I’m delighted to welcome, guest poster, Tania McCartney, author, editor, publisher and founder of the wonderful children’s literature site, Kids Book Review – in celebration of her latest release Riley and the Grumpy Wombat (Ford Street Publishing). Tania is the creator of the popular Riley the Little Aviator series of travelogue picture books, and is both published and self-published in children’s fiction and adult non-fiction. She’s here to share her Research Tips for Writers. Welcome, and I’ll hand over to Tania.
Along with picture books, I have a quiet addiction to history and historical writing. I know – chalk and cheese, right? Perhaps not. The current spate of enormously successful faction books and picture books with historical undertones tell us history is the new black for children’s literature.
Notoriously, history books of the past have been bogged in a morass of boring… but very crafty, highly creative authors, illustrators and publishers are windsurfing across that bog with bright, light, whimsical and thoroughly entertaining stories that are truly shifting the way we teach history to kids.
Having studied history at uni, it felt like a natural progression for me to move into historical fiction, and I’ve recently finished a non-fiction book for the National Library of Australia (Australian Story: An Illustrated Timeline, out 2012) that takes Australian history and unfurls it like a long-lost scroll, and takes kids on a journey through time. Part of the process of writing this book – and the historical fiction I’m currently working on – was to hone my research skills, and work out a format that works for me.
My personal ‘format’ relies on visuals. I operate visually and even note-taking is documented in a visual way – via spread sheets and images that help capture the message I’m trying to convey. For Australian Story, I kept spread sheets that documented each event, timeframes, people involved, key dates, links and where I sourced the information. I also placed selected images on the spread sheet, and made my own additional notes to help with context.
One of my key tips for researching books that require a lot of detail, is to keep several versions of your document. Every few weeks I would save my spread sheets as new versions, date the old ones and archive them. This allowed me to keep several ‘works in progress’ that I could refer to down the track as the main document was updated and edited and altered towards a final version. Sure enough – in the final stages of production, these archived early versions came in very handy.
Researching is vital for historical fiction, sure, but it can also be important for fiction-writing… even picture books.
For my newest Riley book – Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A journey around Melbourne – I actually did a lot of research both for the book proper, and for my teachers’ notes and kids’ activities, which I write to complement the book. Although I’m a Melbourne girl, I really wanted to open and explore the sights of this gorgeous city and surrounds even further – and I needed to know MORE in order to do that.
When you write a book, you should know your material. Even for a low text picture book like Grumpy Wombat, I took the time to get to know more about each site featured in the book so I could answer questions for children and write some ‘fun facts’ into an activity book I have created for my book launches (these will eventually be on my website http://www.taniamccartney.com/4kids.html). This research was also priceless for my teachers’ notes http://www.scribd.com/doc/61497405/Teaching-Notes-Riley-and-the-Grumpy-Wombat, which offer teachers some fascinating ways to engage children in the story.
For all my Riley books, I spend time researching the featured animal as well as the featured city. I need to do this not only for my teachers’ notes and school presentations, but also because I weave both cultural and faunal facts and intimations and metaphors into each story… like the fact that wombats are often in a bad mood (well, they appear to be, anyway – and you would, too, if you had to spend most of your time alone and live in a cold, dank hole in the ground).
In 2007, I began work on a YA novel (working title: The One) that was based on ancient spiritual beliefs. The research required to write this took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to spend so much time researching for this book, but the need arose naturally and I ran with it. The more wonderful moments of synchronicity I experienced in writing The One, the more I wanted to give weight to what I was writing.
And nothing gives weight and power to fiction like historical facts.
For The One, I was required to explore not only other countries and cultures but the customs and rites of ancient peoples. I loved every minute of this. My findings really enriched the storyline and – most surprisingly – were actually responsible for bringing together my plot threads into one glorious ending.
I highly recommend researching to add intensity and weight to fiction, no matter how far removed the plot core is from reality.
Of course, research is vital for factional writing, and the process can be an intense one. Authors write this type of book in different ways but I prefer to research and write the parts I need as I go along. Some authors read up on and completely research a person’s life or an event from start to finish, before penning a single word of their story. I like to combine the research and the penning so my writing and comprehension of the subject matter is fresh.
Some authors write out the entire plot before commencing the story proper. This allows them to get an overview of where the book will go, and how they can incorporate and flesh out their characters and story structure.
For my current faction novel, I keep notes on my research findings then write them immediately into the storyline without becoming too pedantic about things being ‘perfect’. Interpretation and fictional additions, especially dialogue, are what make faction novels so special, and getting bogged down or paranoid about ‘getting things perfect’ while you’re still busy plotting the story, may disable you.
Writing a first draft with a light touch may help you plot the bones of the book and could be the key to actually getting a first draft complete. Getting bogged in minor detail can hinder the process, and these more detailed elements are much easier to add to a skeleton storyline a little down the track.
Once the first-draft bones of your faction novel are complete, you can then think about how to pad things out, develop your characters, and ensure all vital parts of the historical puzzle are covered – not only in the right order, but with clarity and accuracy.
Absolute accuracy on content is the final stage – and some reworking, adding and deleting may be required.
Authors develop their characters in many different ways – some know them instantly and intimately, while others get to know them as they unfold. One of the most effective ways to develop characters (who are the driving force and emotion behind any story) is to research them either before or during the book-writing process.
Keep a spread sheet of your characters and make notes about their personality traits, their background, their likes and dislikes, their idiosyncrasies. Dig deep and get to know who they are. This kind of ‘research’ can be the most fun of all.
• The internet provides a wealth of information at your fingertips, but don’t rely on it. There is a lot of pap and inaccuracy out there. If I’m researching on the internet, I search several sites and compare findings. I also frequent sites I can trust – like the sites of governments, organisations and established professionals.
• Cross-check your internet finds with printed books.
• Utilise your library, and if you can’t access the books you need, ask them to order books for you.
• If you are writing historical work for a publisher, your work will need to be heavily (and repeatedly) fact-checked. I was fastidious with my book for the National Library yet I missed several important entries and several were questioned for accuracy. Outside readers, historians and fact-checkers are a must, no matter how thorough you are.
• The wording used in historical work is subject to interpretation (and misinterpretation) so the right wording is vital. Be prepared to have your wording altered to minimise inaccuracy, misinterpretation, political correctness or subjectivity.
Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A Journey around Melbourne
Tania McCartney, illustrations by Kieron Pratt
Ford Street Publishing, A$22.95, hardcover
For more, see www.taniamccartney.com and www.fordstreetpublishing.com.