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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78 Comments

  1. Heather
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Sounds wonderful

  2. Posted July 17, 2017 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    This prompt is falling on the very day I am traveling to Whitney Plantation near New Orleans that will tell the story of slavery rather than the glossed over story of plantation owners. I am helping my mother-in-law gather research for a historical fiction novel she is writing, but who knows what I may learn as well. When I was researching a current work, I needed to know more about raising chickens. I called it my chicken research and talked with friends who raised chickens. I learned that chickens can be friendly and loving. Adding real personal stories of real experiences enriches fiction stories and helps them to ring true. A publisher asked me how I knew all about 4H. I just asked some fellow teachers. If you don’t have the experience, ask someone else about theirs.

    • Heather Jensen
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      I just visited Whitney Plantation. It is extremely important that more people visit and really hear the story of slavery.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Love this comment, Margaret. And yes, Heather, I couldn’t agree more.

    • Andy Starowicz
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Hi Margaret,

      Thanks for sharing. A trip to the Whitney Plantation sounds very interesting. I am sure that you will learn something new today.

      As for chickens, one of my favorite middle grade novels is entitled Chicken Boy. If you have never read it, you must. It’s about a boy who finds himself while raising chickens. The grandma in the story is a wonderful character.

      Enjoy your day of research.

  3. Janet Chitty
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    I have thought about the fun of nonfiction writing /research. I am on a road trip and am in Asheville, NC. I am visiting The Biltmore Mansion today and hope to find inspiration from that historical place. I think that getting out and experiencing whether near or far inspires me more than sitting st home. Talking to someone, as you suggested is great, and then experience whether in a museum, historic place, or on a neighborhood or nature walk, may just be the jumpstart needed. That is my hope somewhere along my road trip. Thanks for getting the research wheels turning today.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      So glad to help spark your enthusiasm, Janet. Sounds like a great road trip.

    • Andy Starowicz
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Hi Janet,

      The best place to research is while on vacation. A few years back, my family was vacationing in Sunset Beach, North Carolina. At the time, I was writing a MG manuscript with a beach setting. The main character went to the island market, the library, the local hospital, and the school. So, I visited these places and asked questions. Almost all of the people that I asked questions about beach life were incredibly nice to talk with. The store owner kept trying to give me a free cup of coffee every morning.:) He also had all of these local newspapers that he let me look through. Good luck with your research.

      Happy researching!

  4. Posted July 17, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Research can be amazing! I love reading the back-stories of nonfiction works. I know Laurie Halse Anderson has shared, now Sarah Albee (thank you! Fascinating! – I’m glad the ricin didn’t get you :)) My mom moved to Ft. Wayne, IN when she was 18, and it’s fun to hear where stores were, how the city grew, etc. from a personal perspective.

    I’d like to have more opportunities for students to talk to experts this coming year. Having local speakers come in, allowing students to talk to people in their neighborhoods, etc. and then write stories. Thanks again, Sarah, for helping us write today!

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      So glad, Jennifer–and don’t forget Skyping! It’s also a great way to talk to people.

    • Andy Starowicz
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Hi Jennifer,

      It is so amazing what people would do if you asked. This past school year, we had an astronomer from Colgate University visit the school to talk with the students about the ancient skies. We had a speaker from NASA talk (via Skype) with the students about the mission to Mars. We also had a CSA farmer, a manager from Trader Joe’s, and a representative from the Eastern Farm Workers Association come in to talk with the kids during our Farm-to-Table unit (we connected it with the book entitled Under the Same Sky). All of these guests came in for free. The kids got to ask them questions, and the feedback helped them with the project (or essay) they were working on. Honestly, as a writer, I found it thrilling to have a chance to ask them a few questions. I met with the EFWA rep for about an hour before he visited.:)

      I hope that this information is helpful, and I also hope that you can get some guests to come in to talk with the kids.
      Happy researching!
      Andy

      • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:08 am | Permalink

        Amen to ^^ this ^^ Jennifer. People love to talk about what they do, and they OFTEN say yes! Your kids are very lucky to have you.

