Posted by: nancyisanders | April 21, 2008

Nonfiction Monday: Research Tips

In November, 2007, I landed a contract to write a nonfiction book for kids. My deadline is December 15, 2008. As I’ve been working on this project, sometimes I feel like I’ve been invited to eat an elephant for dinner. I’m often overwhelmed by the huge task of writing the manuscript. I have to keep reminding myself, “How do you eat an elephant?–One bite at a time.” This translates into, “How do you write a huge nonfiction manuscript?–One word at a time.”

As I’ve been doing the research, I’ve also been overwhelmed. I feel like I’ve been dropped in the middle of an ocean just close enough to swim to shore if I really, really pace myself. I have to keep reminding myself, “How do you swim to shore?–One stroke at a time.” This translates into, “How do you dig through 200 years of research?–One item at a time.”

I’ve written nonfiction projects before, but for some reason, the research on this project is daunting. I’m dealing mostly with primary sources–letters filed away in forgotten library holdings, hand-written poems still stored in private collections, testimonies, and autobiographies. Even the government documents are mostly written by hand.

In a business where I’m used to finding three sources to support each fact I want to write about, I’ve discovered that all my sources for nearly every topic I want to write about each point back to the same document in discussion. I finally contacted my editor about how they want their authors to conduct research.

Before I share what he said, let me backtrack to a book I finished writing for a different publisher just as I landed this new contract last November. As I began research for that particular book, I contacted the editor of that other publisher and asked how they wanted me to document my research. “Document three sources for each fact you state in the manuscript,” she said. So I did. I prepared one manuscript to submit to the publisher and one manuscript with detailed footnotes for nearly every single sentence of the book. The bibliography I prepared was astounding!

So when the editor of this new book project with a different publisher responded to my question about how they wanted me to document my sources, he said that for this type of book, which is dealing with so many primary sources, that as long as I knew I was dealing with a trusted source, I could feel free to use the information I found. He even said they don’t need a detailed bibliography–just about ten books that students might be interested in reading to find out more about my topic.

Wow. This really changed my approach. In fact, I’ve been trying to determine how I’m going to proceed with the manuscript based on these parameters. I’ve been tossing ideas back and forth all this past week as I’ve spent many, many hours doing research. For all my week of research, yesterday, I finally wrote one sentence:

“Alice loved history because she lived it!”

But I am so-o-o excited about that sentence. For one thing, it means I wrote one word per each day of research. (Remember the elephant for dinner?) Mostly, however, I’m excited because as I’ve researched Alice all last week (and no, Alice didn’t have a last name) I finally connected with a curator of a library yesterday on the phone. After a perfectly delightful conversation of introductions and realization that we were interested in the same topic in history, I explained I was looking for a 200-year old portrait of Alice. I heard the excitement in the curator’s voice as he said, “Alice? I’ve got the portrait of Alice!”

And that’s what writing nonfiction is all about…it’s a treasure hunt, really. You get dusty and scared and tired and lost. But then, when you find the treasure, it’s all worth it. Because now, just like Indiana Jones, you can take that treasure and put it where it belongs. For Indiana Jones, he felt his treasures belonged in a museum. For a children’s book writer, I know the treasures I find belong in the hands of kids in a book they can read again and again on their journey to learn more about the wonderful world they live in.

How about you? Have you ever written a nonfiction manuscript? Have any research tips you’d like to share? Any other insight about writing nonfiction? I invite you to join me on the occasional Mondays I link up with Anastasia Suen’s Nonfiction Monday Roundup at her blog. If you have a blog, you can link your post on her site to “Mr. Linky” and join in the fun. You can stop back here, too, to hear more about my journey as a nonfiction writer. I’d love to hear about your journey, too!


  1. Nancy, I’m exhausted just reading what you have gone through. I’m not sure I am up to such effort! Writing NF is truly not for the faint of heart!!


  2. Yes, it’s definitely a challenge! But it is a lot of fun, too. Plus, there are lots of smaller nonfiction book or article projects to try first to see if you like it. -Nancy

  3. The problem with research is — it’s so much fun to find new things/ facts that you find it hard to stop… and begin writing. Sometimes I have to give myself permission to stop researching and begin writing. Never fear, I tell myself. I can always just put four stars in the manuscript where I need more facts and keep on writing, knowing that I can go back and do more research, later.

    Field trips! Don’t forget the neat field trips you can deduct from your income tax as research.

  4. So true, Wendie, so true!!!! And hey–a field trip sounds like fun!

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