Writing Tips

Researching Nonfiction for Kids by Heather E. Schwartz

When I (the "I" here being Holly Schindler, administrator of the Smack Dab blog) received an email from Heather Schwartz offering a guest post, I pounced. I have to admit, I've never published nonfiction for kids, but I'm absolutely intrigued by it. (I think writing nonfiction, especially for the younger set, relies on a completely different set of talents than fiction.) I wanted to get some insights from Heather on the process...after all, she's written more than twenty (20!) nonfiction books from kids. Here's what Heather has to say on researching factual material for young readers:

Researching Nonfiction for Kids

By Heather E. Schwartz

I’m so happy to guest post for Smack Dab – thanks for having me! My first middle grade novel is in the works, and I’ve written more than 20 nonfiction books for kids on subjects I previously knew nothing about. Here’s what I’ve learned in pursuit of data, statistics, general information and unusual details.

One thing that’s relaxing about writing nonfiction is the facts are all out there. You don’t have to rack your brain dreaming up ideas or making the pieces of a story fit together. On the other hand, one thing that’s stressful about writing nonfiction is you have to be sure to get all the facts. Obviously you can’t make anything up, but you also have to be very careful about making assumptions. Every word you write has to be the absolute truth.

1. Finding the Facts
I’ve written on a vast array of topics—sports, science, animals, celebrities, history, etc.—but for the most part, the research process is the same. I usually start by searching on the Internet for an official organization representing the topic at hand. For example, there’s often a “National Association of” whatever I need to learn about. In the case of celebrities, I’ll check out their official website. For history especially, I search for museums dedicated to that period or event. These websites generally provide an overview of the topic, some history, and perhaps most importantly, contact info for people who can answer questions about the subject.

2. Bringing Those Facts to Life
Nonfiction writing—especially for kids—isn’t just a list of facts, though. It’s more than reporting. You need lively details to bring scenes to life and entice kids to read about your topic. Those kinds of details can often be found in newspapers and magazine articles. For example, it may be possible to reuse a quote from a celebrity interview. Of course, if you can talk to the celebrity yourself, that would be a great resource, too!

3. Getting the Nitty Gritty Details Right
Usually when I’m interviewing a source I need really nitpicky details—information I can’t find anyplace else. I may be having trouble understanding a science concept, or I may need to fact check a random item.

Finding sources to help in these cases is the most difficult part of researching nonfiction. I often start with ProfNet, an online resource for journalists that will send your query (“I need an expert on octopus behavior”) to a targeted community of professionals. If no one responds? First, I panic! But then I remind myself that someone out there knows the answer to my question. And not everyone is on ProfNet.

From there, I may contact a few local colleges through their communications departments. I may attempt some creative Googling (“octopus vet” – hey, that actually brings up a good source!). I may also rethink my question, so other types of experts might be able to answer it.

4. Avoiding Unreliable Sources
In general, children’s book publishers don’t want their authors relying on personal websites and user-written websites for information. Other children’s books are also generally off-limits, since you want to offer something different and you don’t know how other authors did their research.

That said, I have found these resources can be helpful for culling background information. Suppose, for example, you read a juicy tidbit about a topic on Wikipedia? It might be fiction, but now you have a chance to check it out. It could be something you can use, provided you can find that same tidbit verified by a more reliable expert, website or media outlet.

If I can’t find the information I need from a reliable source with real credentials (check the “About” section on websites), I’ll restructure what I’ve written. The information I originally planned to include may not be there, but the gap won’t be noticeable either.

When you’re writing nonfiction, it all comes down to one important rule: It’s better to leave something out than risk getting it wrong.

Heather’s middle grade novel, tentatively titled The Mysterious Case of My First Year in Middle School, is about a teen research detective who finds answers to quirky questions. Visit her blog at http://allaboutwritingforkids.blogspot.com/.

...On behalf of everyone at Smack Dab, I'd like to thank Heather for stopping by...and I'd like to encourage everyone to check out Heather's books, available on Amazon!

—Originally posted July 17, 2011

How to Write a Novel (When You Don't Even Have Time to Read This Blog Post) -- by Lisa Graff

This month's theme is where we write our books, but I'd like to talk about something a little different--when I write mine.

I sold my first two novels three months after I started as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. And I was, of course, head over heels ecstatic about it.

And then I had to figure out how to find the time to work on them.

Writing when you have a full time job (as many authors will tell you) is hard. But it's by no means impossible. The trick is to find the chunk of time you're most productive in, and then train yourself to write in bits and pieces. When I was working full time, I found that the very best time for me to get some good writing in was on my lunch hour. Nearly every day for five years, I would steal away to a nearby coffee shop or library during lunch, and pound away at my keyboard for 40 minutes before returning to the office. I became very good at the 40-minute sprint.

The hardest part of writing a novel this way, of course, is that you don't have much time to dilly-dally. In an ideal world, I like to take my time when I write. I like to spend a little time thinking about what's going on in the scene, maybe do some character sketches, check Facebook for twenty minutes, and then type. But with the full-time-job method, you have to dive right in. So here were the three most helpful tricks I found to keep me focused:

1) Always read your last chapter before typing a single word. When you don't have long stretches of time to write in, it's easy to forget what your characters were thinking or doing when you last left them. So as soon as I sat down at my computer, I would open up my document and read the last chapter or section I wrote. This would put me back in the world of my novel, and give me a little extra oompf for moving forward.

2) Writing stretches are for nothing but writing. No email, no Facebook, no planning your social calendar. Basically, no internet at all. If I needed to look up a legitimate bit of research for my book, I had to put a note to myself in the document and find time to look it up later. Opening up a browser when you're pressed for time is just asking for trouble.

3) Don't look back, and never pause. I never rewrote anything until I reached the end of a full draft. This helped me move forward and kept my momentum going. If I couldn't think of the right word or phrase I needed, I would write "OR SOMETHING" in the middle of the sentence, in capital letters, and then move right along. (When I finish a draft, I search the document for "OR SOMETHING"s and fix them then. There are always about three hundred.) If I realized that I needed to fix a plot point, I'd make a note to myself to change it later, and then continue forward as if I already had.

I meet a lot of people who tell me they plan on writing a book when they retire. Or when their kids get older. Or when they finally get some vacation time. But I think that if you really have a story burning inside you, you need to find a time to sit down and write it. We all have a million things keeping us from that desk chair--so find a time to write where you don't need one. I have written on the subway, in airports, and I have written many, many pages in the waiting room of my doctor's office (really, I should pay them for making me wait so long!). Finding time to write with a busy schedule is insanely difficult. But it is absolutely possible. I hate to admit it, but now that I write full time, I often have trouble focusing. Guess it's time to come up with some new rules, huh?

—Originally posted June 20, 2011