesis will be set during the Vietnam era and in Vietnam. I’ll have to trust Jimmie’s memory for some scenes, but I’ll research the historical time instead of trusting to my memory about what was going on here in the States, and I’ll interview other Vietnam vets, too, and read tons of books about that war.
That Sunday Afternoon
Since for many (most) authors a trip to Hawaii or Egypt would be at least as much and probably more than they will get–IF they get–any advance on the book, and might be more time than they can reasonably take away from family duties, we have to consider other imaginative ways to get into the blood and bones of a book.
I haunt old bookstores where I found a travel book on Edinburgh datelined 1929 which slots nicely into a 1930s graphic novel set in that very place.
I joined a friend who was doing a paid-for article for Yankee Magazine as she went around the Shaker Village in New York State just as I was writing a novel about Shakers.
I had an Indian colleague of my husband’s read a manuscript set in India in the 1920s.
A friend just back from a trip to Poland brought me photos and travel brochures, post cards and snapshots from there because I was writing a novel partially set there. And I used her interesting take on the Polish airport that I got from her when I took her out for lunch.
I just thought I’d share a short example of diligence in creating authenticity…
A year and a half ago, I had an idea for a counting, rhyming picture book – but no way to write it. That’s because the concept involved 12 different languages – only one of which I knew fluently (English) and one I knew partially (French). But these needed to be diverse languages from all corners of the Earth, from English to Chinese to Navajo. So what’s a guy to do??
First, I searched online for educational material on speaking each language. Then I needed to search that language’s use of numbers – specifically, natural numerals (1, 2, 3…) and not ordinal numerals (first, second, third…). I needed to figure out what the numbers looked like AND what they sounded like (in order to provide phonetic pronunciations). Interestingly, many numbers of the same language are written differently and even spoken differently, depending on dialects and accents – so what I thought was going to be moderate amount of research turned into a major, MAJOR effort, watching videos of natural citizens speaking their native tongues, watching them draw the characters, and comparing and contrasting the differences and similarities.
I finally got it done and am quite proud of it – of course, I’ll be prouder if it gets picked up! – but the research was mind-boggling. It probably took me 10 times as long to research it as it did to actually write it.
I am the author of one book so far: I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: POEMS OF AMERICAN SLAVERY. It came out to starred reviews in 2012 and is illustrated by Michele Wood.
I am the author of one book so far: I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: POEMS OF AMERICAN SLAVERY. It came out to starred reviews in 2012 and is illustrated by Michele Wood.
Each poem is named for a traditional quilt block pattern and each references/recalls slavery in one way or another.
For example, “Log Cabin” is a poem depicting what archeologists have found excavating the slave quarters near a plantation. To research that idea, I went to Mount Vernon, Virginia and took notes as the historians gave us a tour of the actual dig that archeologists were working on.
For the poem “Anvil” I went to several blacksmith demonstrations at arts and crafts festivals in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Annapolis and talked to them about their work.
I listened to the WPA interviews with former slaves and their children and grandchildren, not just for the information, but for cadence, their rhythms of speech in order to get the sound right in my poems.
I also researched the history of the quilt blocks themselves and spoke with quilt historians and museum curators about their quilt collections, the variance in quilt designs and names. And finally, I made by hand, a queen-sized quilt including all of the quilt blocks I wrote about in order to get a sense of each block, of hand-piecing, and working with a limited color palette.
My husband Tom and I made two trips to China during the years I was researching my book, SHANGHAI SHADOWS, which is about the resettlement of eastern European refugees during the Hitler years. In the Old City of Shanghai there is a small park sandwiched between two crumbling buildings that had been part of the ghetto where 20,000 Jews lived from 1939 to 1945. They weren’t mistreated, or worse, as they would have been had they not escaped from Europe. But they were confined in the Hongkou Ghetto to starve along with everyone else during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. We walked into this little park peopled by Chinese retirees taking their graceful morning exercise. Suddenly everyone stopped and watched us conspicuous westerners wend our way to the back clump of trees in front of which stands a monument inscribed in three languages — English, Chinese, and Hebrew — dedicated to the “Stateless Jews of Europe.” Tom and I trembled as we read the monument in the two language we could, running our fingers over the other words as if they were in Braille. We were profoundly moved by the fact that 20,000 people, who might well have been our own ancestors, survived the war and gave breath to all their descendants, because of the generosity of the Chinese people. Tom and I held one another as tears slid down our cheeks. And finally, we turned to go, and were stunned to see that all the people in the park had formed a semi-circle behind us in silent sympathy. They’d probably never noticed the monument before and maybe had never even seen westerners, but they were clearly curious about our reaction to this odd piece of granite, and we felt cradled by them 65 years after the ghetto had emptied. None of my research moments has equalled this experience. Thanks for letting me share it.
