Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What Idea Do I Research?

Last week, Ethel Herr wrote a great article on researching. I definitely wanted to look up something – anything – to discover new facts. Then I ground to a halt; what should I research?

Today, Mary Jo Rhodes, who successfully published a series of nonfiction children's books, describes how she chose sea animals for her subject. You can see her books at Thank you, Mary Jo for taking the time to tell us your story. Maybe this article will give me some ideas for my research…

*Lynnda kindly asked me to write a few guest posts about my experiences writing the Seahorses and Sea Dragons and the other books in the Undersea Encounters> series for Children's Press/Scholastic. Her first question was:

Why did I choose to write nonfiction books for children about sea creatures?

Writing about sea creatures wasn't an obvious choice for me. I'm not a marine biologist, teacher, or scientist. Both sons, however, loved science and animals. My younger son was obsessed with sharks. We visited lots of aquariums and science museums. I became fascinated with the amazing variety of undersea creatures. One family trip was especially memorable: we watched a sea turtle lay her eggs at night on a beach in Florida. Over the years, we've also gone snorkeling and on whale watching trips.

One day in the gym, I was wearing my seahorse t-shirt from the San Elijo, California, campground. It was an old and ragged t-shirt, but I was sentimentally attached to it because I got it on one of the last trips I took with my mother before she passed away. A friend noticed the shirt and mentioned he loved seahorses. I rattled off some interesting facts about them—seahorse fathers give birth to the babies, not seahorse mothers; seahorses are the only fish that swim upright; seahorses have prehensile tails like monkeys. Later I went home and Googled seahorses. I found an interesting site called Project Seahorses devoted to protecting seahorses, and I continued to research and learn about them.

A couple of weeks later (coincidentally), my husband suggested we go to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where there was a major seahorse exhibit. Of course, I said yes, and in fact, I had already decided to write about seahorses even before we got to Baltimore. It all clicked into place.

So how does this relate to you? I would suggest when you look for ideas you don't necessarily gravitate to the obvious choice for you (you love music so your book has to be about music). Sometimes those topics we're personally obsessed with might not be that interesting to other people. Be open to receiving new ideas. Think about what fascinates you and what you'd love to learn more about—and what might make an appealing topic for others.

I've been to college and graduate school, but I'm a big believer in self-education. I spent three or four years in my forties learning about octopuses, whales, kelp forests, and so on, yet I was an English major in college. All I needed was a library card and a decent library system where I could order books via interlibrary loan.

I also think firsthand experiences are so important for gathering ideas. Supplement your book learning with "field trips." For example, this past summer, we went on a tour of a 17th century-house in Massachusetts. The tour guide knew all kinds of fascinating details about the house and the people who lived there, the kind of tidbits you might not find in a book, or that you might skip if you were reading a book. You don't have to travel to exotic countries. I imagine there are historic sites near where you live that you've never been to. (I grew up on Long Island, an hour from New York City, but I didn't go up the Empire State Building until I was 23!).

Keep files of interesting ideas that you might want to pursue. Not every idea will pan out. But one of these ideas might lead to something that you'll want to research and write about.

Who knew that wearing my seahorse t-shirt to the gym would eventually lead to a published book!*

1 comment:

Wendy Love said...

This is encouraging!