Teachers Write 7.9.16 From Research to Story with Anne Nesbet

Good morning! Guest author Anne Nesbet joins us for today’s weekend reflection. Anne is the author of THE WRINKLED CROWN, A BOX OF GARGOYLES, and THE CABINET OF EARTHS. As her website says, she writes “curious books for curious people,” and she joins us today to talk about finding the story hidden in your research…

From Research to Story

Since a couple of lessons this week have been about research, I thought it might be worth tackling today one of the most mysterious, wonderful, and (sometimes) difficult phases in a writing project: turning research into story. I prefer to think of this as “finding the story hiding in the research,” because the placebo effect is real, friends, and if I tell myself the story IS THERE, then that means I just have to FIND it, which feels somehow less daunting than making the whole thing up.

(By the way, although here I’m going to be talking about writing stories set in actual moments of history in actually existing places, I know from experience as the author of fantasy novels like THE WRINKLED CROWN, for which I had to learn quite a bit about instrument-making, that the “research-to-story” transition has to be navigated even when we’re writing about magical or imaginary places.)

So where is the seed of the story hiding in our research? And how do we breathe life into that story? My first historical novel comes out this fall from Candlewick; it is called CLOUD AND WALLFISH, and it’s set in East Berlin in 1989. I happened to be living in East Berlin in 1989 and had hundreds of pages of notes on daily life behind the Iron Curtain. Plus my inner archive-rat (very like a pack-rat, but with longer, more elegant whiskers) had carefully collected newspaper clippings, souvenirs, scraps of interesting paper. I had no shortage of research materials! But for twenty-some years those materials lived in their boxes–and the memories of East Berlin lived in my head–without turning into a fictional story. After all, I didn’t start publishing books for children until 2012, so I kept my East German archive without thinking of it as the basis for a novel.

One day that changed. I noticed one item in particular in my collection: the map of East Berlin, with that puddle of blankness where West Berlin was located. East German maps left West Berlin blank, as if its being occupied by the United States, France, and Britain had wiped it entirely off the map.


I looked at that blank spot, and this time I asked myself a question: What would a child do with a map with a blank spot in the middle of it? And I was pretty sure I knew the answer to that question: Fill that blankness with an imaginary world!

And right there I had found the seed of a story. Suddenly a character had slipped into the room: a child who would draw imaginary worlds on the blank parts of a map of Berlin. I wanted to know more about this character: whom he or she might be, where he or she might have come from. And I went through my collection again, rereading my old journals, looking at the old photos, studying the old newspapers, and this time I let my characters (already I was quite sure the child must have a friend, and that one of them must come from the other side of the Wall) guide me through all of this wonderful debris I had been holding onto for so long. “Is this part of your story?” I asked them, pointing to some little piece of history, or picture of the Wall, or a description from my diary of the East Berlin donut stand. “How about this? Or this?” And we figured out together which of these random fact and details might become part of the story, might be woven into fiction.

Whatever sort of story you are writing, research is almost certainly a part of your writing process. (We don’t know everything about anything, after all!) You may be digging through historical materials. You may be trying to remember what the inside of that funny old clothing store looked like on East Main Street, back when you were a kid. You may be researching the possible reproductive habits of dragons! An important first part of the process is creating a collection: your own archive of nifty facts, curious images, maps and quotes. A good collection hums with potential. You have a hunch something can be done with these wonderful objects/pictures/details! It’s just a matter of finding your way in.

As my Berlin story shows, an object in that collection can sometimes create the beginnings of a character: someone who would have loved that object–or hated it–or perhaps who lived in that funny-looking house in that picture–or who used to sneak into a neighbor’s garden to pick strawberries, so much sweeter when they’re still warm from the sun.

Then that character can help you reassess your collection: where (for instance) are the items that generate conflict? How do the items in your collection affect your character? Threaten your character? Fill your character with longing for something he or she doesn’t have? . . . . And soon you’ll find you have more than just a character: you have the makings of a plot!

My East Berlin tale grew into a friendship-and-spying story called CLOUD AND WALLFISH. It comes out this October, so I am now working hard on a new project, inspired by my mother’s childhood in Maine. My mother died relatively young, so I can’t ask her questions directly, alas. But I went back to Maine and spent some time reading through the local newspaper for the year 1941–and was amazed by the treasures I found there. Really, if you ever feel stuck, reading through old newspapers is guaranteed to give you all the new material and inspiration you could possibly want! The ads alone are well worth the effort–I’m still smiling about an ad I found for “Skits Stretchy-Seat Underwear.”


And sometimes you’ll find story-generating gems, like this review of a concert by the town’s new amateur orchestra: “The only discordant note in the entire evening’s performance was a disturbance in the balcony which occurred during the final selection. Later it was disclosed that the disturbance was caused by a musically minded mouse who arrived without having a reserved seat.” !!

