Friday, February 11, 2022

What’s Your Angle? Finding Your Focus from your Reams of Research

By Sarah Albee


I like to bake, and over the holidays I brought a cake to a friend’s dinner party. The recipe called for double boilers and candy thermometers and balloon whisking, and I put some effort into piping the icing into swirls and adding Christmas-y decorations.

When the dinner guests complimented my cake, I gave a nonchalant shrug and said it was a very simple recipe, really.

“But look at the swirly icing!” they said.

“Child’s play,” I responded.

I wasn’t being truthful. Had they glimpsed my kitchen earlier that day, they’d have seen a disheveled me, with bowls piled in the sink, flour on the floor, and sprinkles stuck to the cat.

Writing a book can be like that, too. We all hope our finished product will look effortless and amazing, but the process of getting there can be . . . messy.

So how do we navigate through the reams of research and find our book’s focus? Let’s start with an activity.

Have a look at a recent nonfiction book that you admire. What is it that appeals to you? Perhaps it’s an ingenious, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? topic. Maybe you like the way the topic is presented--the design, the writing, the illustrations. Perhaps the book is so well-structured or tightly-plotted it seems as though it sprang practically fully-formed from the writer’s pen, as though she saw the path she needed to take with her research and her writing and strode through it, with no missteps or wrong turns.

That’s the way a great book should look to its readers. But I am willing to bet that the writer of that book may have dropped a few sprinkles on the cat during her research and writing process.

I wish I could share a tried-and-true recipe that works every time for every book, but now that I’ve told you the cake story, you’d know I wasn’t being truthful. Every writer’s process is different, and every topic requires unique considerations. But I can share some of what I have learned after many—cough!— years of writing nonfiction books.

Once I’ve got my topic, I’ve learned to ask myself three questions:

  1. Why does this topic interest me?
  2. How can I present it in a way that a kid will care?
  3. What underlying message do I most want to share with my readers?

I start my research in a fairly generalized, big-picture way. I read widely, immersing myself in my topic, always on the lookout for kid-friendly angles.

Once I feel somewhat confident about the broad strokes of my topic, I home in on my approach. How can I make my book different from other books out there? How can I make it relevant to a kid’s interests? What sort of structure makes sense for the topic? (For everything you need to know about text structure, visit Melissa Stewart’s website!)

Even when I have a good idea and a reasonable sense of the structure, question #3, the underlying message, usually doesn’t crystalize for me until I’ve done a lot more research and am well into the writing process. I use trial and error and write draft after draft after draft before the core message, the mission statement, the heart of the book (pick your metaphor) emerges from the gloaming.

When I finally nail my book’s mission statement, I tack it up over my desk and look at it frequently. At this stage I often need to go back to the research process, but because I now have a focus, the research tends to feel more streamlined and to go more smoothly. When I find a cool nugget of information, I ask myself these questions:

  • Is this fact relevant to the book’s mission statement?
  • Is it interesting to kids?
  • Do I have room for it?

Because the process for my book Accidental Archaeologists went uncharacteristically smoothly, I’ll use it as an example. I got the idea while researching a different book. I stumbled across a 1978 newspaper article about a construction worker digging beneath the streets in Mexico City. His shovel accidentally clanged a stone, which turned out to be the undiscovered ruins of an Aztec temple. In a flash, I knew I wanted to write an entire book about accidental archaeological discoveries by ordinary people that changed what we thought we knew about history.

The structure of that book also came fairly readily. I would arrange the discoveries chronologically. Each chapter would begin with a dramatic description of the discovery, followed by a look into the historical period of the artifact, and why that history is relevant to the reader.

So I had the topic and the framework—woot! But it took many, many drafts before I understood the book’s mission statement. Here’s what I came up with: Biases have long bedeviled the field of archaeology (and history), and those biases have shaped our perspectives of human history.

I never explicitly state my mission in the book. The reader doesn’t need to know it, but I most certainly do. 

