Teachers Write 7.27.17 Thursday Quick-Write with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Good morning! Our Thursday Quick-Write today is courtesy of guest author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Olugbemisola is the author of the novel 8th Grade Superzero, co-author of Two Naomis and the forthcoming And Two Naomis Too, with Audrey Vernick. She​ writes for Brightly and has written for Heinemann’s Digital Campus; she has contributed to The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want To Write for People Who Want To Read Them, Imagine it Better: Visions of What Schools Might Be, Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, and Break These Rules: 35 YA Authors on Speaking Up, Standing Out, and Being Yourself. She is a Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) team member and teaches writing online and in living colour. Olugbemisola lives with her family in NYC where she writes, makes things, and needs to get more sleep. Find her online at olugbemisolabooks.com.​

One of my favourite writing prompts is also one of the simplest, but I find it extremely powerful, especially when I’m trying to tease out a fledgling idea, brainstorming, or just writing to write without an end “product” in mind.

I think it works best at the end of the day, or first thing in the morning. But I am not one for hard and fast rules when it comes to writing, so work it out the way it works best for you.

Your Assignment: Spend at least fifteen minutes writing down the last 24 hours, just listing what you
a) did, and
b) noticed.

That’s it! Usually, after a while, I begin to see patterns, and what Don Murray called my “writing territories,” the things that I know and care about a lot. ​You might see many different variations on a theme, or realize that there is this one thing that your whole self is crying out to write. Almost every time, I’m surprised, and it leads me in new and beautiful and strange and well-loved and tedious and ​slightly scary directions. Which is how writing often is, all at once, yeah?

As always, feel free to share a reflection in the comments!

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Esther…and the mountains I climbed last summer

Dear Grace,*

It’s been a while. Last summer, I made time for hiking but not documenting those hikes, so this is a bit of a catch-up post. Think of it as the best of the 2016 High Peaks. Also, the worst of the 2016 High Peaks (hello, Allen).

August 8, 2016 – Lower Wolfjaw and Upper Wolfjaw

Lower Wolfjaw’s summit doesn’t have too much of a view – just a glimpse of loveliness through the trees, so we didn’t stay long here before pushing on to Upper Wolfjaw.

There was a bit of a tight squeeze on this hike…

By the time we summited Upper Wolfjaw, it was time for lunch.

This was our first High Peaks climb of the summer, and we chose a hot day for it. I thought two liters of water would be plenty. It wasn’t, and I ended up with a headache on the descent until we got back to a water source to filter. Lesson learned. And still a pretty great day in the mountains.

August 15, 2016 – Nippletop and Dial Mountains

Packing a lot more water this time, we set out again a week later to climb Dial and Nippletop – though not in that order. We opted to take the steep route on the way up to Nippletop and then traverse over to Dial and come down over the shoulder of Noonmark. It was a good route, though the walk out felt long, with lots of littler ups and downs. So many, in fact, that a man who was hiking near us pretty much wailed to his companion, “I want to stop climbing mountains now!” Sadly, he still had a couple miles to go. Here are some of my favorite views along the way, including a pretty marshy area on the way up, the cloud-shadowy view from Nippletop’s summit, my muddy boots on Dial, and a tree that had an ear.

We were careful not to tell secrets in this part of the woods…

September 16, 2016 – Mount Colden

We’d heard magical things about Avalanche Pass, so we opted to climb Mount Colden via that route in September, and it did not disappoint.

First view of Avalance Lake

The best part of this hike – ladders, bridges, and hitch-up Matildas along the lakeshore – like a giant jungle gym for grown-ups.

We met this newt on our way to the summit.

Perfect day on Colden! We took the easier way down & returned to the Adirondack Lodge via the Lake Arnold trail.

September 21, 2016 – Allen Mountain

We’d heard things about Allen Mountain. It’s a slog. It has a six-mile approach. It’s muddy. It’s steep. Oh…and there’s red slime, too. But every 46er has to climb it, so we started out super early on a late-September morning for the 20-mile hike. Parts of it were lovely – and there was a new bridge so we didn’t have to take our boots off to cross the Opalescent.

