Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Not Just the Facts: YOU Are a Part of Your Nonfiction

By Laura Purdie Salas

“There’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts that any basic robot could spit out. The reality is very different. My personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply embedded in the books I write.” 

I wrote these words for Melissa Stewart’s fabulous Celebrate Science blog three years ago, in 2018.

In those three years, I’ve reflected on this idea a lot, and I believe those words more than ever. In fact, those reflections have worked their way into my actual writing process, which I love! I feel like I’m more perceptive now about which topics and structures might be a great fit for me.

So, let’s explore that final sentence. “My personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply embedded in the books I write.” It sounds good, but what does it mean, exactly? Here’s the breakdown.

Personality

I’m thinking about what qualities in other art forms appeal to me . . . what evokes an immediate, emotional response. I think that’s a deep reflection of who I am. Basically, I love clear, focused, beautiful things. Books with one storyline and a limited number of characters (not epic generational sagas). Songs with clear vocals standing out from a simple, melodic instrumental accompaniment. Images with one strong focal point and bold lines. (Here are a couple of cards I’ve got on my inspiration board.) Not every single work of art I like fits these requirements, of course. But most do.

 


How does that play out in my writing? My concepts are extremely clear, usually requiring broad but shallow research. (I hate interviewing people, another personality facet that affects my writing!) You can generally summarize one of my books in a single phrase.

Secrets of the Loon: a loon chick grows to independence over her first summer

Snowman - Cold = Puddle: equations show how things affect each other in springtime

Water Can Be . . .: water does many more things than we think

 


Beliefs

Explorer and photographer Sebastian Copeland, talking about photography, said, “[M]y mission would be to help people fall in love with their world, because I feel we will not save what we do not love.” That’s it exactly. I want kids to fall in love with their world. Often, that drives my choice of topics in the nature direction, to things like water, leaves, rocks, and the moon. But it’s more than that. I want kids to fall in love with friendship. With curiosity. With science. With themselves.

How does that affect my writing? I write about things that I’m desperately in love with and try to evoke that same response in readers. I want kids to care about animals and how they live. That’s Snack, Snooze, Skedaddle: How Animals Get Ready for Winter. I want kids to fall in love with thunderstorms, like I did as a kid. So . . . Zap! Clap! Boom! And I want kids to love who they are, even if they come from a family that’s weird or different from all their friends’ families. So I invite them to Meet My Family.

 


 

Experiences

I was underestimated and undervalued as a child. Nothing my sisters or I did was ever good enough, so we were never good enough. It felt really unfair. More than that, it made me angry. (Okay, it still does, actually.) But good came of it. It shaped me into a person who doesn’t take other people or other things for granted.

That often translates into writing about a common object to show how amazing and overlooked it is. I hope readers never look at the moon the same way after reading If You Were the Moon. I hope A Rock Can Be . . . and A Leaf Can Be . . . turn readers into rock or leaf collectors. And I hope If You Want to Knit Some Mittens makes them look at their hand-knitted winter mittens with fascination instead of irritation. I want to make kids feel the same awe that I feel.

Sage experts advise, “Write the book only you can write.” I used to feel disheartened by that because my life is pretty boring, ya know? I haven’t lived exotic places nor done headline-worthy things. But now, having thought more about what that means, I know I’m always writing the book only I can write, because I bring myself and all my loves and flaws and passions to each project. And I hope you do, too!

