I remember writing that chapter thinking, I have no idea what I am writing about, I hope it makes sense. (I had experts to help me, don't worry.) Now it seems kind of laughable that a section in chapter 5 is The Vertical File. The whole internet is, really, a vast and wonderful vertical file. But there are, of course, lots of things in the book that still apply. And the one I want to talk about today is HANDS-ON RESEARCH.
How many other writers out there do hands-on research? Raise your hands! Yes, I see you. Lots of you! How many teachers out there ask their students to do hands-on research? Yes, many of you, too! I'd love to hear from other writers what you have done recently and from teachers what you have had your students do. Please share by commenting on this post.
In that chapter I include different kinds of hands-on research. For instance if you're writing about animals, do first-hand observation! (I've been doing a lot of that since July 8 with my new dog Ketzie, although for now it's just for pleasure, not yet with a specific book in mind). I take photographs to document such observations. This is how a dog defends a stuffed-bone from her older human "brothers."
In the hands-on chapter I advise kids to cook and eat if they are doing research about a certain country or a time period. (I took my own advice a few years later when I was researching and writing my holidays around the world series). Hands-on research of course also includes conducting scientific experiments--plant a lima bean; get caterpillars and watch them turn into butterflies; make a volcano. You can also know first-hand what it was like to live long ago by doing homework by candlelight, washing on a washboard, using a morta and pestle to grind corn and making your own candles. (Or, heh heh, using books to do research.)
This past summer I have spent a lot of time working on my Vincent Van Gogh book. And a good fraction of that work time has not been writing or even researching, but painting. I am not, nor will I ever be, an artist. But I feel that to be able to write about an artist I must spend time mixing paints and playing with color and trying to capture on paper with paints things I see and feel. It is bringing me so much closer to Vincent, it's almost magical. But it's not magic. It's hands-on research and it's truly irreplaceable. Something the vast and wonderful internet cannot do. Also, IT'S SO MUCH FUN!!! This past weekend I spread out many of my paintings on our table and my husband took a picture to show you.
What you see in this photo is not someone creating great art or learning how to be a painter. What you see is an author connecting with her subject. Now when I read one of Vincent's descriptions of a painting he has seen or is working on, or read one of his letters asking Theo to send him tubes of paint, I get it, truly understand it, in a way that I never would have if I hadn't spent all this time painting. So while it may look like (and sometimes feel like) creative procrastination, it really has been deep hands-on research. (Also, if you wouldn't mind sending me tubes of ochre, Chinese white, and cobalt blue, I'd really appreciate it.)
By the way, sometimes it's just a good thing for a person to try something that she's not that good at. It's character-building and world-expanding. Take a look at my friend Robin Marantz Henig's column the other day about tap-dancing. Doesn't that make you want to do something outside your comfort zone? Come, dance with Robin, paint with me! And tell me what kind of hands-on research you've done lately!