It feels like a good day for some research “Show and Tell”: what interesting nuggets do you have in your collection? Is there a particular object or image or anecdote that inspired a recent story of yours? How did your story begin to emerge from your research? Share in the comments! And may wonderful, deep stories grow from the research seeds…..

31 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.9.16 From Research to Story with Anne Nesbet

  1. Good morning Anne, thanks for sharing. I tend to keep a lot of things on hand as far as old letters and trinkets. Now I can start to look at them in a new light. My recent stories actually came out of music. I heard a song and wondered about the time and event the song was referring to and out of that grew a story. Another time it was a skeleton key that became an important item in my characters life. Thanks again for the tips and best wishes in your writing.

    1. Good morning, Martha! I love the contrast between the two things you mention here: a song and a skeleton key. One is so small and tangible, and the other as large as a fairytale and hard to hold onto. That *variety* helps make an excellent collection, I think. Sometimes the words or even the melody of a song may make us wonder–sometimes it helps to feel something slim and metallic and know it felt this way also to our character when she found it taped to the roof of the cuckoo clock . . . . 🙂

      By the way, I just yesterday found a song that filled a real need for the book I’m working on now! It was a big hit at the time my story’s set AND yet also has a strong tie to key aspects of my main character. I was so thrilled to discover it. Into the collection–and into the story–it went!

    2. Your reference to music reminds me of the beautiful book, Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan. It is enthralling. So much of our memories are tickled by snippets of music. Love it!

  2. So many of this week’s post have given life to “writing from sources,” casting it as something that writers do, rather than some new buzz word in the world of new standards.
    A page in my daughter’s National Geographic magazine caught my eye once with an article about a newly discovered planet. This gave in to an idea about what it might be like if our world slowed its rotation. I imagined a new life spent walking to keep pace with the edge of the light where life was neither too hot nor too cold and what might happen if you were left behind. However, with a logical mind like mine, once I started doing the research, the story became too hard to believe, and it sits abandoned in my writer’s notebook. It seems that if I can’t suspend my disbelief or build a world that I can believe in, how can I ask my readers to. Any advice here?
    Otherwise, a Discovery Channel episode of Doomsday Preppers creates the abandoned missile-silo condo that is the setting of my latest WIP. I sometimes worry that my research into Armageddon and biological warfare will land me on some sort of FBI watchlist. 🙂

    1. Good morning, Morgan! You often see writers tweeting things like, \”Honestly, FBI, my internet searches on nifty poisons are just for my new novel, ha ha!\” so I\’m pretty sure it\’s normal to worry (a little) about what our search history might look like on a CSI episode. 🙂

      I have to say that your story about the slowly turning planet sounds rather magical. I love the fact that it grew out of a science fact. (My favorite day of the week is Tuesday, because that\’s when the NYT publishes its \”Science Times\” section.) But then it sounds like your story ran aground on the edge between truth and fiction: you say it became \”too hard to believe.\” Could we poke a little at that thought, in a friendly way? You know how full the universe is of unbelievable things! There are so many billions and billions of stars out there, and billions and billions of planets: I suspect that no matter HOW strange a setting you might think up, it would be out-stranged by a million *real* planets out there somewhere. That\’s one thing. And then here\’s a slightly different perspective: could it be that this story wants to stretch your writing in a new direction? Science fiction doesn\’t have to be as plausible as a history textbook. There\’s a lot of poetry in some of the best science fiction. Look at Ursula K. LeGuin! Remember Madeleine L\’Engle\’s completely implausible, yet gripping, tessering through space! There are so many different ways something can be \”true.\” Good luck to you!

  3. I enjoyed your post. I travel quite a bit, and I’m always looking for sparks of ideas and collecting literature. I have several topic ideas from travels, but have a hard time deciding which one to move forward with. I also find it hard to decide which way to go NF or F.

    1. I’m going to jump in here, Tracy, and say just pick a topic and start writing. Set a timer for 10 minutes and just write. Don’t overthink it. See where your imagination takes you. Once you’ve given a topic a try, you’ll have a better idea about which direction to go with it or whether you want to keep going at all. Happy writing!

    2. Hi Tracy! Jennifer’s idea is terrific. I sometimes trick myself into trying something for “27 minutes,” with a timer on, because as long as the time isn’t as long as THIRTY minutes, it doesn’t feel like a huge commitment. Have you made a list on a page of the different story possibilities? You can also set a timer and brainstorm/outline for a short amount of time. Then compare your results, and maybe a winner will have risen to the top! I think it’s also fair to consult your heart: is there a story you WISH you could tell? Do you have a secret longing to write non-fiction? or poetry? or non-fiction poetry?
      If you are really still stuck after all of these tricky timer tricks, and still feel completely torn, I would pick one topic at random and set the timer for A WHOLE WEEK. 🙂 Just throw yourself into that project, and see what happens! If it fizzles, throw a whole week at one of the other options on your list. Good luck, and I hope you soon find yourself sucked into one story in particular!

