Thursday, April 24, 2014

Navigating the Dangers of Research

Today's guest post is by Karen Blumenthal—author of YALSA Nonfiction Award finalists Bootleg and Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different—and a committed researcher. Or, maybe, a researcher who should be committed? Read her post and decide for yourself!

One evening during a research trip to Washington, D.C., I missed the hotel’s revolving-door entry and slammed into a glass wall schnoz first.

While I reeled in pain, the guests in the lobby eyed me as if I'd enjoyed the happy hour a little too much. Embarrassingly, I was suffering instead from a wicked case of microfilm myopia.  I had only been researching drinking, not actually doing it.

In writing nonfiction for young people, I know the quality of the research drives the story. But that all-important work, I've concluded, may be dangerous to your health.

Other afflictions from recent research were less painful, but almost as embarrassing:

Quarter hoarding: My obsession won’t make great reality TV, but I have stashed quarters everywhere, in pockets, wallets, and tote bags, and I won’t share them with you, even for a desperately needed soft drink. They’re crucial for parking meters, copiers and lockers for stashing your stuff while you research Al Capone at the Chicago History Museum. 

Research fog: An ailment closely related to microfilm myopia, this dense stupor sets in around the fifth hour of reading, especially if you skip lunch to squeeze in more work during a research library's limited hours. As you emerge from the fluorescent-lit haze, jabbering about what you have learned, it slowly becomes apparent that no one you know cares that Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and Penney founder James Cash Penney had similar backgrounds.

Library breath: What is it about libraries that makes your mouth feels like a herd of camels just ambled across your tongue? Spend too much of the day inside one of these important (and low-humidity) places of knowledge and you'll find that your newfound trivia isn't all that will knock people out.

Chronic nerditis: Finding some new gem online can lead to mysteriously intense, heart-pounding excitement that will surely bore your family to death. You mean you can read 1920s magazines online? Find newspapers stories back to the 1850s? Look at a database instead of those fat green Reader's Guides to Periodicals?


Waitwhat? You've never heard of the Reader's Guide to Periodicals?

“Just one more” syndrome: Now this is when things get really ugly. Researching is fun; writing, for me, is difficult. So why in the world should I want to stop searching for good stuff? What if there’s a better anecdote out there? What if I’ve missed a great example? If only the deadline wasn’t approaching!

Of course, the paper cuts and smudges on my clothes from newspapers and fresh photocopies are all worth the trouble when I finally sit down at the computer. Having great stories and specific detail is crucial to writing for young people because the story must crackle and pop, and every idea must be crystal clear for readers who have little experience or context to bring to a subject.

Just try not to get behind me when I take a break at the coffee shop. I may be paying with quarters.


Anna M. Lewis said...

Fabulous post!
Thanks so much for sharing with us!

Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

Oh yes - skipping lunch because you HAVE to squeeze in more reading before the library locks up for the night! Definitely adds to the foggy head.

Sue Macy said...

Welcome, Karen! I make sure to travel with energy bars (my favorite: NOGii Chocolate/Peanut Butter) for those days of skipping meals. But one of my favorite things about the Library of Congress is their cafeteria. Breaking for lunch there is tasty and refreshing.

Tina Cho said...

Fun post! I think it's neat we can search OLD newspapers online.

Tina Cho said...

Fun post! I think it's neat we can search OLD newspapers online.

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