Lake Jimmy in the early-morning mist…

Shiny new bridge!

Opalescent River with fall colors.

And those are all of the nice things I have to say about Allen Mountain. Because everything we’d heard was true. Especially the part about the red slime, which frayed our nerves and bruised our extremities and rear ends. There was a bit of a view at the summit, but was a long hike down this one…

We were very happy to cross Allen off our list.

September 28, 2016 – Macomb, South Dix, and Hough Mountains

This hike started out on the sort of magical, foggy morning that makes you feel like there must be an enchanted kingdom down in the valley. Macomb was a steep climb, but it was broken up with photo breaks.

It was great that we enjoyed this view on the way up because by the time we reached Macomb’s summit, it was gone & we were staring into a cloud. The sign was the only evidence that we were, in fact, on top of a mountain.

The climb up South Dix was fun, but the view was, again, less than inspiring.

It was the same story at the summit of Hough.

But look! Here’s some cool fungus growing on a tree. You take whatever photo ops you get on cloudy hiking days.

October 6, 2016 – Rocky Peak Ridge and Giant Mountain

We’d already climbed Giant Mountain but ran out of time to do Rocky Peak Ridge, so this was our second time up this trail on a glorious fall day. On our ascent, there were clouds in all the valleys. It made the peaks look like islands.

I’m always slightly disappointed when there’s not an actual giant washing his face at Giant’s Washbowl. Pretty leaves, though…

View from Giant’s summit

The trail from here to Rocky Peak Ridge was steeper than we’d expected, so it took a while, but the views were worth the work.

Looking back at Giant from RPR

That wrapped up our 2016 hiking season because soon after, snow arrived in the mountains, and we are not winter hikers.

And that brings us to today…  Esther Mountain was a repeat for me, so I’m still at 25/46 when it comes to High Peaks climbed. This was #22 for my hiking buddy, Marsha, and at just under ten miles, we figured it would be a good climb to get our hiking legs back. Here…

You come, too.

I’m wishing I’d been better at writing about each peak after climbing last summer because I know there were tiny moments that I’ve already forgotten. The summit steward who pointed out a peregrine falcon soaring over Mount Colden. The sound of the waterfall on the way to Allen. The way everyone we met on our way down from Dial had crossed paths with a mother and two bear cubs we’d managed to miss.

But next week, there will be another hike – a summit I’ve never seen before (maybe two) with mushrooms and friendly toads and even friendlier fellow travelers along the way. I’ll write about it when I get back because I don’t want to forget any of these moments in the mountains.

Good climbing,

~Kate

 

* The Grace of “Dear Grace” is Grace Hudowalski, the first woman to climb all 46 high peaks. She was a founding member of the Adirondack 46ers, the group’s 1st president, and later on, its secretary and historian, roles she filled until she died in 2004. It used to be that if you wanted to be a 46er, you had to log each climb by writing a letter to Grace. And Grace would write back. She answered thousands and thousands of letters, with encouraging words and sometimes, her own reflections on a climb, too.  Today, the 46er application process is simplified; one only needs to keep simple climb records on a club form that can be downloaded. There’s an online correspondent program now, too, but I wish I’d had the chance to climb these mountains and write letters about them when Grace was around to read them. I love her story and her strength and the way she urged others to get outside and explore and tell their stories. So I’ve decided to write the letters anyway. I think Grace would have liked that.

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Teachers Write 7.26.17 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! Got questions? Our guest authors have answers! Today on Q&A Wednesday, we have Anne Ursu, Sarah Darer Littman, and Anne Nesbet as our mentor authors.

As always, if you have questions for the group, or for a specific author, just post in the comments. They’ll be checking in throughout the day to respond.

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Teachers Write 7.25.17 Tuesday Quick-Write with Martha Brockenbrough

Good morning! It’s time for your Teachers Write Tuesday Quick-Write, and our guest today is the brilliant Martha Brockenbrough. Martha is the author of The Game of Love and Death, a Kirkus Prize finalist, as well as the forthcoming Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary, and Love, Santa. She teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, founded National Grammar Day, and likes dogs and cats equally well. Martha continues our focus on research today with some more great resources!

