Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Firsthand Research

To write nonfiction, you have to like research. I mean really like it a lot. You have to like it so much that sometimes it’s hard to know when to get the heck out of Dodge and move on to the next step in the process.

What's my favorite kind of research? Firsthand research, especially when it takes me to exotic places like the African savanna or a coral reef or a tropical rain forest. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best part of my job. Nothing beats observing animals in their natural environment. This kind of research provides key tidbits of information that are often missing from authoritative books and journal articles about wildlife and wild places.

Here’s an example. When I went to Costa Rica with my husband’s family, one of the animals on my wish list was a three-toed sloth. I was soooo jealous when my husband and brother-in-law spotted one while I was scouting out birds along the river.

But my patience was rewarded. A few days later I saw one, well, actually two. My 7-year-old niece (shown here), spotted a female sloth hanging upside-down with a tiny baby clinging to her. It was a wonderful sight, especially since I shared it with my niece. She was completely enthralled. But let’s be honest. So was I.

I blended my observations of the sloth with my husband’s description of his sighting and my general notes about the rain forests we hiked through to create the opening of my book Sloths.

Deep in a Central American rain forest, spindly spider monkeys spend their days chattering as they leap from branch to branch. Above them, toucans call out to one another as they fly among the treetops. Far below, on the forest floor, butterflies flit among the leaf litter. The woodland is alive with sound and activity.

But one rainforest animal remains silent and still. It is the sloth. All day and most of the night, this shaggy-coated creature hardly moves at all. It hangs upside down and does its best to blend in with its surroundings.

Honestly, when work is this much fun, who needs a vacation?


CC said...

I have enjoyed research trips for my books more than any other. Sometimes the stories behind the stories and pictures are as good as, if not better
than the one in the finished book. I've posted a few research adventures for my REDOUTE, The Man Who Painted Flowers, Putnam. on my blog.é
A good opportunity to use some of what I discovered but couldn't include in the book.
Carolyn Croll, Phila. PA

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Even if you do write history books you still get to travel big time to dig up the best research, especially if you do the artwork too. Examples? I got to follow in Darwin's footsteps through South America and the Galapagos for What Darwin Saw, interview experts in Philadelphia and check out my guy's stomping grounds for How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning, and tramp all over the goldfields of California for Gold Fever! Try it--you'll like it!

Linda Zajac said...

Sounds like wonderful adventures. I think the real art in writing comes from not just observing and writing what you are seeing, but interpreting that observation in your own unique way.

Rachel said...

I write for the school and library market...and I do a lot of research! Usually the library and internet are all I need, but I too have been so enriched when my research has become a part of my life. When I did a DIY science series I spent hours doing experiments. I envy you your travel...I go to where I am writing about if I can, but often time and budget does not allow.

Vonna said...

I finally found you again! I had stumbled across this blog some time ago but neglected to add it to my reader. I found you again through Mother Reader's comment challenge and this time I've subscribed.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I often think we should follow the brilliant thinking of scientists I know. They seem to find creatures to study in the most wonderful places. (Like the three-toed pasta worm that only lives in the hills and valleys of Tuscany.) I'm hoping that my next book will take me into the streets of New York City.