 

Books Mentioned

If You Want to Knit Some Mittens, illus. by Angela Matteson, Boyds Mills Kane, 2021

If You Were the Moon, illus. by Jaime Lin, Millbrook, 2017

A Leaf Can Be . . ., illus. by Violeta Dabija, Millbrook, 2012

Meet My Family, illus. by Stephanie Fizer Coleman, Millbrook, 2018

A Rock Can Be . . ., illus. by Violeta Dabija, Millbrook, 2015

Secrets of the Loon, illus. by Chuck Dayton, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2020

Snack, Snooze, Skedaddle: How Animals Get Ready for Winter, illus. by Claudine Gévry, Millbrook, 2019

Snowman - Cold = Puddle, illus. by Micha Archer, Charlesbridge, 2019

Water Can Be . . ., illus. by Violeta Dabija, Millbrook, 2014

Zap! Clap! Boom!, illus. by Elly McKay, Bloomsbury, 2022

 

ACTIVITY:

My summary of qualities I’m drawn to seems so obvious to me now. But it wasn’t until I sat down and did some brainstorming that I could see how some of the same qualities apply across different art forms.

Here’s the chart I filled out:

 


I wonder what you’ll discover about the qualities you’re drawn to if you do the same exercise? Click the image below to download a .pdf, or just do it on blank paper. Either way, don’t forget to spend some time thinking about how those qualities might show up in your nonfiction writing and your writing process. Making those connections—that’s what will make a difference in your work. I wish I’d thought about this 20 years ago!

 




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Purdie Salas is a Florida native cozily living in Minnesota. She’s written more than 125 poetry and nonfiction picture books, including Lion of the Sky, If You Were the Moon, Water Can Be…, and BookSpeak! Her books have earned the Minnesota Book Award, NCTE Notables, starred reviews, and more. She offers resources for children’s writers at https://laurasalas.com/writing-for-children/ and enjoys teaching and speaking at writing conferences around the country. Laura’s (uncomfortably) on many social media platforms as @LauraPSalas, and her online home is laurasalas.com.

 

ABOUT THE PRIZE

Laura will send one signed copy of the picture book of your choice.

166 comments:

  1. Thank you for your take on the arts and how the arts impact writing nonfiction.

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  2. Laura, I think your books are so much more than good enough. I'm a huge fan! Thank you for explaining how your passion drives you and your process for turning ideas/feelings into books.

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  3. Thanks for the insights and interesting activity. The results I got with a quick exploration: setting and/or accessories informs story (art), haunting testimony or praise (music), character over plot—humour interlaced with wisdom, kindness, compassion, integrity, respect the light historical individuals had and lived up to (books). Will have to explore further.

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    1. Ooh, that's a fascinating mix, Jessica. I love the haunting/yearning stuff, too :>)

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  4. @Robin Brett Wechsler said it well above. “I think your books are so much more than good enough.” Interesting take on teaching the art of nonfiction writing. I look forward to seeing what the activity tells me about my own preferences. Thank you, and btw, I’m enjoying your book, Writing for the Educational Market, too!

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  5. I love this exercise and can't wait to get some of your beautiful books!

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  6. I love the idea of defining your style through things you love. Great exercise!

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  7. This is such an insightful post, Laura -- thank you! The elements that stood out from this activity were: strong sense of forward motion, emotional AND intellectual resonance, bending genres/finding unlikely connections between things, witty humor and wordplay.

    I can't wait to see how this informs my next steps as a writer!

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    1. Oh, cool. I can see how that forward motion would really inform your writing. Love these connections you made!

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  8. Thank you for sharing this. It is so important to stay true to what you love or your writing will suffer. I appreciate the reminder, as sometimes I veer off-track. A perfect thing for me to read today. :)

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  9. Love, love, LOVE this post, Laura. Thanks so much for sharing how a piece of yourself is in every book you write. Great activity!

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  10. Thank you so much for this post-- it really resonated with me. I can't wait to try the exercise!

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  11. Love the reflection here, and how it assists with our own reflection and NF journey.

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  12. Thank you Laura for sharing about your passions in nonfiction and what inspires you to write. I think I can relate to your logic. I dread the idea of interviewing so I don’t know if I’ll ever do a bibliography? Nature and science might be best for me. I’ve never traveled all over the place. I’m going to choose one topic that I really interested in.

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    1. Thanks, Natalie. Yes! I love to read picture book biographies, but I have 0 interest in writing one myself. That said, I used to dread public speaking, and now I'm fine with it. So if you feel DRAWN to biographies, you could learn the skill, I'm sure :>) Good luck with your writing!

