Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Joys of Sharing

Writers often comment that their work is lonely, or at least that it's carried out mostly alone. But some of us also enjoy collaboration--I had a coauthor on all three of the adult books I've written, two with a dear friend and one with my husband. Nonfiction writers for children also have a chance at collaboration in working with a photographer or an illustrator. While editors do their best to keep picture book writers away from picture book illustrators, a nonfiction writer needs to work with an artist to make sure the illustrations work factually. And with photos, there are always some images that the text requires, and the author must make sure the photographer produces them.

Lucky authors like me find illustrators who help create a happy collaboration, and the illustrators' influence can expand the author's ideas of what she can write about. In the late 1980s, I needed photos of different horse breeds for my book, "Horses of America." I happened across a newspaper ad that led me to Bill Muñoz, who lived in a small town nearby. Within a few years the two of us became frequent partners in creating books, first ones on domesticated animals like horses and cows and then on wildlife topics, a much more challenging type of subject.
Bill would do his best to get the photos I needed, and every once in awhile, he'd get an image he was so fond of he'd ask me please to find a way of getting it into the book. I always managed to oblige him, and in the process, sometimes expanded the text into an interesting area I hadn't originally considered.

Bill's strongest influence, however, was on the actual topics for books. I'm trained as a biologist, so my mind tends to go to animal and nature topics when I'm searching for subjects. Bill is trained as an historian, so he is able to see opportunities for us way beyond what I do, and his perspective helped expand our work together into the history of the American West. Our first foray into history came about because Bill was fascinated by a neighbor farmer who restored old covered wagons. Bill loved the beautiful restorations and found out that a whole group of folks would take their wagons on a wilderness trip every Memorial Day weekend, living out of their wagons drawn by draft horses or mules. The result of that project was "West by Covered Wagon," which used photos of that group and information about them to bring freshness to the story of the Oregon Trail.

My one obsession in life is learning new "stuff," and writing books involving history means learning lots of fascinating new material, so I've been happy to go along with Bill's suggestions. Our next history project was "Homesteading," which I especially enjoyed as my father had grown up on a homestead in Idaho.

I credit Bill with an especially busy period in our collaboration after he listened to "Undaunted Courage," Stephen Ambrose's biography of Meriwether Lewis in the late 1990s. Bill realized there'd be a boom in interest about the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 2000s as the bicentennial approached. We got busy and ended up producing three books, a set of classroom posters, and a number of magazine articles about the expedition. My own curiosity about life in early America was further whetted, but not satisfied, and we've continued to explore this topic through "The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny" and our 2011 book, "The Horse and the Plains Indians: A Powerful Partnership." Without Bill's influence, none of these books would have been written.

I've also collaborated with several illustrators, but particularly with Kendahl Jan Jubb, a popular Missoula fine artist. When I wanted to find an artist to illustrate a book about tropical frogs, Kendahl came immediately to mind. She loves painting animals, and the brilliant colors she uses are perfect for tropical topics. That collaboration led to several other books, and we always decided on topics together, taking into consideration the potential market for the subject matter as well as its potential for great illustrations and interesting text.

There's something special to me about a book I've worked on with another person, an extra sense of accomplishment that we did this together, that we helped bring out the best in one another, and that we are still friends after the project is finished!


Anonymous said...

Great post! My co-author and I also collaborate, in our case on historical fiction. And our subject for both of our novels has been Lewis & Clark!

Collaboration is so motivating. I often tell people that, like Lewis & Clark, we are stronger and smarter together. Really enjoyed this post!

Dorothy Patent said...

Thanks, Frances--I'll look up your L&C novels--I can't get enough of their story!