Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Unexpected Gifts

One of my favorite aspects of conducting research is the unexpected gifts that arise. Over the years people have been so generous when I have asked for help, and when a book is finished I see it as a collaborative effort of all the people who have contributed ideas, suggestions, or words to the project.

For research on my YA novel CRACKBACK I returned to my high school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and asked my former economics teacher who was now an assistant coach if I could observe football practice. He said he thought so, but he'd check with the head coach.

The head coach said I could watch practice, attend film sessions, talk with players, stand on the field at games, anything I needed. He put in one request: "Just don't get hurt."

I learned so much from these players and coaches about how much high school football had changed since I had played and also about what was the same. I had not spent time around high school football in decades, but being on the sidelines with these players made me want to be back on the field smashing into someone. I felt what Miles Manning, the main character of CRACKBACK, was feeling and concentrated on sounds and smells and dialogue.

And then one Friday night standing on the sideline at an away, an unexpected gift arose. Players were invited out on the field at the end of the game to pray with the opponents. These were two public high schools and we'd never done such a thing when I played. I watched as all but three players went out to join the prayers. I wondered what was going through the minds of those players to break with their teammates. I wondered why they were taking such a stand.

As I drove home, I kept thinking about it and decided I needed to write about it. That scene became the basis for my next YA novel BOX OUT.

Sometimes research doesn't provide the answers we expect. Sometimes it provides much more.


Research is a time machine of translation by Betsy Woods

Research is a sensual experience. I absorb the world I am learning, let it linger and melt into the subconscious pathways that build story. In light of a sensual translation, primary research seems the most efficient, but then, isn’t all life experience research for the writer. In the process of research I find that I become the translator. Initially I don’t concentrate on factoids as much as I try exploring them. I build the world that research suggests in my imagination. The story begins to brew, research seasoning the plot and contributing to the flavor. I liken this to following a rather cryptic map. I try to not get in the way of the exploration.

Granted, as I am writing this blog, I am aware that this sounds rather ethereal. Maybe this is because it is experiential. I find that connecting research with a sensual understanding imbibes life and authenticity into my story. It allows me to crawl further into my character’s skin and think how they might. Coming to understand their world, with its tethers and redemptions, introduces me to their specifics set in time and space: time travel of a sort. My characters, my story, begin to own the research and carve themselves and tell their story. It’s a form of synthesis where I become the translator of research, character, and narration that allows a story to breathe on its own.

I went back and read every potato blog on research thus far (They were stellar!) and put together a compilation of our thoughts:

Potatoes Ponder Research

1. Life is research.
2. Show research in action.
3. Connect the dots
4. Double check/Triple Check
5. Verisimilitude; latin-veri similis “truth-like”
6. Hunting and Gathering
7. Research is a time machine of translation.
8. . . . ?


Hunting and Gathering

Whenever I begin a new book whether illustrating or writing, I let my friends and family know I am in my "hunting and gathering" phase. It is a time when I remind myself of the phrase: "All who wander are not lost." It is truly a time of wandering, whether physically taking a walk or a visit to libraries and museums or mentally allowing my thoughts to meander where they will with no judgement nor directives. My studio becomes a nest at this time, piled high with all the books and images I have gathered to feed my imagination. I carry the text of the story with me everywhere, allowing it to catch on objects or scenes I may never have considered when I initially visualized it.  It is both a dreamy time and a time of initiative. 

I love illustrating the stories of others because it takes me to places I probably never would have gone on my own. The perfect example of this is when I accepted the manuscript for Fold Me A Poem, by Kristine O'Connell George. I loved the poems but I hated origami. It seemed so stiff and had far too many straight lines. But George's poems captured my imagination, so off I went to the library to check out every book on origami and paper-folding available; both adult and children's books. For six months I taught myself to fold. I folded all of the 40-some animals in the story, not just once, but many times in order to find the right diagram for the right animal. There is more than one way to fold a frog! By the end, I had fallen in love with origami. I still fold to this day, just to focus my mind. 