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  13. Ooh, I can't wait to see your animal baby book! Animal babies are always a draw for young-and in my school-reluctant readers.

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    1. Thanks, Megan--I really loved writing that book.

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  14. Thank you for sharing your process and passion! I'm excited to do the activity and see what connections I make.

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  15. Laura, I can relate to SO much of what you said and to so much of what you love. I just printed out the chart and am interested to see where that leads me.

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    1. I'm so glad, Colleen--I hope you enjoy the activity!

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  16. I love when you say "I want kids to fall in love with their world" and that is why I write! I want kids to discover a diverse world that is beyond their classroom.

    Thank you for sharing the activity, I can't wait to try it.

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    1. Awesome--I hope you enjoy the activity. Here's to making kids fall in love with our world!

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  17. This is great. I have a tendency to be a bit pedantic in my nonfiction, although I hate being that way.

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    1. Sometimes I do, too. Voice is one of the things I really work on in revision :>)

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  18. I LOVE Meet My Family and I LOVE this post. I’m just starting my writing journey, but I’m already noticing common threads and insights into what gives me goosebumps and motivates me to write. I wonder what else I’ll discover when I do this activity?

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    1. Fantastic! You're probably much more perceptive than I've been. That's going to help you make writing magic :>)

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  19. Totally agree ~ personality, beliefs, experiences. Thanks for your insight, Laura.

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  20. Laura, I've read many of your books and am enchanted. I think this exercise will be a difficult journey for me but I look forward to where the trip takes me. Thanks for your books and this post.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words! I hope the exercise isn't too much of a strain. I was surprised myself when the connections started coming pretty fast!

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  21. This is a great post, Laura. The first word I'm putting on the exercise is TRUTH. That's why I love nonfiction. Now I have to flesh out the rest of the qualities I love. Thanks!

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    1. Fabulous, Mona! That is definitely the core of nonfiction. Hope you have fun with the activity :>)

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  22. Laura, your post confirms to me what I've often wondered about -- how much of our backgrounds, beliefs, and interests are woven into our writing? Thank you for beautifully breaking it down and putting it into words.

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  23. Thank you, Lori. At least you've wondered about it. Until I happened to start thinking about it for that post for Melissa, I had never wondered at all. How embarrassing!

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  24. Thank you, Laura! I love learning from you. I'm going to do the activity right now and see what I come up with.

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    1. Hope there are some surprises there, Rose!

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    2. PS Rose, did you know I have a FB Group for Patrons now? Search for KidLit Circle and you should find it. Would love to see you in there!

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  25. I sometimes feel the same way, what can I extract from my quiet, boring life that will be of interest in a book? Thank-you for the activity to explore me and find what is interesting, what I can write, what others will want to read.

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    1. Enjoy, Marie! I bet you've got lots of wonderful traits to make your nf special :>)

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  26. I love the activity you've suggested! I hadn't thought of doing anything like that to help focus my interests so I'm interested to see the results. Very thought-provoking. Thank you!

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  27. Thaks Laura for opening up your heart to all of us who are creatives!You shine so bright! Looking and listening to life lyrically is a beautiful way to live.
    I enjoy your books and share them with the grands, and pre-k's often!

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  28. Beautiful inspiration and guidance to discovering our truths. Thank you, Laura. I've enjoyed your writing for years. I'm going to write down those qualities that draw my heart and thoughts to a project.

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    1. THank you so much, Charlotte. I hope you discover some connections that lead to new projects--or new approaches on old projects :>)

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  29. It seems so obvious -- we like what we like!

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    1. Right? I can't believe it took me 26 years of writing for kids to realize this.

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  30. Laura, I love this new perspective you bring to the adage "Write the book only you can write." I too, found that quote very intimidating in the past, but your post helps me sit it more of an invitation to play to my strengths and interested. I also really appreciate the graphic organizer as I'm a visual thinker!

