Research & Writing: Chasing Stories Back to the Source

I’m working on a book about insects for Chronicle Books right now. I’m in science-geek heaven, up to my eyeballs in research, and wanted to share a tip that I think might help other writers – both students and adults.

 When you’re doing research and you come across THE BEST STORY EVER, you need to chase that story all the way back to its source.

 Sometimes, you’ll be rewarded with the exact quote you need from a primary source document. And sometimes, you’ll run into a dead end, and you’ll need to let that juicy story go. This can be sad – especially after you’ve put in hours of research – but it’s lot better than perpetuating an often-told but undocumented tall tale in a work of nonfiction.

I experienced both of these research moments with my bug book this week.

BEST STORY EVER #1: Bombardier Beetles


Image via Wikimedia Commons, photo by Patrick Coin

In researching the Bombardier beetle, I found numerous references to a story about the naturalist Charles Darwin’s encounter with one of these beetles. The Bombardier beetle has a great defense mechanism; it shoots a hot, smelly, chemical mist out its rear end when it’s threatened, a fact Darwin supposedly learned the hard way, when he was collecting beetles, ran out of hands, and popped one in his mouth for safe keeping. This, I thought, was the BEST STORY EVER. But in order to use it, I had to find out if it was true.

When you’re reading information on websites, the best ones cite sources, most often within the text or in a list of references the bottom of the page. Source leads to source, and eventually, if you’re lucky, you can follow that bread crumb trail back to the person who told the story to begin with – in this case, Charles Darwin himself. I found out that this particular BEST STORY EVER actually came from Darwin’s published autobiography. Here’s the quote:

“I will give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”

My favorite thing about this quote is the matter-of-fact way in which Darwin describes popping the beetle into his mouth for storage as if it’s a regular thing. Because that’s what we all do, you know, when we’ve run out of hands for collecting beetles.

Verdict: This BEST STORY EVER can be verified, at least to the degree that Charles Darwin himself tells the story. A side note: I still have no idea if Darwin was telling the truth, since he was alone with the beetles, but I can phrase my storytelling in a way that reflects this. This BEST STORY EVER makes the cut.

(If you want to read more about Bombardier beetles, Sarah Albee, author of BUGGED: HOW INSECTS CHANGED THE WORLD, has a great blog post called “Please Don’t Eat the Beetles” here.)

BEST STORY EVER #2:The Giant Weta


Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Another bug I’m featuring in this book is the Little Barrier Island giant weta, which is known as the heaviest insect in the world. It’s also known for its scary appearance; the natives of New Zealand call it wetapunga, which translates to “god of ugly things.” I also read some reports that this insect is pretty indestructible by conventional means. I found half a dozen websites – including some from museums and educational institutions – that reference a story told by Sir Walter Buller, who supposedly tried to kill some wetas for his collection back in 1871 and had little luck. These super-wetas supposedly survived Buller’s attempted drowning and even his brother-in-law’s effort to kill them by plunging them into boiling water.

It’s a great story – but one that I’ve been unable to confirm so far. The closest I’ve come is this 1895 reference in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, in which Buller writes about two wetas he found feeding in a tree:

“Dismounting from my horse, I secured the two Wetas in a pocket handkerchief, and hung them up in a tree to await my return a day or two later. On coming back, however, I found that they had eaten their way out and made their escape.”

Side note: Buller apparently didn’t subscribe to the Darwin “pop-it-in-your-mouth” method of insect safe keeping. Or perhaps he did, but giant wetas can be six inches long, so that would have been quite a mouthful.

Anyway, this is a nifty story, but it falls short of providing confirmation for the tale I’d read online. Does that mean the story of the wetas who survived attempted-drowning and being plunged in boiling water isn’t true? No…but it does mean that I haven’t yet found the documentation I need to use it.

Verdict: This BEST STORY EVER doesn’t make the cut unless I manage to turn up a document where Buller tells the story for himself.

One more note on chasing down sources… We teach students (rightfully so) that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source for research. But it can be a treasure trove of references. The Wikipedia entries that are well done – and many of them are – have a list of references and resources listed at the end of the article, often with links to their original sources in scholarly articles available online.

The End of a Series (and the start of a new one!)