Steal Away Home
CLAIRE RUDOLF MURPHY
As a writer of many nonfiction books, I too have gone to great lengths to conduct research, from studying 100-year-old journals and letters from the northern gold rushes to holding in my hand Susan B. Anthony’s actual 1896 letter to California suffragist Mary McHenry Keith. I never fail to get the shivers reading the words of real people. In the past few years I have been doing research about current events in my own lifetime and my favorite is to interview these participants by phone or even better, in person. So my most memorable research experience was my November 2014 interview with my hero Rep. John Lewis. Long before he served in Congress he was one of the early civil rights’ activists, a Freedom Rider, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, a leader of the voting rights march in Selma when he was beaten senseless on Pettus Bridge. The last remaining civil rights activist in Congress he’s been interview often during these anniversaries and recent events in Ferguson and New York City. So I knew his face and voice well. But nothing prepared me for his generosity, his kindness, his belief that America can move forward toward a better country for all of us. I will never forget those 60 minutes with John Lewis, a highlight of my writing life.
My Country Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights
April 29, 2015
SNEED COLLARD III
Like many writers, I’ve had the good fortune of exploring the world by researching my books.
Writing has allowed me to hike through Costa Rican cloud forests, scuba dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, watch a tallgrass prairie burn, and airboat through the Everglades. However, the experience that left the, ahem, deepest impression on me was the opportunity to dive to the deep sea floor.
Back in 2001, just after 9-11, I was invited to accompany Dr. Edith Widder on a cruise to the Bahama Islands. By then, Dr. Widder had already earned an international reputation for her work on bioluminescent organisms—animals that can make their own light. At the last minute, she had received a few extra days of time using the four-person submersible Johnson Sea Link. Remarkably, she invited me to come along.
For four days, the submersible carried Dr. Widder, me, and other writers, scientists, and students to the bottom of a deep-sea trench 3,000 feet deep. For me, it was better than going to the moon. Why? Even though the deep sea—like space—is cold and dark, it is full of life. At the bottom and in the water column above, we passed hundreds of strange creatures: ctenophores, viperfish, siphonophores, giant salps, angler fishes, and many more. Not only did these dives astonish me, they changed how I felt about the world.
Sitting in total darkness on the sea floor, I realized, “This is what most of the world is like—not the sun-drenched, landscape we humans are lucky enough to live in.” It made me appreciate that much more how fortunate we are to live on Earth and enjoy what really is an almost perfect world.
The dives also highlighted how much we take this world for granted. In addition to the problems we humans have created such as global warming, toxic pollution, and more, I saw that we have used the ocean as one giant garbage dump. Looking out the porthole of the submersible, I saw beer cans, plastic bags, and other trash every few feet. I’d known that humans dumped garbage into the sea, but my submersible dives showed me the vast extent of the problem.
My experiences aboard the Johnson Sea Link resulted in my book In the Deep Sea (Marshall Cavendish, 2005). That book is long out of print, but its effects on me have been permanent. I returned from these dives a changed person, not only with a new appreciation for life, but a new dedication to encourage people to take better care of this amazing gift we all share.
Fire Birds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests
J. B. (JANIE) CHEANEY
Ideas for novels or stories come with a ray of sunshine and gleam of possibility. The inspiration for my upcoming novel about the early days of the Hollywood silent movie industry came from a statue outside the entrance to Universal Studios: a circa 1930s sound stage with actors and technicians.
What would it be like, I wondered, to be present at the beginning, soon after the industry had moved from the east coast to the west and filmmaking was still something you cold get into just by showing up?
The inspiration stage is fun. But sooner or later, when constructing a plot, an author comes up against the cold hard facts—or rather, lack of cold hard facts. A bunch of kids making a movie would need some technical know-how and equipment—chiefly, a camera. And more specifically, a camera that two teenage boys of not-especially-prepossessing size could haul all over Los Angeles County without attracting much notice. Books couldn’t give me that information; I needed to talk to somebody. Aftrer stabbing around in the dark (my research methods are not what you’d call professional) I decided to see if I could get in touch with someone at the Smithsonian. Further online research got me the name of Shannon Perich, a curator specializing in photography in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History.