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    1. Thanks, Michelle! Hope you enjoy the activity!

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  31. So often my take-away from advice about writing is: "make yourself into something better in order to accomplish the task of getting published"! This usually leaves me feeling further from the goal of becoming a writer. I am not talking about learning and practicing and accepting criticism and rejection. I'm talking about having belief in who I am to begin with. Thank you for showing how integral one's self is to what one writes. Thank you for having the courage to say you don't like interviewing people! Thank you also for this exercise which I found really helpful to sort why I love what I love and how I can use this information to write nonfiction for children. Finally, I have to tell you I find your books Writing for the Educational Market Informational Books for Kids (3rd edition) and Making a Living Writing Books for Kids similarly supportive, informative and encouraging. Thank you!

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    1. Oh my gosh, Melissa--thank YOU for that lovely affirmation all around. And I'm often embarrassed about the interviewing thing. So many nf writers I really admire just adore interviewing and researching in general. You know what I like? The writing! I do enjoy research...to a point. But interviewing...shudder. Anyway, your comment made my day--thanks so much!

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  32. Ooooh, what a terrific activity both for kids and adults to explore what makes them unique! Your books absolutely exemplify who you are. I'm glad that the publishing world values you more than you were valued growing up.

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  33. What an activity! I definitely see crossovers in what I love in these categories. I am a glass half full kind of person who looks for signs of inspiration and hope in everything. I can see this reflected in my writing. Thank you for sharing your insights!

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    1. I'm so glad you saw connections. Thanks for reading :>)

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  34. Great exercise Laura! You really made me dig for it. Thank you!

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  35. Love this post.
    Off to do some reflecting and fill out the "What I Love in:" sheet.

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  36. Hi Laura! This post is as straight forward as your concepts, which I really appreciate. You are valued by readers and writers for your books.

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  37. I like this exercise of looking inside myself and how it relates to my writing. Thanks!

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  38. Laura, what you share makes such sense. Thank you for stating it so clearly. And readers bring THEIR personalities, beliefs, experiences to the books they read. It is so cool for them to experience new perspectives. The activity you offer is wonderful; it challenges me to look harder at my preferences in art, music, and books. Have never really done that. Thank you!

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    1. That's so true. I always think of it in relation to poetry--the reader brings half the meaning of the poem. But in any picture book, especially, where we're offering the essence of a topic but not a gazillion laid-out facts, I think that's especially true. Thanks for pointing that out!

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  39. Great article. I love showing that quirky can be normal and underdogs and browsable encyclopedic books. I love diagrams and charts and cut-aways. I love short essays cleverly tied together. I love reading about food!! Thanks. I can't wait to continue thinking along these lines and to start applying this to my idea list asap!

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    1. Awesome, Joanne! (I like many of the same things you do!)

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  40. I loved the post and the activity. The qualities that might transfer to my nonfiction writing for kids included: short, defined, inspiring, strong message

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    1. Those feel like qualities that could really help shape projects. Not to limit yourself, of course, but to help you see approaches to topics--approaches that might fit you particularly well. Good luck!

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  41. Great post, Laura. I also appreciated your definition of "Write the book only you can write." So far my number one entry for all three in nature. I'll have to play with this a bit more to see where it goes. Thank you for sharing and for the encouragement.

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    1. Have fun playing with it--thanks so much for reading!

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  42. I have never looked at the way my taste in art, music, and literature overlap It is very insightful! Thanks, Laurie!

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    1. Me, neither, until this past year one day. Isn't that weird to see the overlaps? THanks for reading, Carmela!

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  43. I have been intimidated to tackle certain stories because I always ask myself "is this my story to write"? Thank you for helping me see how to view that.

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    1. It's funny. Even with as many years as I've been writing, this activity made me feel more confident in my approaches to topics. I mean, it's still a lot of trial and error for me, but it's helped me see WHY I'm drawn to certain qualities and to embrace that. Thanks, Tara :>)

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  44. A really great post! I think I've found my artist date for this week. Thanks!