Getting started is often one of the hardest parts of writing—or anything, really.

Because I write fiction and nonfiction for a variety of ages, I’ve faced a lot of blank pages. One of the best ways I’ve found to get started is to have a little bit of help. Writing prompts in general can be useful. And I find all sorts of them in research, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction.

Here are some of my favorite places to dig up research-based nuggets:

The New York Public Library Digital Collection: This is a huge archive full of images, newspaper clippings, and other documents. This link is to the last letter Alexander Hamilton wrote his wife before he was shot to death. It’s fascinating all by itself. But it also makes a writing prompt: Consider writing your character’s last letter to someone he or she loves. That someone can be a child. An exceptionally gifted pet. A criminal who needs to receive on a secret message. Or it can be something your main character receives.

Internet Archive: This site has a variety of digitized media, including old newsreels and audio reels. When I was researching The Game of Love and Death, a historical novel set in 1937, I used video of the Hindenburg tragedy as the basis for a scene.

I’d listened to the audio recording of it in a chemistry class when I was 12, and remembered it always because it was so vivid (which is why it’s not for every student. Still, it’s interesting.)

One of the first things I did when I decided to set the book in 1937 was look at a list of things that happened that year.

As your story prompt, search on a year (or use the one your story takes place in, or the year a character was born). Find a great vintage photo like this one, and write about someone in it receiving the best news of their life—which they are unable to enjoy.  https://archive.org/details/1937KSUcollage

Moon phase calendar 

One of my pet peeves is the preponderance of full moons in movies. With The Game of Love and Death, I took care to make every moon phase accurate. It became a good creative constraint. What did my characters think when they looked up to the sky and found it empty of moon?

Your assignment: Look up the moon phase on your character’s birthday, or some other significant date in your story. (If you don’t have a work in progress, choose a date like your own birthday!) Write a scene about a character doing something in the light of that moon. And as always, feel free to share a snippet of what you wrote in the comments!

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Teachers Write 7.24.17 Mini-Lesson Monday: Biographical Research with Margaret Powell

Good morning, Teachers Write campers! Your Monday Morning Warm-Up with Jo is here.

Today’s a special day because I get to introduce you to a brilliant debut author who’s also a friend.

Margaret Powell is a decorative arts historian from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the Curatorial Assistant of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art and she writes about fashion history on her website www.hiddenfashionhistory.com. Margaret and I are the co-authors of an upcoming picture book called ONLY THE BEST: THE EXCEPTIONAL LIFE AND FASHION OF ANN LOWE, coming soon from Chronicle Books. (We don’t have a cover to share quite yet, but it’s being illustrated by Erin Robinson, and we’re both so excited!) Margaret’s post this morning is all about biographical research!

Digging into Biographical Research

I started learning about Ann Lowe during an internship in 2011. The chief curator wanted to know more about the designer of a dress in our collection and the existing scholarship available about Ann at that time boiled down to brief profiles in two 1980s books about African American fashion designers and a journal article written in the late 90s for the Alabama Historical Society. Not a lot of info, but they led me to a magazine interview Ann gave in the 1960s. Her story fascinated me, but from source to source, many details about her life were inconsistent.

Working to make sense of those mixed up facts turned into my masters thesis and this was the first biographical research I ever really attempted. To have enough information for my thesis, I needed dresses to study, former clients to interview and hopefully, some family members. Ann’s career spanned sixty years and three states: Alabama, Florida, and New York. I had the budget of a student, so research trips were limited and finding primary sources was a challenge.

A lot of Ann’s dresses are in museums, but the biggest collections nearby were not available for research that summer. The Metropolitan Museum had ten, but they were renovating the Costume Institute. The Smithsonian had a few, but those were caught up in inventory and research for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. The JFK library held Ann’s most famous work: Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. That dress was permanently off limits to researchers (especially students!) because of condition issues. With all of those barriers, I wasn’t sure where to start at first, but then I thought about newspapers. Newspapers are a fabulous starting point!