I was at a wonderful writing retreat called Kindling Words when I wrote the last chapter of CAPTURE THE FLAG and thought, “I really, really want to write more books with these three kids!”  As an author, when you’ve had the chance to spend time with three kids from totally different backgrounds whose families are all part of a secret society to protect the world’s artifacts, you’re just not ready to let them go after one book. Happily, Scholastic agreed, and CAPTURE THE FLAG became Book 1 of three Silver Jaguar Society Mysteries. Book 2, HIDE AND SEEK, came out last year.

I’m so thankful to readers of these books — especially the kids who have passed them from hand to hand and the teachers and libraries whose passion and advocacy landed CAPTURE THE FLAG on ten state award lists.

Anna, Henry, and José have one last adventure ahead – MANHUNT comes out in June and sends the kids off on their most dangerous missions yet.

Henry, Anna, and José head from Boston to Paris to solve the mystery of an international art heist! Shortly after they arrive, they learn that a member of the Silver Jaguar Society is working as a double agent, passing information to the criminal gang the Serpentine Princes — but who could it be? When the senior members of the Society go missing, it’s up to Henry, Anna, José, and their smug new comrade, Hem, to mount a rescue while staying hot on the trail of a missing masterpiece. Running around — and below — a foreign city filled with doppelgangers, decoys, and deceit, the three sleuths discover they’re the only hope for the Society’s survival!

I have a few advance reader copies of this book and would like to give one away in a drawing.  To enter, just leave a comment with your email before 9pm EST on Friday, May 30th. If you’re under 13, please have an adult enter on your behalf. Open to residents with US mailing addresses only.

MANHUNT is the last Silver Jaguar Society Mystery for now, but I’m already at work on a brand new adventure series for Scholastic. I want to introduce you to Ranger…

Ranger is a search and rescue dog with some incredible talents. He can find missing people. He has a gift for rescuing friends in trouble. And (with the help of a mysterious First Aid kit he digs up in the garden) he can time travel!

In Ranger’s first adventure, he goes back to the days of the Oregon Trail to travel with a pioneer family struggling with a wandering toddler, rattlesnakes, disease, a treacherous river crossing, and a buffalo stampede on their journey west.

The Ranger in Time books are recommended for readers in Grades 2-5.  Book 1: RANGER IN TIME: RESCUE ON THE OREGON TRAIL comes out in late December 2014, and Book 2, RANGER IN TIME: DANGER IN ANCIENT ROME  (Fire! Lions! Gladiators!) comes out in July 2015. Book 3 doesn’t have a title yet but features a fugitive slave as its hero, and Book 4…well…it’s probably too early to talk about Book 4, but it’s going to have a chilly setting.

So while I’m a little sad to be saying goodbye to my Silver Jaguar Society sleuths, I’m so excited to introduce readers to Ranger and all of the historical kid heroes he meets on his adventures.

Don’t forget – just leave a comment if you’d like to be entered in the MANHUNT ARC drawing!

A Magical, Laughter-Filled Day at Shaker Road Elementary School

I’m winding down my school year when it comes to author visits and spent a wonderful, magical day with the K-4th grade kids at Shaker Road Elementary School in South Colonie, NY today.  Librarian Lisa Berner and her students rolled out quite the red carpet…

Lisa and I celebrated with a photo after the last book was signed!

I always love giving presentations to readers & writers, but on top of that, school visits usually bring some delightful surprises, and today was no exception. I had a hilarious, laughter-filled lunch with some first and third graders. (We talked about dolphins, dinosaurs, pythons, and cheetahs.  And I got to see Zachary’s impression of a T-Rex puking. It was…impressive.)

There was also a sweet, sweet moment when Mrs. Berner called down to a classroom to check on one little girl who hadn’t brought her book to be signed.

“I didn’t want her to write in it,” Chloe told her librarian. “Because you gave it to me and it’s new.”

We came up with a solution – I signed a note to Chloe instead of writing in her book. 🙂

I did, however, get to sign the Shaker Road Elementary School “Author Chair.”

I signed next to Tedd Arnold, who visited last year. Illustrators are such show-offs, aren’t they?

Many, many thanks to everyone at Shaker Road Elementary for such a warm welcome today – I loved visiting your school!!


Thank You, Lincoln Elementary School!