  5. Diana Murrell
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I was very fortunate to find some letters written by missionaries who taught at residential schools in Canada. Although I can’t interview them, the letters gave me great insight into what they saw and did as well as their mindset. It was very disturbing but the details really helped me with my writing.

  6. Heather Jensen
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    This is a great idea. I hope to have my students spend some time with experts in our local community this year! I know I cherished the conversations I had with my Grandma and Grandpa about their lives during the Depression. I was always amazed when my Grandpa told me that when they got an apple, they ate the entire apple. Not a single part of the apple was thrown away. They ate the core and seeds and all! Our elderly are a fountain of knowledge, just waiting to be shared with the younger generations.
    Thanks Sarah for the great idea!

    • Amber Webb
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Our elderly truly give us insight into how we became who we are as a community, family and nation. My husband has been “interviewing” his 95 yo Grandpa to write his story of times in war, depression, need, want and plenty. It is absolutely amazing to hear his stories. It is great you are having your kids interact and learn from those in your community. I can’t wait to hear what kind of a project it turns into.

    • LIBBY C WOOD
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      I agree with you, Heather. What a wonderful way to broaden and deepen our students’ memoirs/personal narratives this year.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      OMG my father (born in 1921) did the exact same thing, Heather! And yes that can be a great assignment. When my daughter was in 10th grade, her class got an assignment where they were asked to interview someone affiliated–somehow–with their school. She interviewed a security guard who had come from Pakistan and who had a totally fascinating story. She’s never forgotten that amazing person.

    • Andy Starowicz
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      I love the story about the apple.:) Most elderly people love to come in and talk with kids. About five or six years ago, we had veterans come in and visit with the kids and through the years, we learned to allow them an extra half hour or forty-five minutes to talk. They still whenever the time limit, but the information was priceless.

      Thanks for sharing!

  7. Amber Webb
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    At nErD Camp MI earlier this month I had the good fortune to have lunch with a group
    of women I had never met and talk about writing. Little did I know, this lunch with Gae, Ammi-Joan Paquette, two other authors and two fellow educators would inspire my growing desire to write. During this time I talked with Deb Gonzales about her upcoming book about the history of women in sports. I shared the story of one of my favorite pictures of my Great Grandmother in her school basketball uniform with her team. As time passed, we learned that that very picture held a great deal of secrets. One of the educators at the table said, “There’s your story!” Prior to that, I never thought about writing her story. Then just this weekend as I mulled it over and thought, “That will take way too much research to write this historical fiction,” I walked away from the idea. Enter today’s post…looks like I’m off to interview some experts: her three remaining living children. And to do some other research on sports and women during that time period. Thanks Sarah for the push and inspiration!

    • Jennifer Hernandez
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      Talk about the stars aligning!! Sounds like the universe is telling you something AND it sounds like you have an incredible story waiting to be told. Good luck diving in!!

    • Heather Jensen
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      Awesome Amber. I would love to read that story about your Great Grandmother!

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:09 am | Permalink

      Wow Amber–that is a GREAT story idea!! Keep us posted!

  8. sheila mustard
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Sarah, thank you for reminding all of us, a great historian can be anyone. I have used pieces of some of your books to get kids more excited about researching. We do several writing pieces that require research and for some students it is difficult to find a topic narrow enough but not to narrow. I know it is not Q.A. day but do you have any advice I can pass along to their hungry minds?

    I plan to get working on collecting some research this weekend while we are at a family wedding, thank you!

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Hi Sheila–I betcha Loree Burns will have something to add to this in tomorrow’s post (she and I have copresented many times about research and choosing a topic about which you are passionate). I think asking kids to brainstorm a list of favorite things–a quick, off the top of their head kind of list–can be a great way to figure out where their true interests lie, and it’s amazing how one can connect one’s passions with a broader unit of research. Or pairing a favorite fiction book with a nonfiction topic–for instance, my interest in poison was sparked by a lifetime of reading fictional stories about poison. I wanted to know how it happened “in real life,” and at the molecular level.

  9. LIBBY C WOOD
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I just attended a week-long workshop at the Iowa Summer Writers’ Festival on the topic of Finding the Threads: Structuring Memoir. The topic of research was widely discussed because even though the memories of the events are the writers, research will add credibility as well as interest to the topic. Several attendees were researching family histories to explain contemporary issues. Very interesting!