All in all, my strongest research has been a result of interviews (in person and over the phone), but those take time to arrange, so they usually won’t be your first step. At the beginning of biographical research, newspapers and public records can give you the info you need to track down those living people. Genealogybank.com is my favorite website for this, because of their strong regional newspaper offerings, but if you have a membership with Ancestry.com, or one of the other genealogy sites, or even the New York Times, you already have access to some extensive newspaper archives.

What are you looking for? If your subject is well known, there could be interviews, profiles, book and tv reviews. Ann wasn’t well known, but she had a lot of well known clients and she created dresses for one of the most popular annual events in Tampa: the Gasparilla festival. Ann’s dresses show up on the front page of the Tampa Tribune throughout the 1920s and they are also described in detail inside.

Ann is never named here, but when I learned about her Gasparilla work, the rest was easy. The names of her customers led me to living granddaughters of those customers, and one of those ladies even mailed me an Ann Lowe dress to borrow for my research!

Obituaries may be the first link to finding living relatives. Wedding announcements will also help you to keep track of name changes.

The census can be another treasure trove of information and give you countless jumping off points. Google Books and Archive.org often have full scans of directories and trade journals from professional organizations. If your subject was a professional or an artisan, you may be able to find information that way.

Your Assignment: Choose someone you’d like to research. What can you find out about your subject through public records (the census, marriage, military, and death records), newspaper and genealogy websites? Has your subject ever given interviews to magazines or on television?

If you wish to keep going, on your own, create a list of five living people associated with your subject and reach out to them for interviews. Interviews can be in person, over the phone, or in writing (I started with a questionnaire to send out to a dozen of Ann’s former clients. Five of those people replied). These can surprise you. Descendants of Ann Lowe’s business partners, and a few of Ann Lowe’s 1960s bridal customers have been my greatest help! I hope you have fun while you uncover some interesting information about your subject!

As always, feel free to share a bit of your thinking in the comments today to continue the conversation!

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Teachers Write 7.21.17 Friday Revision Tips with Erica Perl

It’s a Teachers-Write Friday, and that means it’s Friday Feedback day on Gae’s blog. Head on over to get some feedback on your work in progress and to offer help, too!

Also, Erica Perl, our guest author here today, has some revision tips to share! Erica is 3 of the 4 following things: 1) the author of picture books including Chicken Butt! and Goatilocks and the Three Bears; 2) the author of middle grade novels, including When Life Gives You O.J. and the forthcoming All Three Stooges; 3) the author of plays including The Capybara Conspiracy; 4) a hilarious public speaker; 5) terrible at math.

Six Reasons to Strip Down to Your Underwear and Read Your Work Aloud

An important piece of the editing process is reading your work out loud in your underwear. Not in front of an audience, mind you. But just to yourself (or, if you’d prefer, to supportive pets and houseplants). I find this to be an invaluable step, whether I am working on a picture book, an early reader, a play, a poem, or a novel.

Here are six reasons why you should do this:

1) Certain words or turns of phrase will trip you up, even though you’re the one who wrote them. This is particularly important in picture books or anything else that’s designed to be read aloud. If you stumble over it, chances are your reader will, too.
2) In a rhyming piece, you’ll also notice – most of the time – if your rhymes or meter are off. I say most of the time because you can actually force both things without intending to, so pieces that are written in rhyme require the additional step of having someone else read them aloud to you (you might want to put on a bathrobe for this). Ideally someone who has not heard you read this particular piece aloud before, so as not to be influenced by your patterns of inflection.
3) Your brain and your mouth will instinctively try to improve your work as you read. So, for example, if you used the word “kind” in a sentence you may find that you replace it aloud with the word “generous” if that’s really what you meant. Take note of this!
4) Your ear will notice which lines of dialog sound like the way people actually speak, and which sound “written” (the kiss of death, unless for some reason that is your intention).
5) You will discover how the rhythm of your piece works. For example, you’ll get a sense of which parts of your piece are too “talky” and need to be pulled back or balanced with more action, visual storytelling (in an illustrated book) or silence.
6) You will notice your bad habits, like specific words and phrases you lean on too hard, and you’ll discover excess words that you can part with. Half the battle of writing, in my opinion, is figuring out which words you don’t need.