Last week, I spent a wonderful day with the readers of Lincoln Elementary School in Wyckoff, NJ. I was all ready to begin my presentation for the 4th and 5th graders, when they turned the tables on me and announced that THEY would be kicking off our author asssembly with a song celebrating CAPTURE THE FLAG.  Check this out… it’s set to the Pink Panther theme song!


Not to be outdone, the 2nd and 3rd graders turned the “Friend Fish Song” at the end of my picture book SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH into “The Friend Fish Rap.”


And the K-1 students sang one of Sea Monster’s favorite songs, “Old McDonald Had a Lake.”


Many thanks to the kids and music teacher Juliette Vesque for such a delightfully creative welcome! School Library Media Specialist Jackie Soroko was one of the most enthusiastic author visit hostesses I’ve ever encountered. The students in each presentation chose a color to wear to represent my books. 4-5 wore red, white, & blue for CAPTURE THE FLAG, 2-3 wore green for MARTY MCGUIRE & SEA MONSTER,… and because Jackie was there for all of the presentations, she did a quick change from her red sweater & hair bow to a green sweater & hair bow just in time. Color me seriously impressed.

Music teacher Juliette Vesque (left) & Librarian Jackie Soroko (right) obviously make this school a LOT of fun.

Besides presenting and signing lots of books, I had a wonderful pizza-and-ice-cream lunch with some of Lincoln’s most enthusiastic readers. What a great crew!

Thank you, Jackie and Juliette, and EVERYONE at Lincoln Elementary School for such a musically and bookishly wonderful day!




A New Book (And a free Skype writing workshop offer!)

Here’s the conversation I’ve been having lately with my patient editor at Bloomsbury…

Kate: Can I share the cover yet? Can I please?
Patient Editor: Not quite yet. It’s not done.
Kate: But it looks done. And I really, really love it. Please?
Patient Editor: Not yet. I promise I will email you a final version soon.
Kate: Okay. (waits five minutes, emails again) How soon is soon? Isn’t it soon yet?

This all went on for some time. But guess what? Soon is here!!


ALL THE ANSWERS is my latest middle grade novel (my first book with magic!) coming from Bloomsbury in January 2015. It’s about Ava Anderson, a nervous 12-year-old who wishes life had more answers and fewer math quizzes until she finds a magic pencil that will answer any question she writes. But it’s not long before Ava and her best friend Sophie realize that magic comes with strings attached, and sometimes having all the answers is more trouble than it’s worth. The book also has goats, jazz band, an adventure course of doom, and world-famous donuts. On fire.

I’m kind of in love with this book. It’s the most personal novel I’ve written, which also makes it, in some ways, the scariest to put out into the world. But I’m excited to share it with you. And there’s going to be quite a bit of sharing going on…because Bloomsbury is sending me on a book tour this winter. I’ll be spending the last week in January in the Midwest (details & cities to come!)  I hope if I’m in your part of the world, you’ll come by the bookstore to say hello.

The second week of the book tour is scheduled for the Northeast, and because community is a big theme in this novel, Bloomsbury has turned that week of their tour over to me, to dedicate to free & reduced price school visits in my own community – Northern New York and Vermont. Bloomsbury will pick up travel expenses, and local independent bookstores will handle all of the book sales. If you live nearby and would like information about those visits, please shoot me your email address and we’ll make sure you’re in the loop when that part of the tour is planned. Please do that soon if you’re interested – I’d love to have these local schools in place before everyone leaves for the summer.

Finally, because I also wanted to do something for schools and libraries that aren’t in those book tour cities, I’ll be offering a dedicated week of Skype writing workshops for schools and libraries. This 25-minute virtual workshop, WRITING WITH A MAGIC PENCIL, will walk kids through the research, planning, and revision phases of my writing process for ALL THE ANSWERS. I’ll share my writer’s notebook, research notes, outlines, character sketches, and marked-up manuscripts with students to show how a book evolves from a scribbled idea to a finished novel.  Students will also brainstorm their own “wish-gone-wrong” story ideas and be provided with brainstorming/planning tools that teachers may use to follow up with more writing after the visit.