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Wow sounds fascinating Libby!

    • Andy Starowicz
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      Hi Libby,

      A week-long workshop at the Iowa Summer Writers’ Festival sounds SO cool. It sounds like you are going to learn a ton. I’m also super impressed that you are supplementing your learning with Teachers Write. Way to go!

      Have a great time at the workshop!

  10. Barb Jaindl
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Just this morning I finished reading Kate’s Wake Up Missing. As a school librarian, one of my favorite parts of a book to share with young readers are the author’s notes. Although I couldn’t believe the coincidence of my falling down the stairs and ending up in the ER room so close to an “incidental” reading of this particular title, I was more interested in what led to Kate’s writing the book. But what was truly fascinating was WHERE it led her — to researching concussions, genetics, testing of humans, etc. Look forward to sharing more science thrillers with my young readers, and encourage them to try writing some pieces, too!
    Part of the reason I like the more common British genre choice “speculative literature” over “science fiction” is that it points more to the hypothesizing that a writer does after solid research. Think too many of us associate cheesy B-rated movies or pulp fiction with SF.
    Now off to find a scientist who’s not too busy with her own research! Maybe start at #BillMeetScience?

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Yes, Barb, I witnessed Kate’s research process firsthand while she was working on that book and yes, she does a TON of research. And I agree that authors’ notes can be great to share with kids.

    • Andy Starowicz
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      Hi Barb,

      I love your reasoning for choosing other literature over “science fiction” – it put a smile on my face. Now you will begin losing some respect for me – I really enjoyed Pulp Fiction.:)

      Good luck finding that scientist!
      Happy researching!

    • Melissa Schulte
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Concussion research has been a topic of our family for several years as a family member has suffered from a very severe concussion/traumatic brain injury. I loved Wake Up Missing, too!

  11. Debbie
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I have been the lucky recipient of my mother-in-law’s diaries, kept while she was in the Japanese-Canadian internment camps during WWII. My WIP, which is mostly just notes, some short stories and ideas, will be enriched by these first-class accounts. My mother-in-law shared some stories when she was alive, but, like many Japanese- Canadians who were interned, she was reluctant to share her feelings. When people find it difficult to share orally, diaries can reveal so much. I also have her autograph books…Again, a glimpse of teenagers in the camps.

  12. Debbie
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I have been the lucky recipient of my mother-in-law’s diaries, kept while she was in the Japanese-Canadian internment camps during WWII. My WIP, which is mostly just notes, some short stories and ideas, will be enriched by these first-person accounts. My mother-in-law shared some stories when she was alive, but, like many Japanese- Canadians who were interned, she was reluctant to share her feelings. When people find it difficult to share orally, diaries can reveal so much. I also have her autograph books…Again, a glimpse of teenagers in the camps.

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:12 am | Permalink

      Debbie this sounds like a gold mine of information. Wow.

      • Deborah Ishii
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Yes, Sarah! A little overwhelming, but so interesting! We didn’t know the diaries existed until after she passed away. Reading through them is like seeing the world through my mother-in-law’s eyes. She was the sweetest and kindest woman and her diaries reflect her gentle and friendly nature. There are so many stories buried within the pages of her beautiful little journals!

  13. Gae Polisner
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    This is awesome. I’m going to use this with my writing group this week!

  14. Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I’m on a family vacation but it’s the perfect time for an interview because my story gets a lot of inspiration from my niece, Alice, not just the name. She has a relationship with my dad, “Papa” that is similar to Alice and her Gram in my story. Alice and I live far away from each other so this was fun for me! I sat down with Alice this morning and interviewed her! The most authentic part of the interview was probably her asking me, after every question, “Am I done yet?” That’s exactly what Alice in my story would say.

    Here are some of her answers to my questions:

    What are you afraid of? Creepy monsters.

    Who is your favorite person in the world? Papa, because he is the strongest and the biggest. (Side note: my dad is definitely not the biggest in the family. I love that he is from her perspective though!)