With an audience of actual people (fully clothed, please!), you can of course discover many more things, like which of your jokes are actually funny and whether your plot makes any sense. But before you take that step, do your writing a favor: find a quiet place and read it out loud to yourself. And while the in-your-underwear component is optional, since you’re the only one there (except for the pets and houseplants), why not? Summer is the perfect time to shed clothes, and reading aloud is the perfect way to shed whatever’s holding your writing back.

After you do, leave a comment to share the most surprising thing you learned about your writing from trying this exercise!

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Teachers Write 7.20.17 Thursday Quick-Write with Mike Jung

It’s Thursday Quick-Write day on Teachers Write, and your guest author is the fabulous Mike Jung. Mike is the author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES, UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT, and the forthcoming THE BOYS IN THE BACK ROW. He’s also contributed essays to the anthologies DEAR TEEN ME, BREAK THESE RULES, 59 REASONS TO WRITE, and the forthcoming (DON’T) CALL ME CRAZY. Mike is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books™, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family.

I’ve spent my share of time in waiting rooms, as has anyone with the resources and good fortune to have access to health care, and they’re places with a distinctly complex blend of emotions relating to the past, present, and future all at once. A child waits for her very first dental appointment, knowing that her teeth were just on every previous day, thank you very much, not really liking the animated movie that’s showing on the TV screen up in a corner of the ceiling, and feeling nervous that her immediate future might include some drilling; a couple with matching white gold bands on their fingers sits on the edge of a waiting room couch, feeling the aches in their joints, clutching a bouquet of orchids in a long box and an oversized teddy bear, visibly impatient to meet their new granddaughter; a college student slumps in a hard plastic waiting room chair, staring blankly at his phone, hating his father for refusing to give up the cigarettes that gave him lung cancer, and drowning in guilt for feeling that hatred when his father’s on the verge of death.

Your Assignment: Think up a situation in which a character is waiting in such a room. Are they there for an appointment or an emergency? Are they there alone? If not, did they bring someone there, or are they arriving to see someone who’s already there? What might happen once they leave the waiting room? And here’s the pot of gold: when they sit down in that waiting room and start to wait in earnest, what’s the very first thought that goes through their mind? Spend a little time writing in response to this prompt, and then feel free to share a snippet of your writing for today in the comments if you’d like!

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Teachers Write 7.19.17 Q&A Wednesday

Wednesdays are Question and Answer days here at Teachers Write, and each week, we’ll have a different panel of official guest authors here to answer your questions in the comments. Today’s fabulous mentor authors are Ammi-Joan Paquette, Caroline Carson, and Jody Feldman.

Teachers & librarians… If you’d like to ask a question, just post it in the comments. (Don’t forget that if this is your first time posting, your comment won’t appear until it’s moderated, and that may take a little while. Be patient, please, and don’t post more than once!) Joan, Caroline, and Jody will be monitoring comments throughout the day and responding to your questions!

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Teachers Write 7.18.17 Tuesday Quick-Write with Loree Griffin Burns

We’re focusing on nonfiction and research again in our Tuesday Quick-Write, and your guest author today is the brilliant Loree Griffin Burns. Loree is a scientist and a writer with a passion for nonfiction storytelling. Her next book, Life on Surtsey, Iceland’s Upstart Island, explodes onto bookshelves November 14. Previous books for young readers include Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam and the Science of Ocean Motion, Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, and Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard. Loree loves to share her work with writers and explorers of all ages, in all venues; visit her on the web at loreeburns.com

Tuesdays are for short writing prompts, and I promise that I’ll give you one … but only after a not-so-short introduction. Because yesterday’s post by my pal Sarah Albee? It got me pretty jazzed up, and I want to share a related idea for electrifying your writing research.

Talking to experts, as Sarah described it yesterday, is one of my favorite things to do. I’ve interviewed fifth grade experts hunting for ladybugs in New York, chemistry experts studying volcanic soils in Iceland, and a whole lot of interesting experts in between. Talking with people who know more about my topic than I do is how I “get the dirt” on my subject while, at the same time, collecting the details that will make my writing sing. A closely-related beyond-the-books research trick, a next step, if you will, to interviewing experts is what I call “getting dirty.”