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  45. Laura, love, love this post and I can see you and what you love in all your books. I've followed you and your books (on my shelves) for year. TY for this inspiration.

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  46. Such a fun activity--can't wait to make the connections between art/music/adult lit and my writing! And of course I love your books...if I win I'll have a difficult time picking just one:-)

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    1. Aw, thank you. I hope you found some cool connections!

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  47. I have really been exploring the ways I can put my personality into my nonfiction. Thank you for this!

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    1. I love that you're thinking about it. Isn't it interesting how it's not just our personality in the sense of quiet or perky or funny. It's also our deeply ingrained attitudes...

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  48. This is a great chart for finding patterns in your passions that can lead to new ideas. Thank you!

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  49. What a wonderful chart. Thanks for planting those seeds of encouragement. Now, to see if I can nurture them to grow!

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  50. As a teacher, I always incorporated the arts into my literature lessons. Your chart is a great prewrite for teens and this aspiring author!

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    1. Thanks, Tonya! I love the idea of using it with student writers, too...

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  51. Thanks for the great post. I appreciate the book list! Several are new to me.

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  52. Such a refreshing post! I have been in overwhelm at the thought of all the research that will go into writing a non-fiction PB. Your post gave me hope that writing NF doesn't have to be as complicated as I have imaged it in my head to be! And thank you for haring a little of your background with us. I totally relate to how you felt growing up. <3

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    1. Thanks so much, Michelle! And of course there's research...always. But definitely some kinds of NF require less depth of research. And I like that :>) I'm all about the writing, not the researching. Hehe--I'm glad you feel more hopeful!

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  53. I love the way7 you highlight art, music, and books and then draw out the important pieces you can use in your kids books.

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    1. Thanks, Sue! I'm mostly noticing now what connections are already there. But I'm just starting to use them as I begin writing, and it's making approaching a topic feel more do-able!

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  54. LAURA!! You know I love your work, and I love this reminder even more. It's not just about compiling facts, writing NF goes much deeper than that. It took me years to figure that out. Great post!

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    1. Thank you, Lydia <3 And on the years--you and me both!

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  55. Thanks for a unique approach that will help us put ourselves in our writing. Can't wait to try it out!

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  56. Laura - thanks for this insightful and personal post. You know i love all your books! Now I will do this activity - I'm sure it will be helpful.

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  57. Thank you, Laura, for this thoughtful post. I, too, write about what I love, but I tend to research deeply and then use only a smidgen of what I've learned. Maybe it's my way of feeling less like an imposter when I'm writing outside my field. Anyway, I'll be giving your exercise a go. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Jilanne. Whatever works for you is the best way! I do a lot of research--don't mean to make it sound like I don't. But I'm always chomping at the bit to get at the writing, so I definitely don't get lost in research like many writers who love that step do. And that's what works for them, so that's great. Re imposter syndrome, I hear you. No matter how shallow or deep my research, I do not retain facts well. A common comment after I get something wrong in trivia games is, "Didn't you write a book about that, Laura?" Sure, but that doesn't mean I remember it. So then I stand there with my book praying no one asks me questions about the content that I DON'T know the answer to. And they do. And then I explain that I have trouble remembering things, etc. And that's why I love books and online resources, so I can always find it again. Still. Embarrassing. It's why I focus more on writing process than on the science content of my books when I do author visits.

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  58. I love the quote by Copeland! That, too, is why I write - I want to get kids excited about all the good and wonderful people and creatures and things in our world. You expressed it so well - Thank you! And thank you for the reflection chart - haven't done it yet but plan to!

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    1. And kids need wonderful things to be excited about! Yay--keep on writing!

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  59. Honestly, I wasn't so comfortable starting your exercise but once I got started, I began to see some interesting patterns emerging. Thanks for the push to look at other parts of myself as they relate to me as a writer!