Our Family Tree, written by Lisa Westberg Peters, was the book I had to be the most thorough with my research. The subject of evolution is not to be haphazard with. My editor kept stressing that I must be willing to have every image checked for accuracy-- yet somehow keep it artful. When I asked Lisa to be more specific with each stage of evolutionary development-- which animal was she thinking of she said she was not going to be pinned down. Meanwhile, as the illustrator I had to be "pinned down". I had to be able to swim through primordial seas with trilobites and the first fish, then step onto land with the first plants and know what they looked like and understand what encouraged our first breathing ancestors to follow and just how many toes they had. The Science Museum in St. Paul as well as the library were excellent sources, but also the Minneapolis Institute of Art. There I sat in the galleries sketching the movement of land and water in Chinese scrolls and the thrusting movement of tree and land in the paintings of Marsden Hartley. When illustrating evolutionary change over a period of 4 1/2 billion years, it made sense to add drama to the page with swirls and thrusts. At one point in my gathering of information and images, there was no more room in my studio, so I was forced to take down the family photos on the second floor of my house and hang a twenty foot timeline that went down the hall and half-way down the stairs, just so I could keep track of evolutionary events. I realized early on that I would not be able to add a plant or flower for color and composition-sake if they had not evolved yet! 

Sometimes I wish I could stay in a perpetual state of hunting and gathering, however there always comes a time when it all must come together and become a book. At this transition I often experience a sense of panic, even despair. I wonder if I can really put all I have learned and found into anything of creative interest. I have been known to even consider returning the contract! After fourteen years of this process though, I have learned that even the despair is necessary to for the completion of the book. 


The Quest for Verisimilitude

For me, research provides an opportunity to expand my frame of reference while learning the facts necessary to lend a story verisimilitude. It’s fun because I like to learn, but it can also be helpful in other ways: if I’m stuck on a particular scene, for example, I can take a break and do more research, so it doesn’t feel like I’m wasting my day waiting for inspiration to strike.

Because of the Internet, over the years my research habits have definitely changed. In the “old days” (meaning more than ten years ago) I used to visit one of the University of Washington libraries, and before that, the city library in Fairbanks, on a weekly basis. This meant lots of time at the Reference Desk and the copy machine. Nowadays, 99% of this type of research can be done online while I sit in my writing shack.

The Internet has also altered the search for primary and secondary sources. Instead of being limited to my local library or bookstore’s inventory, nowadays I can order a book from practically anywhere in the world – a convenience that has significantly inflated my book-purchasing budget!

On the other hand, the process for “hands-on” research hasn’t really changed too much: I pack my bags and either jump in the pickup or catch a plane, depending on where I need to go. Whether it’s spending time with the ghosts of the California Gold Rush country, or studying the habits and environment of pikas and marmots in Mount Rainier National Park, this type of research provides a break from my routine and also gives me some much needed exercise! (One of my pika buddies posed for the picture accompanying this post.)

For my next story, however, I face a different challenge. It’s a fantasy set in an alternate world, so where can I travel to do research? The “facts” and “details” of the story will have to come from my own imagination. So instead of traveling I will spend a lot of quiet time brainstorming ideas and letting them marinate while I outline my story. Of course when I get stuck, or if I just need a break, I can always go visit the pikas again . . . .



Research is necessary for even the simplest of stories, or else one ends up with an "Oops!," as I did. I was illustrating the story of a tiny little Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse who was looking for a home, when I came upon a few characters that I knew nothing about. One was a white-tailed kite. I looked it up on-line, bought a National Geographic bird book, went to the library, and never realized that birds of prey attack with their feet (Duh!). Pretty obvious stuff here, but not to me. So when I turned in my illustration, the editor kindly returned it and asked me to do it right. I was, and still am embarrassed about that gaff. But it did teach me a good lesson - when you think you're done researching, do some more. I'm sure there are more mistakes to come, but at least I will make more educated ones this time! Happy writing - and illustrating!!