Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hands-on Research

A million bazillion years ago (O.K., 1998) I wrote and published a book called THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY KID'S GUIDE TO RESEARCH, re-titled in paperback THE KID'S GUIDE TO RESEARCH with the cooperation of the New York Public Library. (You can probably guess why.)  I wrote the book just as this thing called the world wide web, or the internet, was becoming well, a thing. If you look at the table of contents of the book, you'll see that it was only a chapter:

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! 

For more on research you can go to my web site and especially this page: Research.  


Melissa Stewart said...

Great post, Deb. I can't wai tto read the book.

Steve Sheinkin said...

The hands-on stuff really works. I've been working on a book about an attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln's body from his tomb in Springfield, and at a recent visit the ranger there led me into a not-open-to-the-public dirt-floored hallway under the monument, and handed me a chunk of white marble from Lincoln's coffin - the very one pried open by the grave robbers that night in 1876! Don't know why this helps me describe the crime scene, but it really does!

Unknown said...

There is no way to write about science without doing hands-on research. I have performed every experiment in my books. When you do something, you get ideas. That's the basis of empirical research. Recently, I've been reading Isaac Newton's Optics. My optical engineer son, Josh, is making me a version of Newton's "crucial experiment" with prisms and lenses so I can show, first hand, how Newton's insights are not only from imagination but from hands-on experiments.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I wish on blogger I could LIKE comments. Steve, I was worried for a minute that you were going to say you had robbed a grave. And Vicki, you are the QUEEN of hands-on!! Melissa, me too. Heh.

Cheryl Harness said...

Deb, did you see - well, you probably know all about this - a Morley Safer segment on CBS re: V. Van G.? such beauty out of such suffering. uff da

Susan Kuklin said...

How about feet-on research? Whenever I do a ballet book, I try to take class, or do the warm up, with the company. It's a great way to "feel," i.e., understand the movement. Sometimes, though, it can be daunting - while doing jetes across the floor with dancers from American Ballet Theatre, I looked down and thought, "Wow, I'm actually jumping!" Then I looked up - and saw the underside of ballet shoes.
But fun.
Terrific post, Deb. And the paintings are really good. I'd love to hear more research stories - both up in the air and down on the ground.

Deborah Heiligman said...

That's based on this new van Gogh bio that I have big reservations about. But I did stop painting long enough to watch it. :)
I am, as always, a skeptical researcher.

Cheryl Harness said...

Okay. fine. Burst my bubbles then, Deb. It WAS pretty darned interesting & sad.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I think their theory about his not committing suicide is interesting. Don't let me burst any bubbles. I better write this book. Fast.

Barbara Kerley said...

My latest hands-on (or, as Susan more accurately said, feet-on) research was for my work-in-progress, a biography of Emerson.

I didn't truly understand why he felt so hemmed in by the streets of Boston (and why that fueled his love of nature) until I walked the streets of Beacon Hill last fall.

The adult in me loved the beautiful architecture and felt so grateful that the buildings were still there for us to enjoy. But the KID in me thought, sheesh, even at noon, the buildings are so close together that they block the sun. And emerging onto Boston Common, the kid in me wanted to run run run!

Great post, Deb!