Here’s an exercise I do at school visits (remember those?) to help kids structure their personal narrative or biography.

I read my biography of George Washington to them  and walk them through my research process.

  • I give examples of some of the cool facts I uncovered. I explain how I weighed each fact and decided whether or not it deserved a space in the very limited real estate that I had for my book.
  • I explain that of course I needed to include the basics—where and when George was born, how he commanded the American forces in the Revolutionary War, how he became the first President, and when he died. But then there were the other facts—the more personal, interesting, kid-friendly ones. They’re the stuff that makes the book unique and interesting. Which ones fit, and how many could I include?
  • Next I call up volunteers. I hand each kid one of the fact cards we’ve just discussed. I line up my volunteers, in no special order, with the fact cards around their necks.


Then I present the book to my audience. As I read the text, I shuffle around my human note cards so they stand in the order that I’ve used them.


I point things out:

  • “Did you notice that I did not start my biography with the day George was born? Yes, that fact is in the book, but I don’t open with it. You know why? Because babies aren’t very interesting, except to their moms and dads.
  • “Did you notice how I did start my biography?” (It starts mid-stream with something George did after the American Revolution was over, and supports my mission statement for the book.) I talk about why I decided to begin the story there.

I explain that every writer in the room could have written a different book on the same subject, based on the same body of research.


Give it a Try

Have a look at your work-in-progress. Maybe you’re just at the idea phase. Maybe you’re deep into the research stage. Or maybe you’ve completed a first draft. Ask yourself these three questions. (Try to think beyond “because it’s cool!” and answer as thoughtfully as you’re able.)

  1. Why does this topic interest me?
  2. How can I present it in a way that a kid will care?
  3. What underlying message do I most want to share with my readers?

Piece of cake, right?

 

Meet the Author 

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of nonfiction books for kids. Her next title will be out October, 2022, and is called Troublemakers in Trousers: Women and What They Wore to Get Things Done. Other recent titles include Fairy Tale Science; Accidental Archaeologists; North America: A Foldout Graphic History; Dog Days of History; POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines; and George Washington: The First President.  She lives in Connecticut with her family. Visit her at www.sarahalbeebooks.com

 



70 comments:

  1. Sarah, your "What's My Angle" post just streamlined my process into writing a book I've been mulling over for several years. Thank you!!

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  2. Thank you for the focus questions! They have helped to streamline my process.

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    1. I'm so glad they were helpful for you, Jessica.

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  3. Sarah! Thank you for sharing your writing process as a metaphor to creating a cake.

    I love the human notecard idea for school visits.

    Suzy Leopold

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  4. I love these thought provoking questions to dissect our research and bring a kid-friendly book to the table. Thank you Sarah!

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  5. Thanks, Sarah. I'm a fan of Accidental Archeologists. It helps me to know that it also takes you a lot of research before you formalize the underlying message!

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  6. I love these questions to ask yourself. Great post!

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  7. Great questions! Thanks for sharing your process.

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  8. Sarah, thank you for these questions! I appreciate your insight and examples given behind your process.

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  9. Sarah,
    I appreciate your entire post, but I especially appreciate your three questions and your book mission statement. I can easily spend time aimlessly researching, but using these four tools will help me find my focus early on and stick with it. (I hope!)

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  10. So glad it was helpful to you, Melissa. Good luck with your project!

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  11. Messy makes me miserable! Must I follow the recipe meticulously? Can a methodical mother really write a successful picture book? Just wondering?

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  12. Every writer works differently, Dianne. I'm sure you'll find your path!

