Monday, May 24, 2010

Researching with Researchers

On Friday evening, I visited my friends Tom Colton and Ellen Simms. We took a bike ride, enjoyed a dinner together, then sat in front of the fireplace to eat ice cream, drink herb tea and look at pictures on my laptop. Pictures of rotting pumpkins.

I always enjoy outdoor activities and meals with Tom and Ellen but I had an ulterior motive this time. Ellen, aka Prof. Simms, is a botanist in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. I am writing a book on what happens to the jack-o' lantern after Halloween -- a Halloween book for November, you might say. My ulterior motive is that I wanted Ellen's help in identifying some of the blotchy, fuzzy and moldy looking things growing on the pumpkin. Their portraits, captured by photographer Dwight Kuhn, were the perfect accompaniment to herb tea and ice cream.

When people think of what it means for a non-fiction author to do research, they usually envision the author looking up facts in books or articles -- either in print or online. For me research involves all of that, but most of all, I like to consult experts. Whether the subject is mathematics, music or mycology (or subjects that don't begin with "m"), I get the most bang for my research buck when I sit down and talk with someone who knows what he or she's talking about -- if it is what I want to be writing about.

Before I started writing non-fiction book for children, I was a frequent contributor of articles to Smithsonian, National Wildlife and Audubon. Working with experts was not only essential to reporting a story, but it was more than half the fun. I spent two weeks in Tanzania with a biologist who studied communication in hippos. I went to far northern Scotland to track outlaw egg collectors with investigators from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I spent time with wildlife biologists who were breeding river otters from Louisiana to reintroduce them to the species' former range in Missouri. What fine fun, what fine facts (and what a lot of frequent flyer miles)!

How does a writer find these mavens? It helps to have friends in universities but there are other ways. I have looked for the names of researchers quoted in books and articles. Usually that person's university or company is mentioned, so I just look her up and call. I don't always get a call back, but I'm onto my next lead and not worrying about. The internet can really help here. Just search any topic and follow a few of the links to find the names of experts galore. I look at their publications to see if they specialize in the subject of my own research.

Experts themselves are a little like websites: they usually "link" me to others. Before we had gotten past the first few pictures, Ellen had suggested I see a Berkeley colleague, mycologist Tom Bruns, in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. (Mycologists study fungi.) He doesn't know it, but at about the time you read this, I'll be looking up his phone number and getting ready to call.


Linda Zajac said...

That's definitely one scary pumpkin!

Caroline McAlister said...

One of my earliest memories is of a rotting pumpkin we refused to throw out after Halloween. We names it Charlie and put a hat on it, and it became a cherished toy until we discovered the mold growing under the hat. That was in California. I now live in North Carolina, and my kids' pumpkins rot much more quickly in this damp climate. They have not tried to keep any.
Caroline McAlister
Author of Holy Mole!
Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief

Wendie O said...

Oh my goodness. You've done the very same experiment that I wanted to do. And that I suggested my 10 year old do for the science fair -- but she decided to do the old flowers in food coloring experiment, instead.

Can't wait to see this book come out.