      1. Thank you both for your ideas! That will be my goal next week, starting Monday. I am on vacation right now, but ordered books from the library for research for when I get back (tomorrow). That is not the project my heart is in, though. So, I’ll use the books and see if I get sucked back in. Otherwise, I have two favorite topics that stay in my mind all the time. I will get my list of ideas down on paper for those and then pick one and write for a week. Thanks again – that was super helpful!

  4. Good morning, Anne!

    Great post and even better website. I love the layout of the site.

    I enjoyed reading about your interesting background living in East Berlin during a turbulent time in history. You can probably write a few stories with all of that information.:)

    I find that my research radar is always on. Years ago, my father was in the hospital for quite a long stay (almost two months), so obviously, I spent tons of time in the hospital visiting with him. Each and every day, at the top of the hour, the hospital did a five to ten minute story on interesting history of Syracuse, NY (where we live). For one week, the story was about Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played baseball for the Syracuse Stars, and also, someone that I have never heard of (and I have lived in Syracuse for most of my life).

    The story was all I needed to begin my research. What I found was interesting. He’s known as one of the first African Americans to play professional baseball (before the MLB took form), he played in Star Park, which I knew little about, he played catcher without a glove, and he would steal home plate. All of these facts (and many more) led me to writing a manuscript (picture book) that I will try my darnedest to get published if I ever make it big as a writer.

    The publishing part would be cool, but the research and writing of the picture book was rewarding enough. I’ve shared the story with my students, and sure enough, some of them have gone home to do more research.

    Thank you for the interesting post. Sorry about the length of my response (I couldn’t resist). Good luck with the new book and your future writing projects!

    1. Good morning, Andy! That’s amazing, how you first heard about Moses Fleetwood Walker in perhaps the last place you’d think you’d find good picture book ideas. I’m sorry you went through that long hospital time with your father, by the way. Hospitals are hard places, and it often feels like the world shrinks when we spend time inside hospital walls. For you, though, some part of the world actually expanded! I guess this story reminds us of the importance of peripheral vision, especially when what is happening at the center of our vision is discouraging or dull or draining or all three. In fact, it seems like it might be an excellent challenge to LOOK for little interesting things on the periphery when we’re next in an ordinary, dull place (doctor’s office, DMV, supermarket): what tiny stories may be hiding at the edges all around us? Good luck with your Moses Walker story, and thank you so much for sharing the story behind that story!

  5. I am so pleased to have read your post today for several reasons The first is you have given us so much information about research and how to use it. I have been researching life on the east side of Berlin/Germany for three years now. My research began after a visit to the Intrepid Museum. Outside the entrance is a section of the Berlin Wall. The idea came to me of a young girl transported through time to the East side of the Berlin Wall when she touches it came from that encounter. Her parents don’t speak to her aunt and uncle much yet they sent her to New York after enrolling her in an art program. She learns the reason for the division in the family and it has to do with one of them escaping to the west. Transported back in time she must help two young people escape to the east. I got in touch with the DDR Museum. I read books and researched those who had been imprisoned and was able to interview them. I am still having difficulty learning what type of arts and crafts an ordinary housewife might have done. Would they have painted or quilted? I learned they didn’t do stained glass projects from an artist I interviewed. My mom tells me she wants me to hurry up and finish the story. She doesn’t understand until I have all of the questions answered to make it accurate, even if it is fiction I can’t finish it.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Sandra! Your passion for your project shines through your words, as does your integrity and your commitment to doing right by your story. Do you read German? If so, more and more materials are now available online, including some of the East German newspapers (like the Berliner Zeitung). I am a big fan of reading through old newspapers for inspiration, and I think you might find some information about cultural activities in periodicals archived online. Of course, people did all sorts of art in East Germany; are you asking about what the relative behind the Wall might have been working on? Does the girl who’s your main character share a talent with her lost aunt/relative, for instance? I may be misunderstanding your plot here! 🙂

      When writing historical fiction, we find ourselves ALWAYS in an inherently humbling situation, because we cannot know everything. Even if we are writing about a time or event that we witnessed ourselves, we witnessed it through our own limited eyes, after all. We have to do as much research as we can–but we also have to make peace with our own limits. If you think your story says something that matters–that’s true–about your characters, then I hope you will finish a draft of it, even if it isn’t yet perfectly historically accurate. After all, if your mom wants to read it, I think she should have the chance to do so! GOOD LUCK to you and to your story!