What’s getting dirty? A field trip. Going somewhere and collecting rich experiences that will enhance your writing.

I know. I know. It sounds like a major way to procrastinate. And trust me, it can be. But all writers draw from the world around them. You can sit at your keyboard and tap your memories for the details you need; there’s nothing wrong with that approach. But for me, getting outside and getting dirty is critical. That’s where I find the tiny details that will help me transport my readers. More often than not, it’s where inspiration grabs me.

Let me give you an example. When I was researching The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe, I called up an expert beekeeper, Mary Duane, and asked to interview her. (Sarah would approve!) I talked with this expert by phone for a long while, and Mary gave me a lot of dirt: information on honey bees, their lives in managed hives, and even some interesting insights into their sudden and mysterious disappearance, which was the catastrophe in my book’s title. Before we hung up, though, I asked Mary if I could visit her apiary. That’s when the fun really began.

In Mary’s apiary, I watched her climb into a bee suit, and then I climbed into one of my own. That’s how I picked up on the sound Velcro bee suit tabs make when you rip-and-reset the jacket wrists in order to make triple-sure that bees can’t crawl up your sleeves. I saw Mary slide her hive tool under the inner hive cover and use it to muscle that cover off. When she handed me the hive tool, I got to feel for myself the strength of the sticky resin honey bees line their hives with. And when we finally got that hive cover off, I felt for the first time in my life the vibration created by eighty thousand height-of-the-summer working honey bees. I smelled the light scent of warm honey mixed with that of softened beeswax. I heard Mary describe what she was seeing when she whispered, with a mix of awe and glee: “This hive is just boiling with bees!”

Me, Mary Duane, and an open hive of bees. My first visit to an apiary was … nerve-wracking.

I loosened up over time. This image of a honey bee stinging a human arm appears on page 41 of The Hive Detectives. Guess whose arm that is? 

How, pray tell, could I ever write about being in a beehive without having done these things? Without having showed up and gotten my hands dirty? If you read The Hive Detectives, you’ll find the details I’ve described here woven into the narrative. Individually, they’re not stand-out moments. Together, they make a more authentic reading experience.

So, get away from your desk. Intentionally seek out experiences that can help you bring your book alive. It doesn’t matter if you are writing a middle grade photo essay about honey bee scientists or a YA dystopian novel about climate change. Sometimes, your inspiration needs to come from outside your office, outside your head. Remember that list of experts you created after Sarah’s post yesterday? Pull it out and add to it a list of places you could go to get dirty and find inspiration. Then treat yourself to a field trip.

Okay. It’s time for that Quick-Write Prompt. (You know what’s coming, right?)

Your Assignment: Go outside. Get dirty. Write about it. Have an experience, and then bring it to life for someone else by writing about it. The goal is to find the words to describe a sensory experience as fully and completely as is possible.

Do you hear a bird singing in your yard? Describe what you hear. (Is it a liquid trill? A low-pitched hoot?) Your reader is not there with you, so write a paragraph that so accurately describes what you are hearing that your reader would now recognize this sound if they heard it in their own yard.

Are you at the grocery store? Buy four different kinds of apple, bring them out to your car, and sample them, one at a time. Describe what you taste. (A tangy bite? A subtle sweetness overwhelmed by a mealy textured pulp?) Find the words that will make your reader’s taste buds squirt, that will wake their own personal apple memories.

No time for this today? Rather get in your run? Fine. Run. But when you get home, take off your shoes and socks and give them a sniff. Take a few minutes and tell me in words about that smell.

Be creative. Choose some sensory experience already in your book or article, or that should be in your book or article, and give it your undivided attention today. Choose something that has nothing to do with your work-in-progress. Whatever. It’s your choice. Just get a little dirty … and then write about it. Have fun! And as always, feel free to share a bit of what you wrote in the comments.