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  13. SARAH: Because "child's play" is INDEED MESSY [much like the making of a cake!], and because we are writing for kids (for the most part), WHY NOT roll-up our sleeves and get MESSY, TOO!!!?!!! THANK YOU for the INSPIRATION to allow ourselves to do so! I TRULY APPRECIATE seeing your process in-depth (for at least one book), and ESPECIALLY for the KEY questions you keep in mind. I will MOST DEFINITELY be posting them where I can see them for CONTINUED guidance. I am a BIG FAN of your books! How could one POSSIBLY RESIST a title like: " POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines"!!!?!!! THANK YOU!!!

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    1. Thank you Natalie! (And I enjoyed the DRAMATIC CAPS!)

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  14. Such a great post and wonderful suggestions. Thanks!

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  15. "dropping sprinkles on the cat" will be my new euphemism for messy behind-the-scenes work on all future books. Thank you!

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  16. Thanks for the post! I love the volunteer note cards. Thanks for sharing your process.

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  17. Thank you. I really like your suggestions about the school visits.

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  18. I want to be in the classroom with these kids when Sarah's doing a presentation! It was really helpful to hear about how Accidental Archaeologist came about and the thought processes behind it. :)

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  19. I agree with Teresa! Thank you Sarah for a great post. You gave me some ideas for where to start wrangling the facts & message of a MS. Here's to the sprinkles.

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  20. Sarah, thanks so much for sharing your critical
    insights and writing process.

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  21. Thanks for giving us a peek into your process and how you stay focused on your mission statement. And wow, what a cool classroom activity!

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  22. Thank you Sarah! Your questions are now sign posts along my writing path.

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  23. Thank you for the helpful hints in this post. I also love the fun classroom visit activity.

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  24. Danya Vasquez DavidFebruary 14, 2022 at 1:45 AM

    Thank you for sharing about your process! The questions are super helpful (and daunting for me right now! :0 )

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  25. Yeah, agree. They can be daunting, but hopefully you'll find them helpful!

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  26. I appreciate your insight and wisdom as I'm trying to work through some of these questions in my own writing world. Love your ideas for school visits!

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  27. Thank you, Sarah. I loved the concept of creating a mission statement for our work! I look forward to reading your latest releases.

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    1. I'm glad you found it useful. It took me awhile to settle upon this way of working, but I am glad I did!

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  28. Thank you for sharing your process and providing three points to focus on.

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  29. Sarah, thank you for sharing your insight. Love your three questions to help pare down research. It's so easy to keep digging and not writing. I will keep the mission statement above my desk to help with focus. Great post!

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    1. Thanks so much, Peggy. And I feel you on the unending research!

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  30. Thanks, Sarah. I'm always thinking I need to add every ingredient. Now I'm thinking, "what kid wants to hear all that"! I am going to "give it a try." I have more than one nonfiction manuscript to look at.

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    1. I am the very same, Mona. The struggle is real.

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  31. Thanks for the post, Sarah (fellow Nutmegger). I love PB nonfiction and have a few ideas of my own, so I'll be looking for your books for mentoring - and education!

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  32. Thanks for these helpful questions, and I love how you structure your school visits...lucky kids!

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  33. Thanks Melissa! Here's hoping school visits return soon!

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  34. WOW, when I asked myself the three questions that Sarah asks of herself, a very real elusive concept finally came to me as my "Ah-ha moment". THANK YOU NONFICTION Fest. I have been struggling for a long, long time with identifying what I want to write about, but as I answered those three questions, it felt like all the pieces came together - like a broken mirror, all reversing itself back to one clear mirror image where I can see the reflection - all whole. This will help guide me from here on out. Wow, what a feeling! Can't thank you enough!

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  35. Your fact test check list is particularly useful. Your baking a cake reminded me of 'pulling off' my daughter's wedding last year. A friend told her, "It looks so easy to do," was our biggest laugh but glad it looked that way.

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    1. Yay! And that "looks so easy" reaction is probably doubly irksome to picture book writers!

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  36. Your analogy is spot on! The questions to ask yourself after finding a topic are incredibly helpful guideposts to writing.

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  37. Your Give It a Try Questions are perfect for me. Thank you.

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