Here’s an oldie but goodie post I found from several years ago on my blog. Enjoy!
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.