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Teachers Write 7.17.17 Mini-Lesson Monday: Electrifying Research with Sarah Albee

Good morning, and happy Monday!  Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up is here

And our guest author today is the amazing Sarah Albee. Sarah writes nonfiction books for kids in grades K-9. Forthcoming titles include POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines (September 5, 2017) and George Washington, First President (December, 2017). Other recent nonfiction titles include Why’d They Wear That?, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up. She loves visiting schools and presenting to kids of all ages. Note: Sarah is off doing research in Europe right now, so her replies to comments may be delayed a day.

Electrifying Research

If you were to play a word association game with your students, chances are “ELECTRIFYING FUN” is not a phrase you’d hear them pair with the word “RESEARCH.”

But I’m here to tell you, Teacher-Writers, that research can be electrifying fun. And not just for those of us who write science and history. Every professional fiction writer I know does some research in order to add depth, realism, and nuanced details to her writing. Many do a lot of research. For instance, I know for a fact that my friend Kate Messner is a research geek.

And while starting with a Google search is generally the way most students (and let’s face it, most of us) start exploring a new topic, there’s so much more to research than internet searches.

Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite aspects of research. I broadly call it “talking to experts.”

What kids may not realize—what adult writers may not realize—is that an expert can be anyone with knowledge about your topic. While an expert can be an esteemed professor at a fancy university, it can also be an older member of your family. It can be a person who hails from the place you’re writing about. It can be an elderly person in a nursing home, or someone who maintains your school building. Don’t be shy about approaching these people, because people love to tell their stories.

When researching my Poison book, I interviewed many people, but I want to tell you about two “talking to experts” experiences I had in particular.

I discovered that Cornell University has a poisonous plant garden. Who knew? The garden is at the veterinary school, and was created as a living reference collection of “natural toxicants.”

After a quick internet search, I contacted a professor there, Mary Smith, who agreed to meet with me. I drove up to Cornell on a sparkling September day. The poisonous plants were in full bloom—the garden was having a fantastic hair day. She showed me around and pointed out plants I’d been reading about in books—deadly nightshade and jimsonweed and poison hemlock and aconite and nicotine and lots of others. She spent several hours with me—we shared an enthusiasm for toxic plants. Here’s Dr. Smith showing me a castor plant…

I had a disquieting moment when she placed two castor plant seeds into my ungloved hand as I was standing in an open field, far from any emergency shower station. I knew that the plant, Ricinus communis, contains the potent cytotoxin called ricin, one of the most poisonous naturally occurring substances on earth—one milligram can kill an adult. In 1978, a shadowy assassin used ricin to kill Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian journalist living in London. Markov was shot in the thigh with a ricin pellet fired from a tricked-out umbrella.

But Dr. Smith reassured me that the tough seed coat would protect me from the ricin. “Might want to wash your hands before you eat lunch, though,” she said casually over her shoulder as she marched off toward the next specimen.

Also in my Poison book is a section about the dark chapter in our twentieth century history when watch-dial-painting factories sprang up and employed young women to paint glow-in-the-dark numerals on wristwatches, using …radium based paint. These so-called “radium girls” were hired for their keen eyesight and nimble fingers.

Above: Radium girls at work

They were taught to lick the end of their paintbrushes to get a nice pointy tip. At the time, no one knew radium was poisonous. But soon these young women began falling sick with devastating illnesses. As I was researching this chapter, I stumbled across a reference to a watch-dial-painting factory in Waterbury, Connecticut, four miles from where I live. I’d had no idea there had been a factory here. After scanning some old newspapers at my library’s database and making a few phone calls, I found myself interviewing two grown children of two different radium girls. They were both in their 80s and still living in Waterbury. Our conversations were powerful and emotional, and both shared poignant stories about their mothers’ illnesses. I’ll never forget these conversations.

So here’s your assignment, dear Teacher-Writer-Researchers: Brainstorm five people you know, or know of, or know slightly, that might help deepen your understanding of the topic you’re writing about. If you don’t yet have a work in progress, then just pick a person, any old person, and ask her to tell you something about her life. Ask a lot of open-ended questions, and then listen. You’ll be amazed. Because everyone, everyone has a story to tell. Note: tomorrow my good friend, Loree Griffin Burns, is going to carry on with a related post about electrifying your research!

As always, feel free to share a little about your experience and continue the conversation in the comments!

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