Posted by: nancyisanders | March 29, 2014

Hairy Scary Nonfiction Research

It’s scary to research.


Because if you’re like me, you’re afraid you might do something wrong like state a fact that’s really not a fact or quote something you’re not allowed to quote.

If you’re like me, you’re always worried the Nonfiction Police are staring over your shoulder ready to lock you up and throw away the key for making a big whopping mistake!

Actually, it’s healthy to be a little bit scared about all this. It keeps us working extra hard to be good researchers and writers of nonfiction.

But here are some tips that will help you not stay frozen in your tracks and never write nonfiction. Hopefully these tips will give you the confidence to get out there and write your nonfiction articles and books.

Tip #1: If you find a fact, any fact, stated in 3 different places, then that fact is available for you, YES YOU!, to use freely in your manuscript.

The rule of thumb is: if you find a fact just in one place and put it into your manuscript, it’s plagiarism. You’re stealing someone else’s research they had to go through to find that fact.

But if you find a fact in three different places, it’s called research. YOU did YOUR research to find that fact in those three places so it’s okay to use it.

Here’s an example:

Say you find these three sentences in three different books:

Book 1 says: George Washington had twelve sets of wooden teeth for dentures and he always wore them to kiss Martha good-night.
Book 2 says: George Washington’s one favorite dentist made all his different sets of wooden teeth.
Book 3 says: When George Washington was 18 he lost all his teeth and had to wear wooden teeth the rest of his life for dentures.

So what can you say in YOUR manuscript?
Can you say: George Washington kissed Martha every night with his wooden teeth. NOPE. It only said that in one place.
Can you say: George Washington had one dentist who made him all his wooden teeth? NOPE. It only said that in one place.
Can you say: George Washington lost all his teeth at 18?
Nope. It only said that in one place.

So what can you SAY?
George Washington had wooden teeth he wore as dentures.
All three sources said that. So you’re safe to say that, too.

As you’re working on a manuscript, it helps to keep careful track of what facts you find where. I like to use footnotes and track these on each page I write.

I also like to make lists of facts and then put footnotes on these lists of sources I find each fact. When I have 3 sources for a fact, I know I can plug that fact into my manuscript.

Now, there’s one big instance this changes and that’s if you have a primary source such as a diary or journal or a verified source that is in public domain from before the early 1900s. For example, say you found a book at the library that was written in 1895 about the 5000 different kinds of icky slugs that live in the Amazon rainforest. If it’s a reputable book, you can quote those facts in there fairly confidently without having to find 2 more sources to back you up. That’s because it’s old enough to be in the public domain.

Tip #2: Always save a version of your manuscript with the footnotes. That way, if a publisher wants to include some of your footnotes in the published picture book or other nonfiction book for kids, you already have them there to plug in.

Tip #3: There are actually some children’s book publishers and even picture book publisher today who are including citations and footnotes in their books! So if you do want to put in a quote or in a fact that you found in just one place, cite it with a footnote. When you are offered a contract, discuss the publisher’s policy on footnotes with your editor.

If you have any questions or other insight about all this, just let me know!


  1. Excellent advice, Nancy. I love that term…the nonfiction police!

    • Ha ha ha! Sometimes I feel they’re real!

  2. Very useful post. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for the extremely informative post. However, I’m still not sure how one goes about using a “bunch of facts” and “ONLY” those facts to create an interesting book. Do you know of any classes around online for writing a very basic nonfiction picture book/children’s book that incorporate feedback as one proceeds? I feel if I could complete one book with an “overseer” I would be most confidant to tackle many more. Thanks for all your insightful help, Nancy!

    • You’re welcome, Louise! And I’ll ask around about nonfiction picture book classes online…anyone else know of some to refer Louise to?

  4. I just finished taking NONFICTION ARCHAEOLOGY with Kristen McGill Fulton. It is an awesome class. Weekly webinars, one-on-one critiques, daily notes and assignments via email, supportive classmates, and a hidden gem at the end of the class. Kristen takes you through the creation of a NONFICTION picture book from the beginning to the end, or as she likes to call it, “From the HOOK to the SATISFYING ENDING.” This class will not disappoint. Kristen will not end the class until she answers your question. She is about teaching you the person. She helps you learn what it is that you are passionate about. And how to develop your story so you and your reader will be satisfied with the product. This is a wonderful class and it is worth more than she charges. CHECK IT OUT HERE

    • Wow, Jackie, this class DOES sound awesome! Thanks so much for your detailed recommendation and the link.

      • You are so welcome. It is an awesome class.

    • Thanks Jackie. This looks wonderful. I think I will sign up for May!

      • You will love it…Good luck… Kristen is wonderful. πŸ˜€

    • Thank you so much for the information. This looks just like what I have been wishing for. I’ll save my money and give it a whirl!! Thanks again. And thank you, Nancy, for the post.

      • You are welcome…Good luck πŸ˜€

      • Yay, Louise! I’m so glad your question was answered so quickly, too! Have fun with the class. I’ve heard fantastic things about Kristen’s amazing guidance!!!!!

  5. I must agree with Jackie, Kristen Fulton fills the class with information, worksheets, lessons, and is reasonable. Right here though, Nancy I Sanders is a wealth of information and sharing, and it’s free!

    • Mona, you’re so sweet! And yes, I checked out Kristen’s prices and they are very, VERY reasonable!!!!

  6. Nancy This is a great post!

    • Thanks, Diane! It’s so great to hear from you and see your smiling face.

      • I know what you mean! πŸ™‚ We had some mighty sweet times together. Treasured memories of my writing career.

  7. As i read this post, I knew I just found my NF pb mentor. Thank you.

    • Oh, this is soooo exciting, Shiela!!!

  8. Kristen Fulton of Nonfiction Archaeology will be one of the presenters at the NF 4 NF Conference (Nonfiction for New Folks) for children’s writers in historic Fredericksburg, TX, Oct. 9-12. Fifteen sessions will be presented by Steve Swinburne, Peggy Thomas, and Kristi Holl (all have presented at Highlights Workshops), plus Kelly Loughman, Associate Editor at Holiday House books and others. Check out the schedule (even line dancing lessons!) and register at

    • Oh this sounds awesome, Pat! Thanks for sharing.

  9. In response to your request, Nancy, I give workshops on (1) narrative arc in NF, and (2) researching NF.

    • Cynthia, thanks for letting us know. What’s the best way for someone to connect with you?

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