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    1. I'm so glad to hear that. It seems like an odd thing, doesn't it? And the connections might be subtle--meaningful only to you. But those patterns can help, even if they might be hard to put into words. Thanks for trying it out even though you weren't too excited about it. Seriously.

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  60. Your post was wonderful, Laura! I have always been inspired by your work. Thank you for making it personal!

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  61. Your books are so heartfelt, Laura--we can feel it in every word-beat <3.

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    1. Thanks, Maria. Right back at you. Still swooning over Whoo-ku :>)

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  62. I connected this posting's Activity with the NFFest calendar activity: "Think of 10 things you wonder about...", and see that it is, in fact, important to bring your whole self/person into your writings whether fiction or nonfiction, but especially in your nonfiction writings. Thanks for a topic which causes one to be quite introspective!

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    1. I love that! I've been too busy writing over the years. I think I should have done a bit more wondering. Not about the world, which I wonder about all the time, but about my own process and self. That introspection is valuable, and I was missing it.

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  63. Thanks for showing yourself and how it impacts your writing. Your honesty is inspiring and thought-provoking.

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  64. Hello from a fellow Florida native. I'm relieved to read about how you don’t like interviewing people. I've been avoiding making a phone call.

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    1. Oh, how I have to steel myself for those phone calls. And promise myself some reward after!

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  65. So much insight and heart in this post, Laura. Thank you!!

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  66. Thank you Laura for this great post. I write biographies for MG/YA and always feel a connection with my subjects based on my interests and passions. So fun to see how this applies in picture books as well! Thanks for sharing.

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  67. Thank you for this insight! I love anything that makes me think in a new way and your post has me thinking!

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  68. What an interesting way to gain perspective into one's work. I will definitely by trying this activity out. Thanks, Laura!

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  69. I agree that the more I love and connect with my research topic, the easier it is to focus on creating a strong story.

    Great post!

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  70. Thank you Laura for the wonderful post and the form!

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  71. Oh my, this is such a great way to think about the kind of writing I prefer and where I can excel. I've often felt "weird" that I prefer a simple, lyrical style, and now I can see why (and that it's actually NOT weird!).

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    1. Hooray! Your comment alone makes it worth having written this post :>)

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  72. Thank you. This put a new spin on writing the book that only we can write, and it so broadens that definition and understanding. Love the exercise!

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    1. I'm so glad, Susan--that's exactly what I was trying to do. Thank you!

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  73. Super inspiring and thank you for the form!

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  74. Thank you for the chart! It will all be helpful!

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  75. Thank you for the information and the chart. So helpful!

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  76. so much to think about . Who am I and how can my books invite children in and let them know who they are?

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    1. "invite children in and let them know who they are?" Oh, Sue, I LOVE that. Beautiful!

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  77. I love this idea for helping to narrow down your own style and preferences. I completed the activity and determined a few new things about myself. Thanks! :)

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    1. I'm so happy you had an aha moment or two, Cindy! Thanks for sharing!

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  78. Thank you for this inspiring post, Laura! I will try out your activity, maybe more than once. I may swap out art or music with sports and cooking, etc. just to see what happens.

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  79. Oh Laura, I envy your creativity in choosing those topics, LOL! However, I also know that creativity must be used as any other muscle. As a reluctant non-fiction writer, I'm going to try something new next month & see if I can't draft a NF work, based on what I like. Thanks for the inspiration (and all those fun books you've written!!)

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  80. Thanks for sharing your authenticity and your writing projects! Love your books!

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  81. Wonderful post! Thank you!

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  82. Quite the profound analysis and great exercise too.

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  83. I absolutely LOVED A Leaf Can Be... I need to check out your other books. The activity you gave us is great. Can't wait to complete it. Thanks for sharing, Laura!

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  84. Laura, your advice to incorporate personality, beliefs, and experiences into writing NF makes so much sense and will certainly help me in adding heart to my narratives. Thank you!

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