    If you had 3 wishes what would they be? I would want candy. I would go to see elephants, they are my favorite animal because they have trunks that spit out water. And I wish I had two moms that would be better because they are the awesomest. No wait. Don’t write that one. I change it. I wish I had the greatest birthday present – an alligator. I want a toy one though I would name it Dragon. Am I done?

    If you had a super power what would it be? I would run faster. There’s a girl Flash, you know?

    • Jennifer Hernandez
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing the transcript of your interview, Megan. Not only is this fun to read, but it also made me reflect on the usefulness of interviewing as a way to really capture patterns of authentic language use. Another potential area of research!

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Alice sounds like a riot. 😀

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      This is GOLD. I love everything about your morning interview. Well done!

    • Andy Starowicz
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      THANK YOU, Megan!

      I loved, loved, loved those answers. Even if you don’t use any of that information in a story, you should definitely save it for the scrapbook. It would be a great thing to show her on high school graduation day.:)

      Good luck with the research. Enjoy your family vacation!

  15. Jen Howe
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Good Morning,
    Thanks for sharing, Sarah. I put Poison on my wish list. I’m sure my HS reluctant readers will be interested in the story.

    Thanks for the research tips and pushing us to find/think about experts, especially those who may be closer to us than we think.

    My grandparents have a great story, but most of the details were kept private, and they have both now passed away. My grandfather served in Egypt during World War II. My grandmother got a job working in the factory where my grandfather’s dad worked. My great-grandfather asked her to write his son. They wrote for two years, met after he came home and were married sixty years before my grandpa passed. My grandma kept all the letters he sent her, but said they would stay private until she passed. She passed last April, and now the kids and grandkids have gotten to see the letters. When I think about what I really want to write, their story and those letters really pull at me. Time and feeling like I don’t really know much about the history and story seem like challenges. But having read your post and having just heard Nora Raleigh Baskin and Gae Polisher talk about their experience with research and story writing, I think I’m going to start digging around and see what I can find.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      I’m so glad if I helped you get started on this fascinating path, Jen. And I bet Nora and Gae had a fascinating presentation. Wish I could have heard it!

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      You are so lucky to have those letters, Jen. What an amazing record of your grandparents, and of your family’s history! And what a unique story… I want to learn more just as a casual observer, and I would definitely pick up a book inspired by your grandparents and their story. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Mona
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Sarah, for your thought provoking post! I had a typed transcript relating a Doocastle resident’s first person interview from 1959 about Doocastle, County Mayo in Ireland that I received from my mother. It is a very thin typed copy and I spent the morning reading through the account of a very colorful Member of Parliament from the area. I scanned it and saved it to my computer which I have been meaning to do for several years and I thought I would write several short vignettes based on the material and see where it goes!! Thank you for the inspiration!!! Mona

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Yay!! So happy to help you get this project jumpstarted–it sounds AMAZING.

  17. Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I love this post! I just got back from an intensive research trip to my hometown for some family research and then to Hyde Park for some research on Eleanor Roosevelt that is related to my WIP….I still have the neck cramp from driving to prove it —oi!
    Here is my long rambling question:
    When writing for a middle grade audience….how to tell the truth about adult things becomes intimidating to me as a writer. I noticed on my tour of the National Historic sites that the story told by ranger/docents was very much about the public people…..not the private INTERESTING stuff which is THROUGHOUT the primary source documents. I was so wowed to be there that all I could do was soak up the atmosphere (valuable in itself–no complaint on that!)….and try not to bump into the other 49 people on the tour of Springwood with me.
    Are there any questions or question techniques that you’ve learned over time to keep in your back pocket to get more personal and/or backstory information? I’d love to know…in education we have QUESTION STEMS…..for kids to jump off from. Do you have any TW campers?
    Thanks!

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Oh, and I meant to share my riddle poem…..when I travel, I have taken to “word collecting” This is an activity I really want to do with students. It can be fancy like I show in my link or simple with words written down. The point is to try to find words that a specific to place. If you read my post above you can guess where I am…..but which house of all the sites? https://awordedgewiselindamitchell.blogspot.com/

      If you really love the idea (no pressure) scroll back through the blog a few posts to see others I’ve done over the summer. I’m having a blast with words…now to focus them all on my wip.

      • Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        Linda, I’m reading the book LANDMARKS, by Robert Macfarlane, and it is the ultimate in word collecting. Truly fascinating. And, oh, the place words!

      • Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Linda–I am in Germany at the moment with limited wifi, but I am bookmarking this link to go to as soon as I am back. It sounds so cool! As for getting more personal/backstory info, the best advice I could give to kids (and grownups) is to ask open-ended questions. And then to simply listen, and be comfortable with pauses/silences. If the person you’re interviewing seems to be finished with an answer, ask a follow up prompt, something else open-ended, like “I’d love to hear more about that.” or “Oh, tell me more!” or just “and how did you feel about that?” Perhaps it sounds hokey but it realllllly works. As for getting to the cool stuff–I guess I am prone to asking weird questions. It can sometimes feel a bit awkward if I’m part of a tour group, asking, say, about how people went to the bathroom or some such, but I think (I hope?) that I’ve noticed that when I pose some off-the-beaten-track questions, others seem genuinely interested in hearing the answer.

  18. Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this fascinating post, Sarah! My current WIP is based on a health crisis my father faced when I was in high school & college. My mom spent her career as a nurse practitioner, so between her memories of the events and her expertise in the medical field, she is an invaluable resource to me!

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      I, too, am fascinated by the history of medicine, and disease, Lauren, and your research must be doubly fascinating, given your personal family history. I can’t wait to hear how your story unfolds.

  19. Lacy Greco
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    This assignment brings back memories of the stories my Omi used to tell us from WWII. She lived in Frankfurt, Germany and she was about 16 years old at the time. They lived in a beautiful apartment and how on Christmas Eve she would anxiously await for the double doors to open to their parlor area so she could see their beautiful Christmas tree for the first time. They would open gifts on Christmas Eve which is why we still carry on the tradition of opening one gift that night.
    She would tell us about how they didn’t have any money because of the war and they would all pick up cigarette butts from the ground and take them home. They would take out the little tobacco that was left and roll new cigarettes to sell.
    She would tell us how she worked in the grocery store and they were not allowed to sell anything to the Jewish families. She would put food in a bread basket when she would leave work and she would take food to the Jewish families that were desperate to feed their families. We still have this bread basket.
    She would tell us how at 16 years old she had to sit in a tower and it was her job to alert when American planes were coming in.
    As I recall the few stories I remember, it makes me sad to know that I never wanted to listen to the stories she had to tell. I was 10 or so and bored. I remember being like, “Here we go, another war story.” I wish I could go back and slap myself across the head. These are some of the stories I value the most. The stories that will withstand time. Her bravery, her stubbornness, her unwavering will to help others no matter the risk. She was a woman of strength. I feel compelled to one day tell her stories.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      I think those of us who are older and have lost our grandparents wish we could go back and listen to those stories and truly pay attention. Your grandmother sounds like a fantastic person.

      • Lacy Greco
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        I think about all the stories I never got to hear. And thank you, she absolutely was.

    • Jennifer Hernandez
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      The bread basket – oh! That detail right there.

      • Lacy Greco
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        My mom uses it to keep all of her sewing stuff. That is something I am definitely making sure my mom leaves to me.

        • Jennifer Hernandez
          Posted July 17, 2017 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

          Yes!! So meaningful!

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Wow, Lacy. Thank you for sharing this–and I’m doubly fascinated as I am currently in Berlin with my history-teacher husband, and we have been steeping ourselves in WWII history these past few days. What a complex, fascinating, tragic history it is. My own grandparents (Sicilian immigrants) had their own fascinating stories, and I, like you, yawned my way through some of them, to my lifelong regret. Thank goodness my mother preserved so many of their memories. We do what we can. We were kids!

