So, you’ve decided to write. You have an idea that began as a tiny seed and has slowly grown to the size of a shade tree.
You sit down to share your story with the world…and stare at the blank paper or laptop screen.
Where do I begin?
No matter what you are writing, whether it’s Nonfiction about a tree that survived the destruction and loss of too many lives, or a Contemporary Fiction Middle Grade about a girl who learns to let others in after the loss of her dad, you must research.
When I wrote THE SURVIVOR TREE, it, like the tree itself, began with a seed of an idea. One that snuck into my brain at a moment when writing a book about that subject was the furthest thing from my mind.
And it grew because the idea wouldn’t leave.
Over a year later, I sat down to write what was on my heart and mind, and just stared at the screen. I knew I needed facts. Backstory. Human stories.
So I began researching about this tree. I went to the internet first, as it was a weekend. There I found a lot of information that I would not have known. I had to make sure that any information I read was from reliable resources. Secondary resources, at the very most. Primary ones when I could find them.
I kept notes.
I watched old news videos from that gut-wrenching day and took notes. I read books written about similarly gut-wrenching topics. And took notes.
Finally I felt like I was ready to write a first draft. When I finished, it was about as rough as sandpaper. But I knew in my heart that it had a future, that this story needed to be told.
After revisions, which included changing the point of view to that of the tree, I secured The Roadrunner Press as my publisher. I had submitted it to agents of the big publishing houses, but they really didn’t understand the significance of the symbol of hope this tree has provided to those of us who lived through this.
The next step was to meet with Kari Watkins, the director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. She was on board with the idea for the book and put me in touch with the Oklahoma City National Memorial Archives.
A whole new world of research opened up when I got that opportunity.
Was it easy? Absolutely not. I wept countless tears along the way.
Was it worth it?
I also met with Mark Bays, the forester who has cared for this tree since the first leaves popped out almost a year after the bombing. He shared more information than you could imagine about what goes into the care of this tree, and how they work daily to make sure it thrives.
So, it’s obvious to see that, for a book of this enormity of subject, research is vital. This book could not have happened without it.
But, research is important for anything you are writing. Once you have an idea, along with characters, setting, and time period, you need to use all the resources available to make sure you are staying true to those story elements.
I am not an illustrator, but I know that this is even more true for those who are creating the visual world that our stories sit in. Illustrators must research in much the same way so it all meshes together in the most visceral way.
My middle grade novel, HURRICANE HARPER, is about a girl who is suffering from the loss of her father. But the plot involves a hurricane.
I have been through a hurricane, so I had a frame of reference. But I still needed more. When I was at this stage in writing this book, it happened to be hurricane season. So I watched weather reports and news coverage. I took copious notes of the jargon that meteorologists use when forecasting a hurricane.
The story is set in coastal Mississippi, which I’ve not visited. I used Google Earth to get a feel for it. I looked on various search engines and immersed myself in visuals on Pinterest. I wanted to feel like I was there.
Many times, we are writing about a place far away, and our imaginations have to take over. But we must make sure to research all the pieces of the puzzle that we can. If the setting isn’t realistic, if the events in the plot wouldn’t really happen the way it’s written, the reader won’t buy in.
TEACHERS: This post sounds like it’s geared toward writers and illustrators. And it is. But these truths and methods can and should be taught to even the youngest of writers and illustrators. When I assign a writing assignment, I make sure my students understand the world they are writing about before they begin.
Trust me, I know they don’t really want to go through all the research. They want to dive right in. But eventually they learn that, if they do this step first, the writing will flow. And sometimes, the research bug bites, like it did for me.
So, remember to begin with an idea. And then, take that idea to the highest step possible with research.