Keeping It All Straight

August 17, 2013
Lola Schaefer is a children's book author

As you all know, LIFETIME (Chronicle Books) will debut in just a month. It's a great book and I'm proud of it for many reasons. Conceptually, it's unique -more my editor's doing, than mine. Actually the initial idea was all hers and I'm thrilled that she shared it with me. But to be honest, never in our wildest dreams did we think the realization of that idea would take so many emails, phone calls, hours of debate, and days, weeks, and months of thought on our parts. Sometimes it's best not to know just how much time a book is going to take.

Hopefully, the reader will never imagine the sweat and (okay, let's be honest) frustration that went into the final information for this book. That's the way it's supposed to be. The writing should look effortless. The reading needs to be easy and breezy. But to tell you the truth, the research was some of the most comprehensive I've ever done for one picture book.

This photo shows a smidgen of the notes, emails, found information, and other communication that was needed before the final text came together. The actual file of every piece of paper for this book measures six inches high. Really! Why so much?

First of all, as I mentioned in a post after writing JUST ONE BITE, I can't simply reference other published books for my research. One reason is that not everything that is published is correct. That might be because the fact-checkers weren't overly conscientious when the book was published, or it could simply mean that published information has become outdated with new findings.

In this case, the reason I couldn't just open a book and find what I was looking for is because . . . no one had ever put this information in a children's book before. New concepts are like that. If you come up with an original idea - really original - it probably means you aren't going to find the information you need on the first, second, or third try. (That's where frustration can sometimes take over.)

As with past works of nonfiction/information writing, I needed to consult experts. But when you email or call someone and say, "How many eggs does a female American alligator lay in her lifetime," there's a LONG pause on the other end. The wonderful thing about contacting experts is that they are all anxious to sit down and figure that out with you. Unfortunately, not all experts agree on lifespans and every day habits of these wild creatures. Not only did I need to contact multiple experts just to verify information, but often I needed to contact several people until I found a consensus.

I need to add here that these men and women are more than kind and helpful. Each really wants children to receive accurate and informed facts, so they generously contribute much time and effort during this gathering process. In fact, one gentleman at the New England Aquarium was so enthusiastic about this project that he emailed questions to several of his colleagues, compiled the results and would often email me with an excited message - "Call me right away. You won't believe what I found!"

So, as an author of many nonfiction books, I now realize and appreciate the art of "keeping it all straight." Organizing the emails, the notes, the contradictions - it's an important part of the process. Even though I took a bunch of notes and spread them out on the floor for this photo, they were all paperclipped or bound in notebooks in such a way that I could find the information when I needed it. It's amazing how attached an author can get to his/her notes. Not only are they essential to the immediate project, but they also hold many seeds for future books.

As with all writing, writing nonfiction is a process. It takes dedication, concentration, and . . . determination. I love every minute of it!