  20. Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I think research is my most favorite part of writing. In my first book I had to research burns. Because I have students who have parents that are doctors and nurses I was able to get first hand info. My current work takes place in former East Berlin. While researching I got in touch with the head of the GDR museum. He gave me the names of several people. Through email I talked with several people who had been put in prison for crimes such as handing out a flyer. Artist Bernard Becker, who now lies in the UK said that arts and crafts were originally promoted until taxation became so high that businesses closed and arts and crafts almost went extinct. After being in prison his job opportunities were almost none. He was hired by a church and taught to do stained glass work. My mom also has a friend who grew up in the east and was finally able to move to the west. They had to move to keep her father from being arrested.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      So cool to be reading your comment, Sandra, because I am currently IN the former East Berlin, doing some research alongside my history-teacher husband. It’s a beautiful, complicated city, and I was just telling my husband that I have never been in a place where I’ve been so keenly aware of so many ghosts, for want of a more scientific term. I’m taking many, many notes…So many stories to tell here.

  21. Andy Starowicz
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for the post. Also, thank you for your wonderful books. I believe that I have shared the love of your books with you before (through Teachers Write), but I want to write it again. Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up is never on my library shelf. I now have three copies, and they still are not on my shelf. My classroom is an ELA and social studies classroom, so I have a ton of books, but the history of poop always wins out. The kids love it!

    I made a list of five people that I want to talk with before the end of summer vacation. I have a very good friend that recently took a college cross-country coaching job. This morning (at track and field camp – the perfect place for this kind of discussion), I peppered him with questions about recruiting, the difference between high school and college athletes, and the time spent doing the job (he is also a high school special education teacher). I was telling him that I am writing a little story about a runner and he shared a few stories about his days running in high school and college. I loved it.

    Thank you very much for the idea. I am looking forward to a few more summertime interviews.:)
    Happy researching!

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:16 am | Permalink

      Oh Andy thank you for this message!! It made my day!! And I can’t wait to hear more about your fascinating project!

  22. Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m in the process of doing this for the mystery novel I’m writing, even though it’s been a little scary reaching out to people. Big surprise: As you say, people love to be asked! A friend connected me with a police officer at our church, and he sat with me for two hours answering my list of questions and sharing anecdotes from his experience. I’m learning not to be so shy!

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      That is awesome, Victoria. And–this will probably not shock anyone to hear–it turns out MOST of us writers are on the shy side. It’s a great exercise for us to get out of our comfort zone. A win-win.

  23. Sheila
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Met up with a couple of students ( similar in age to my main character) and received some interesting information and feedback on real life bullying situations in a way adults rarely get to have insight to. The stories were heart wrenching. I will definitely look further into this side of things for my character.

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      Wow–glad to see this technique can help with character descriptions. Can’t beat first-hand testimony, Sheila. But yes, it sounds like a difficult conversation. Good luck.

  24. Nicole
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading your post here along with the comments! One of my biggest issues has always been finding something to write about. Once I have an idea, I can run with it like there’s no tomorrow!

    I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book but have never found the story to tell. I’m hoping Teachers Write will help me!

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I’m so glad, Nicole. And I do think you’ll discover, once you start brainstorming things that really excite you, that there’s a world of stuff to write about. The difficulty is narrowing down the choices!

  25. Stephanie S
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    I like the idea of researching for a novel. I think most of my research has been reading what other people wrote and how they describe things and use that as my basis, but it is a whole new experience to put yourself in the setting of your story. Right now I just do short stories (well, that length of writing), but when I get the nerve to really dive in deep and write a novel length, I will definitely keep in mind the idea to research – put myself in the scene or talk to people that have been there themselves.

    I also like asking questions of students at the beginning of the year, to learn about them, like a mini-interview, and then sharing the same detail about myself. And I remember once, I don’t remember the reason, but I had interviewed my grandmother for some assignment as I was writing about my grandfather who died during the Vietnam War. As well, my mother-in-law just returned from a road trip to attend a family reunion, and it was fun to hear about her trip and stories of my father-in-law.

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      That’s a great reminder, Stephanie, that it’s always good to keep your ears open and you pencil at-the-ready–you never know when or how you might want to use some of the info you’ve collected, but it’s always great to have collected it!

