Happy Friday! Our guest author for today’s mini-lesson is Michelle Cusolito. Michelle spent her childhood mucking about in the fields, forests, and swamps around the farm where she grew up in southeastern Massachusetts. As an exchange student in high school, she temporarily traded rural living for city life in Cebu, Philippines. These early experiences set her on her current course exploring nature and culture like the locals. She spent 10 wonderful years as a grade 4 teacher. Now, when she’s not mucking around in the world, she’s usually in her office or local coffee shop weaving these experiences into stories for children. Her new book is FLYING DEEP: CLIMB INSIDE DEEP-SEA SUBMERSIBLE ALVIN.
Like most authors, I have an ever-growing list of topics I might write about. But how do I decide which topic warrants a whole book? For me, the biggest factor is my interest level. (Tip: I have a “hidden board” called “Ideas” on Pinterest. I pin interesting stuff I find so I can come back to it later).
I spent about a year deeply researching, writing, and revising Flying Deep before it went out on submission. Once it sold, we went through many rounds of edits to get it ready for publication. Now, 3½ years after writing that first draft, the book is out in the world and I’m talking to kids, teachers, librarians, and parents about it. I need to love my topic to be able to sustain my excitement as I share it years after I first started researching it. I also need to consider what is already out in the market. How do I do that? Here are my steps:
I start with Amazon. I narrow my focus to kids’ books and search on my specific topic and
related topics. For example, when writing Flying Deep, I searched Alvin, hydrothermal vents,
Chemosynthesis, deep ocean, deep-sea vehicles, etc.
Then, I search my library’s on-line system to see if I can get the books delivered to my local
library. (I also use the library’s search engine, but I’ve found it isn’t as robust as Amazon’s.
Occasionally, I find some gem not on Amazon, though). Why the library? It’s free! I get every
book I can, even if it seems like it won’t be that useful. You never know.
If I can’t find a book, I ask my librarian to search for me. I’ve gotten books from New York and
Pennsylvania this way.
If there are books I can’t get through the library, I assess how valuable that book will be and if I should buy it. If it’s a kids’ book that’s so hard to get, do I need to worry about it? It’s clearly not widely available. On the other hand, if it’s a book that seems like it might be helpful to my
research, should I purchase it? (Note: many people tell me they have also searched on https://www.edelweiss.plus/ I haven’t done this, yet).
Ok, so I get the 5 or 10 or 20+ books currently available. Then what? Read them all, of course! I love this phase of research. It’s kind of like that dreaming phase when planning a vacation: I snuggle up on the sofa (or perhaps the hammock if it’s summer) and read every book. Instead of dreaming about places I’ll visit, I dream about what I might write. I look to see what the books have in common and how they’re different. I look for things I’m curious about that are not covered in the books. I also check the bibliography for resources I might consult later. I take notes. I also consider these points:
Is there a lack of books on this topic? Why might that be? (A lack of books doesn’t necessarily mean one is needed- there may not be a market for it).
Is the market already flooded with books on this topic? (Multiple books already in the market
doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t write one).
If there are multiple books already out, what new angle might I bring to the topic. (For example,I consider what I was curious about that isn’t in the available books).
Once I’ve done all of that, then I decide if I want to pursue the topic further. If I decide to proceed, I use the information I’ve gathered to guide my research. I look for a new angle to the story and the hidden gems that will bring my topic alive in a new or interesting way.
Your Assignment: Give this a try today. What topics have you been thinking about? (You have an idea file, right?) Follow my steps to see what you can dig up that has already been published and request the books from your library. Then see where your idea fits with what’s already available. While you’re looking, be alert for ideas that pop into your mind and jot them down. (Note: If you don’t have a list of non-fiction topics and you’d like to build one, check out my Teacher’s Write post from 2016 “Follow Your Curiosity.” In it, I give more background about Flying Deep and offer tips for finding topics)
Feel free to share your reflections for today in the comments! And a reminder: If you have a work-in-progress, you can also visit Friday Feedback to share a bit, get feedback, and give feedback to others, too.