As an author of mostly middle-grade nonfiction, my days are spent doing research. The actual writing only happens after months (or years) of background reading, digging up facts, interviewing experts, poring over documents and papers, and more reading. The manuscript is the icing on the cake, the tip of the iceberg, or some other metaphor that means “you’ve no idea how much work went into this.”
What motivates me during book research is the chance for unique, salient experiences. Like what? Staying up all night in a Texas pecan grove netting and banding bats. Being in the audience when the first images ever of Pluto’s surface are revealed. Getting a geyser tour from Park Service geologists at Yellowstone National Park. Chasing down a tornado in western Kansas with a van full of meteorology students. Scratching the head of the first Sumatran rhino born in captivity in a century. All were made possible by being in the field while doing book research.
The opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I knew I’d get to share with young readers is why I’ve written six titles in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Scientists in the Field series. Because while everything I’ve described can be seen on PBS or YouTube, it’s not the same as being there. Especially when you’re going to write about it. Everyone tries to heed the “include all five senses in your writing” dictum. But it’s difficult to know what the Sonoran Desert smells like (cooking herbs, tar, and soap) from a TV show. And my description of what salamander skin feels like or how Old Faithful sounds at night will differ from yours. Perception is reality, after all. 🙂
Knowing I’m going to recount my experience for readers sharpens my senses. I want to make sure I remember, so I take notes—not just about what’s going on but what it’s like to be there. I think of that third grader in a gymnasium during a school visit whose eyes light up when I mention storm chasing. What was it like? Weren’t you scared?
I take written notes and use a digital voice recorder while in the field with scientists to catch my impressions at the moment. Besides recording interviews, I use the recorder for quick “notes to self” about where I am and what I’m sensing. What’s the setting like, what do I hear, smell, feel?
These notes and recordings become invaluable months (or years) later when I’m drafting the manuscript. Rereading or listening to them transports me back, helps me relive being there, and returns me to the scene I want to recount for readers. I often write in a narrative style that features scenes punctuated by sections of information peppered with quotes. Featuring you-are-there scenes engages readers and makes them want to know more. They’re already invested in the information they’re about to receive. Instead of an info dump, the text is food for hungry minds!
Unfettered time with scientists and other experts is another terrific benefit of tagging along with researchers in the field. Interviews via telephone, Skype, or at an office are formal affairs. The interviewee has set aside (likely limited) time to answer your questions. The conversation will probably be productive, informative, and cordial. With luck it might be insightful, lively, and awe-inspiring. But it takes time to get to know a person, to understand how she or he views the world, and to discover what motivates him or her.
|Tracking a storm|
Field work involves lots of down time: long drives across tornado alley, waiting for darkness outside bat caves, hiking to a saguaro grove to measure growth. The casual conversations while unloading and setting up equipment, over meals on the road, or while hiking are when I really get to know people. It’s when I find out the reason a planetary scientist gave up on becoming an astronaut, why an evolutionary ecologist has always loved amphibians, how a meteorologist overcame being told she wasn’t good enough, and what an endangered species expert most worries about.
All this juicy stuff adds flavor to a manuscript. It also makes the experts you’re quoting into three-dimensional people that young readers relate to. (She caught frogs when she was a kid! I like to catch frogs!) It shows kids, and grownups, that what we know about the world aren’t just Google-able facts. They’re discoveries, insights, and findings made over time by hard-working, dedicated, individual human beings.
And that’s worth being there for. Even if it takes months (or years).
Mary Kay Carson has been writing for kids since landing a job at Scholastic’s SuperScience magazine nearly three decades ago. She’s the author of more than fifty nonfiction books for young people about nature, inventors, wildlife, history, space, and more. Her book Alexander Graham Bell for Kids received a 2019 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize. She’s written six titles in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Scientists in the Field series, including 2019’s The Tornado Scientist. Carson also does author visits to schools and is a contributing member of STEM Tuesday and Hands-On Books. Learn more at: www.marykaycarson.com.
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