  26. Posted July 18, 2017 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Hello, Sarah and Kate,
    Thanks for the assignment. I’m planning to interview a nurse in our hospital soon about Bailey’s dad’s illness, but I only had my “expert” husband on hand for this today. More on that here: http://mrsdkrebs.edublogs.org/2017/07/18/4708/

    I wrote this scene for the story I’m working on:

    “Hey, Bailey, look what I found at work today!” Dad came bolting into the kitchen through the back door, the wooden-framed screen door bouncing behind him. Bailey was sitting at the round yellow Formica table, ancient with rusty chrome legs–what Bailey used to call “our sunshine table”–munching Oreos dipped in milk. “Some gals ordered smoothies for lunch and they came with these jumbo straws. Perfect, right?” He held up two shiny straws, one peachy cream color and one lavender.

    “Perfect?” Bailey said. “Dad, the Curiosity is like white, gray and black. How can these be perfect?”

    “Oh, but look how strong they are. You can’t even bend ‘em. They must be close to a half inch in diameter. And heck, we can spray paint them black.”

    “Black would be good. Won’t we need more?”

    “I asked the women to save more for us. They said they order a few times a week. I had never even noticed them until I saw them in the garbage today. You know, after we watched that YouTube video yesterday.”

    “Yeah, I didn’t think that was going to work,” Bailey was still suspicious about it.

    “Let’s give ‘er a try after supper. What do you think? And, hey, why are you eating Oreos now?”

  27. Melissa Schulte
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    In preparation for my personal writing, I found a wonderful youtube segment from Diane Sawyer about her personal history with eastern Kentucky. It’s where I want to set my story. I now have a former colleague living down there and a friend who visited there through a college mission a few decades ago. I’ve recently contacted another writer/blogger to review my work for authenticity as he has personal experience growing up in the area.

  28. Carol R Owen
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    My entire day was spent at the hospital while my husband went through his radiation and chemo treatments, but we had time between appointments, so we waited outside the cancer center, a time I was able to try out this prompt. I found myself really focusing my senses on exactly what was going on around, sometimes closing my eyes so that what I saw wouldn’t overtake the other senses. So here’s what I’ve got.

    Without a push, the doors open and close to the outdoors as patients as varied as the nations head to and from the offices where they will be poked, prodded, stuck and hooked to plastic bottles of chemicals so powerful that nurses panic when a bit drips from the IV onto the patient. Some will be told encouraging news, others will hear words of “I’m sorry,” “metastasis”, “growth”, “no response to the treatment, ” “let’s try five more weeks of treatment”. Some walk with steady, smooth strides, while others meander with uncertainty, looking for information about where in the world they are to go in this monstrous maze, and who can give them the answers they want to hear.

    “Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick tock” passing “tock, tock, tock. Why do they call those thonged sandals flip flops, when the sound really resembles a clock? “Click drag, click drag, click drag”….”clonk, clonk, clonk, clonk. The first a woman on crutches, the second in high heels with purpose in her walk – driven forward in a hurry to her destination. “Shuffle, swish, rumble” as a patient, hooked to his IV pole heads out for a breath of fresh air, longing to reach for those cigarettes in his pocket, but seeing the signs announcing that the entire “campus,” is smoke free. “Kching, kching, Kching” a man with too much change and keys in his pocket passes enters acting confident, but he won’t win an Academy Award for his performance.

    A group of three head towards the entrance to the cancer center, only to be cut in front of by a woman dressed for the office, cell phone in hand, impatient to get this nuisance that has rudely entered her life over with as quickly as possible, The exasperation and glares on the faces of the three bore laser holes in the woman’s Armani suit, as they whisper angry epitaphs, which the business woman ignores, too busy giving orders to someone on the other end of her cell phone and glaring at the receptionists to hurry it up.

    Down the hall waft smells of lunch being cooked – some mysterious gravy typical of many cafeterias, bland tomato soup, empanadas (seriously, that’s what they had) but there’s a hidden smell that overcomes many in this place. It is the smell of a trapped animal, an abused child, refugees from war torn countries. It’s the foreboding smell of fear.

    • Carol R Owen
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      I should have told you that in my WIP the main character is a teen who accompanies her elderly dad to his cancer treatment (drawing from personal experience). As I’ve been doing this for the past 4 weeks, I’ve been writing down a lot of what I see and hear, and questioning the nurses and doctors, but mostly just observing. Just today one of the nurses did have a dripping IV, and the sense of urgency in her voice made me realize – these are powerful drugs.

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