Where Do You Get Your Information for Your Books?

June 16, 2010

The real world. I love it! I enjoy reading about it, experiencing it and writing about it.

As a child I was a collector of rocks and fossils. I watched tadpoles grow into frogs at a nearby pond. I read every biography in my school library and asked for insect books as birthday presents. I even collected leaves and pressed flowers so I could label them.

Today I still collect rocks and fossils. I watch the wildlife near our home in the mountains of north Georgia. And in my garden you’ll find the usual vegetables and flowers, plus a few exotic ones, as well.

Not only do I continue to read informational text, but I write some, too. I write books on volcanic islands and birds of prey. I’ve written about the life cycles of flowers and fruits. I’m proud that several biographies and science books for emergent readers now have my name on them. And yet, I still want to write more – books about time, conservation and rescued animals.

When I visit schools, students often ask, “Where do you get your information?” I have this sneaky suspicion that they hope I say, “On the internet.” And I do find some preliminary facts there, but it’s just the beginning of a long and interesting process.
First I explore my topic. That means I read about it. Think about it. I might even do a little field study, visiting a museum , a zoo or a specific habitat. At libraries, I check out many books on my topic, both adult and juvenile.

After I decide on my focus – the relationship or importance that I want to show through my writing - then I’m ready to do serious research. Again, I do reference books – books copyrighted within 1-5 years, if possible. Some information never changes, but since new scientific discoveries and understandings happen almost every week, it’s wise to use the most current resources available.

I read and take notes, knowing that much of what I save will never end up in the book, but I need it. I need it to make sense of what I’m trying to say. And then I write. When I’ve completed a skeleton of the manuscript, I’m ready to contact experts.

I feel as if I never write an informational text on my own. It’s always done in collaboration with one or more experts. These might be research librarians, university professors, paleontologists, curators or historians. Before I contact an expert, I decide on my questions. What do I need to know that only an expert can share with me?

Over the years I have contacted experts via telephone and email all around the world. I am always impressed with how generous they are with their time and knowledge. My first contact is a query. In this message I explain who I am and what I’m writing. I also ask if the expert has time in his/her schedule to answer 4-6 questions that will guarantee accuracy in a published book for children.

Most experts respond the same day. Some, who are away from their offices or computers, respond within the week. They are usually quite eager to answer my questions. They are pleased that an author who writes for young minds wants to make sure that the information offered is correct and
up-to-date.

Specific questions help the experts, too. They can read, consider, even consult their own professional resources and respond without the burden of providing me with an exhaustive explanation of every aspect of their subject. Quite often, they offer more information than what I request. This is great because many times I mine some of the most interesting nuggets from these additional notes.

This process of contacting experts is not new to me. As a classroom teacher, I encouraged my 4th and 5th grade students to approach research the same way. After they selected a topic of interest, I had them decide on a narrow focus that would be their area of concentration. I asked them to decide why their focus was important and why it would appeal to an audience. (No sense in telling a reader something he/she can find in any encyclopedia or textbook.)

After they did their preliminary research online and in books, they compiled a list of 4-6 pieces of information they wanted to know, but couldn’t find. I then taught them how to go online and find reputable experts in the different disciplines. Sometimes that was a particular curator at a zoo, or a city council member. Other times it was an archaeologist in the field, or a doctor at the Center for Disease Control.

We practiced how to introduce ourselves in a professional message. We wrote sample questions to make sure they were clear and concise. And then, they emailed and waited. As the responses came back, the energy was palpable. Of course, no one could keep their new-found information a secret. It was shared with the whole class upon receipt.

Once, our entire classroom interacted with the scientific team that manned the underwater robot JASON as it explored the hydrothermal vents and giant tube worms on the ocean floor. For two weeks my students read the daily journal entries of the crew. Then, they created 2-3 questions about that new information and sent them off. The next morning, their questions were answered. It was an exciting interaction that revolved around on-site research.

Research, coupled with today’s technology, is a stimulating and effective way for all of us to gather information. It would be silly to limit ourselves to the pages in a book or a few encyclopedic sites online. Contacting experts, whether in our own community or on another continent, can bring the real world to our front door with new facts and understandings that capture our imaginations and leave us wanting more.