These virtual writing workshops will be FREE with your school or library’s pre-order of 30 or more signed copies of ALL THE ANSWERS from The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, NY.  These may be student/staff purchases, books ordered for the kids via your school or PTA, or any combination of those. All orders will need to be sent with payment to The Bookstore Plus by January 23rd in order to schedule your free Skype writing workshop. The bookstore offers free shipping for US orders over $50 and will send books to your school.  There will be a limited number of spaces available for this writing workshop tour, and I’ll fill them on a first-come, first served basis until my schedule for the week is full.

This workshop is especially designed for teachers/librarians who may also want to use ALL THE ANSWERS as a grade-level, parent-student book club, or all-school read. If this is of interest to you, please email me (kmessner at kate messner dot com) so that I can request that you be sent an advance reader copy of the book to preview it over the summer.

Just as soon as advance reader copies are available, I’ll draw a name from today’s blog comments to receive the first ARC, hot off the presses.  I’ll take entries until the day the ARCs are printed and ready to go. To enter the drawing, just answer this question:

If you had a magic pencil with all the answers, what question would you ask?

Picture Book Math (and why you should write something new)

“I’ve written a Picture Book…”

 It’s the beginning of a conversation that I have with people regularly – at writing group, at a school or conference or in the grocery store.  And please note that my capitalization of the words “Picture Book” is intentional.  This Picture Book is a proper noun in the writer’s world. This book is beloved. Often, it’s their first manuscript. Sometimes, it’s inspired by children or grandchildren. Sometimes, it’s a fine idea, and the writer has worked hard to revise the text.

 “So what next?” the person asks. “How do I get it published?”

 “Well…” I pause here. Usually, I tell the writer about SCBWI and Harold Underdown’s beginner’s guide to children’s books and how one actually writes a query letter. But what I really want to say is, “Write more.”

 Here’s the thing about picture books. In my experience, writing them is a lot like skipping stones when you’re a beginner. You kick rocks around the shoreline until you find just the right one. You might have the perfect smooth, flat rock. But then if the angle is wrong, if you throw too hard or not hard enough, you still end up with a plunker. It takes a lot of tries to get a really great one. Picture books are like that, too. At least, they are for me.

At least once a day, I see something interesting or beautiful or weird, or I hear something amazing or funny and think to myself, “Hey! That could be a picture book!”  Sometimes, I hold onto that thought long enough to consider it for a moment and think either “No…never mind.” Or “Yes…yes, it could indeed.”  If the pondering leads to a yes, I scribble the idea in my notebook. This probably happens twice a week, on average.

Lots of these ideas live in my notebook forevermore. I wave to them when I flip through the pages, but that’s about all the attention they get. Except for the really persistent ones.

Of those ideas that get written down – let’s say there are maybe a hundred over the course of a year – a handful aren’t content to just live quietly in the notebook. They follow me around, when I’m running or driving in my car, even when I’m in the shower. (Ideas are not big on privacy and personal space.)  These ideas that surface over and over again and demand to be thought about some more?  I try writing them into books.

This probably happens around thirty times a year. I sit down with the idea and say, “Okay…you’ve been following me around for weeks now. What is it? What do you need? What’s the story?”  And I take a stab at shaping that idea into something that will work as a picture book.

About a third of these end up not working out, and I know that pretty quickly. Sometimes, I’m only halfway through a draft when I look at it and think, “No…not this.”  That happened this week, with a book called WOMBAT’S VALENTINE.  It doesn’t mean that WOMBAT’S VALENTINE should never be a book. But it does mean that right now, I haven’t hit upon a great way to write it. So that idea, having had its fair chance in the sun, goes back to hanging out in the notebook for the time being.

The other two thirds of those picture book ideas are more promising. I sit down. I write a draft of the book and think, “Hmm…this might just work!”  I finish, set it aside for a while, and revise.  I do that five or six more times.  This happens with about twenty manuscripts each year.

After all that revising is done, I decide that I do not like eight of the books very much after all.

The other twelve books, I show to a friend (usually with an email that says, “Am I crazy or could this be a picture book?”)  I have great writer pals who answer this question truthfully.  Well…mostly. They really never say, “Good God, no!” even when the manuscript might warrant that. They say, “Well…maybe. I wonder if you’ve thought about any other structures…” or “It’s interesting…and I think if you really work on the character arc, you might have something here.”   Once in a while, they say, “Yes! I think this might very well be a book some day.”