The Smithsonian is called “the nation’s attic,” and if the nation is looking for a particular object in connection with a particular project, it is welcome to come in and rummage around. Ms. Perich connected me with John Hiller, then retired, whose long career had included studio work in the film industry as well as cataloguing for the Smithsonian. On a lovely day in July, I met Shannon Perich and Mr. Hiller at the entrance to the American History Museum in D. C. and we drove together out to one of the many Smithsonian storage facilities in Maryland. The reader will be gratified to know, as I was, that the entire Smithsonian collection (at least ten times the amount that is on display) is painstakingly catalogued and carefully stored for maximum preservation. It’s possible to find the location of every single item—unlike your backyard storage shed—at any given time. We signed in at the door and went downstairs and walked by stacks and stacks of storage cabinets until we came to the particular aisle, stack, and shelf where the item was supposed to be. There I found the Prestwich Model 14 in its cherry-wood case, a motion-picture camera light and compact enough to carry to the battlefield (World War I forms part of the background for my novel), as well as to a dozen “on location” filming sites. I touched it, took pictures, explored its iron innards.
Even without the camera, talking to John Hiller was worth a trip: he was a wellspring of the sort of little-known facts and telling details historical fiction writers absolutely adore. At least three of these found their way into the novel. I complain as loudly as anybody about some of the uses my tax dollars are put to, but I can’t help but have warm feelings about the Smithsonian. Shannon and John didn’t just share information, but set aside valuable time to take me out to the storage facility and show me the actual item I was looking for—and I didn’t even have a book contract at the time! Many thanks for the kindness of these two strangers.
Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous
I write non-fiction; so far 25 books, and over 100 magazine articles. My subjects are mostly historical, biographical, or travel-oriented. I’ve delved into archives and trekked through three continents doing research, but my best fact-finding has come through live interviews.
The interview process was key when I wrote The World of the Trapp Family. Later I re-told the same story for children in V is for Von Trapp, “the Cliff’s Notes version,” a reviewer wrote.
As a 1960s kid, I saw The Sound of Music. On family vacations we visited the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont many times. There, Von Trapp reality collided with the Hollywood version.
The current media blitz marking the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music reminds me that the Von Trapps’ flight from the Nazis is called “one of the best known escape stories ever.” Maria, Captain Von Trapp’s third child, told me the authentic story of her family’s departure from Austria.
Maria said the Von Trapps’ butler, a closet Nazi, tipped off her father that the family was in danger. They had said no to the Nazis too many times. Refusing to sing for Hitler’s birthday, it was imperative that they leave before the borders closed. So they packed up, all eleven of them, as if they were going on a hiking trip. They simply took a train to Italy’s northern Alps, and didn’t return.
Contrary to the movie, no Nazis were in pursuit, no nuns disabled German vehicles, and there was no climbing of ev’ry mountain into Switzerland. “Geographically impossible!” Maria laughed.
The Von Trapps made it to New York, with work visas for a USA concert tour. Theirs was a classic immigrant story. They continued concertizing for twenty years.
Yes, I spent weeks pouring over the Von Trapps’ personal archives. I traveled to Austria for more research. But the interviews with members of the family are what enriched my writing. Woven into my texts are the actual voices of the Von Trapps. I discovered a quiet heroism about each of them. I hope I conveyed this in the books I wrote.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography
The first books that I wrote and illustrated, The Windchild and The Queen With Bees in her Hair, were purely fiction, just my imagination’s authentic children. But then I wrote one about the Pilgrims, those poor seafaring pioneers who had to make themselves at home in the New World wilderness. Sure, I pored over photos of the 1957 replica, the Mayflower II, and costumed reenactors at Plimoth Plantation, http://www.plimoth.org but I thought, if I was going to nail these illustrations, I’d better GO THERE. And I did. It turned out to be the first of many gallivants.
Besides all of the libraries and museums, I went to the former homes – all the places I visited are ‘former homes’ as all my subjects have been dead for years – of John & Abigail Adams, their firstborn, JQA; Abraham Lincoln, Washington Irving, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. I’ve walked about in the White House, wishing I could go upstairs, but that museum’s personnel carry FIREARMS. I did stand in Susan B. Anthony’s upstairs office & peered in at her bathtub. I walked about in the little house in Seneca Falls, where Susan’s buddy, Mrs. Stanton once lived. I marveled, horrified at Teddy Roosevelt’s glassy-eyed hunting trophies at Sagamore Hill. For all TR’s love of the natural world, he sure as hell blasted a LOT of creatures clean out of it!
My dad and I drove along the old Erie Canal. Never would I have thought, back during the Reagan Administration, when I was trying to break into books, that the profession would turn me into a time travel tourist, but so it did.
Flags Over America