This happens maybe eight times a year.  Remember that I started with roughly 365 flashes of idea – 100 of which made it to the writer’s notebook, 30 of which got started, 20 of which actually got finished without being abandoned halfway through, and 12 of which were then promising enough to share with a writer friend. Of those twelve, I will probably be wrong about four of them. So now I’m down to eight manuscripts that have made it through all those stages of picture book writing and revising.  They have survived the picture book gauntlet.

These are the manuscripts I revise a few more times and then send to my agent, generally with a note that says, “I’ve written this picture book, and I really love it. When you have time, please take a look and let me know what you think!”  She reads them and ponders. (At least, I imagine her pondering.)

Of those eight manuscripts, two or three will have problems that my critique buddy and I either didn’t notice or didn’t know about. Maybe the book is kind of didactic, after all. Maybe it’s too similar to a Mo Willems book that we didn’t know about. Or maybe it needs a stronger ending that I can’t quite come up with yet. So those books don’t go out into the world.

The other five or six manuscripts might be revised a few more times before they pass muster with my agent. She will send those out to editors and wait for their responses.  There will be more revising. And if things go very well, one or two of those original 365 idea-sparks will grow up to be a book.

This is why I try out lots of picture book ideas. I fail frequently and cheerfully. But I’ve also been able to work with a few great editors to make a few of those ideas into real live books. And that is an amazing experience.  It just takes a while to get there.

So you’ve written a picture book.

And that’s great!

If you feel like it’s ready…if you’ve revised and revised…if it’s the best book it can be and has the potential to thrive in the current market, then send it out to a few editors.  And then?  Step away from your email, and step away from the book.

Write something else. Something new.

Write more.

Because if you’re anything like me, you may have to skip a lot of stones before you get it just right.


Want to Write a Great Villain? Look Inside…

“Are any of your characters you?”

 The question comes up in virtually every school author visit and Skype Q and A session I do with kids who have read my books.  And the answer is tricky.

 No, none of them.  And yes…all of them.

 The truth is, I’ve never written a character I can point to and say, “See this guy here? That’s Bob Randolph, who drives our FedEx truck in my neighborhood.” But the character in the book might share Bob-the-Fed-Ex-guy’s quirk of singing loud country music with the windows down while he drives.  He might also have salt and pepper hair like my neighbor’s, a nose that I saw on a guy in Starbucks once, a secret love of gourmet organic salads like my brother, and a pair of muddy hiking boots with purple laces that I just made up.  My characters are more collages than anything else – made up of scraps and bits I’ve collected from life and imagination and cobbled together into a more interesting whole.

Do some of those collages contain bits of myself? Sure. Marty McGuire wears my muddy sneakers, Gianna Zales shares my love of running in the neighborhood, and Jaden Meggs has the same desire to simultaneously impress and pull away from her dad that I felt as a teenager.  So yes, I always tell readers who ask, there’s a little of me in every single character I write.

“Even the bad guys?” one kid asked during a school visit not long ago.

I had to think about that one for a second before I realized something.

“Yes, the bad guys, too,” I told him. “In fact….especially the bad guys.”

 That’s particularly true when I think about my mysteries and science thrillers, like EYE OF THE STORM, which just came out in paperback this week, and MANHUNT, the third book in my Silver Jaguar Society mystery series (June 2014).


Sometimes, as writers, we do things in our art that we don’t understand until much later, long after the book has been published and we’re standing in an auditorium answering questions from fifth graders. But in thinking about this kid’s question, I realized that the villains in my novels all seem to share a common element – passions that got away from them.

The people who know me well know that I am an incredibly passionate person. I have big opinions, big ideas, and big feelings – all of which can be overwhelming sometimes.  That quality has served me well in life, in many ways, but left unchecked, it would most certainly hijack my life and damage my relationships. And I think a lot of us are like this; our best qualities can also be our worst qualities.  Loaning those qualities to our villains not only lets us explore them more fully but also tends to create bad guys who are more rounded and more sympathetic.

 Think about it the next time you’re brainstorming character traits for an antagonist. What’s your very best quality? What would it look like out of control?  Answer those questions, and you’ve got yourself a pretty compelling villain.