      1. Thank you Anne for responding. My main character’s aunt brought something from the east that her mother had made. It could be a piece of something bigger. They all have a love for the arts that is why I focused on sending my MC to an art camp even if she didn’t think she wanted to go. When she goes back in time one of the people she has to help escape ends up being her aunt. She recognizes the whole piece of whatever was made from the scrap her aunt has. It could be something that ends up being turned into a piece of jewelry for my MC. I originally was looking at glass because my husband does some glasswork as a hobby. He also turns small wooden items and works with leather. I on the other hand work with fabric and embroidery and crochet. I will look at the sources you have told me about. I have a friend that reads German. Thank you for your encouragement.My father was stationed in Berlin when the wall first went up. It was his love of Germany that always made me curious. Thank you. Can’t wait to read your newest book and add it to my school shelves.

  6. Dear Anne,

    Thank you ever so much for stopping into TW today. I read through the comments and saw Andy’s about your website….which led me to checking it out. I LOVE the 8 little stories about you. What a lovely and gentle way to allow your readers to get to know you…and the writing life. I had such a nice memory of pretending when I was very young reading about your built cities.

    And, I’ve put Cloud and Wallfish on a vendor wish-list for my MS Library. It sounds wonderful!

    I also appreciate your approach to finding a story. I have been collecting tidbits and tidbits and squirreling them away in my computer and in a big basket and in boxes….and even though I’m a librarian by profession….I’m not a good archivist of MY tidbits. You’ve inspired me to collect the lot and do some sifting.

    This summer I have a chance to spend a week at the Library of Congress. The week is for teachers to work with primary sources to build lessons for the classrooms or libraries. But, I definitely am looking to make some of those primary sources serve double duty for the time period I’m writing about. I think I will take closer look at maps and just day dream a bit.

    Thank you for your kind, wise and helpful words today. I will be thinking about finding story bits from now on.

    1. Dear Linda,
      What a wonderful opportunity to do a week’s worth of research at the Library of Congress! I hope you find many interesting, inspiring nuggets there. Research breeds more research, right? Once you catch hold of a few of those threads, you just keep following them through their respective labyrinths….

      I do think that some daydreaming–some time-wasting–some looking at the advertisements on the edges of the pages–can be as valuable as our most dutiful sifting-through-facts. Enjoy, enjoy! It’s amazing how complicated the past was. As complicated as our present day, in fact. How extraordinary that is, when you think about it!

      And thank you so much for your kind words about Cloud and Wallfish. My twins are headed off to college in the fall, and my novel is headed out into the wide world at the same time, and if I think about any of those things, I am filled with joy and nervousness!

  7. I’ll be honest, I never thought about doing research because I don’t write nonfiction or historical fiction. But over the last several posts, I’m beginning to realize I might need to do research. My only worry is that my academic mind will kick in and I will get sucked into the research and never surface to actually write the story.

    When you write fantasy, how do you know when/what to research? How much is really necessary?

    1. Dear Rachel,
      My “day job” is academic (I teach film history), so I know what it feels like to have the archive brain kick in and seek to take over. Even in academic work, there’s always a point where we have to sit down and Write the Story (or dissertation)–as students, we know pretty well, I bet, that feeling when writing is scary, so we decide to “read one more book.”
      The ideal solution may be to try to trick ourselves into always feeling like we are cheating by doing the fun part: (1) research is fun! it’s the easy part! don’t have to worry about whether the sentences are any good!, followed by (2) writing is great! such freedom! just use what info you’ve got and make a story that’s yours! Toggle between those two phases and attitudes, without letting yourself bog down in either one of them, and eventually the book will actually exist. (That’s the utopian version of the process, of course.)
      How much research is enough? For a fantasy novel, you want some little details that ground your world in plausibility–what that means exactly will be unique to your story. I bet you can think of some little details about your world that could benefit from a bit of research; the bonus is that you may discover new facts that spark new ideas for your story. Good luck to you!

  8. Anne, I’m just sitting down from freezing vegetables, baking blackberry cobblers, and stuffing an abundance of bell peppers. I started realizing how much research I do, but often see it as keeping me from writing creatively. Your post along with the earlier ones is helping me think differently. Thanks.

    1. Dear Gloria,
      What a coincidence! I am just this minute researching the history of freezers on the farm (and of lockers in agricultural towns that would store frozen meat for farmers). So your freezing projects are very much in tune with my mind’s hum today! Plus, could you send me some of that blackberry cobbler? Yum! 🙂

  9. Just leaving to make deliveries to my neighbors. My 81-year-old father loves picking blackberries–mosquitoes, brambles, heat, and all! Have a great evening.

  10. HI Anne, I love the idea of the elegant “archive-rat.” As a former school librarian, research is always on my brain. I think it’s great for us writer/educators to share w/our students that even fictional stories must have some research. This post is a keeper for me and I will refer to it when I teach research to young writers. I am so appreciative elf all the wonderful response you are giving to us all. too. Gonna check out your website next. Here’s to finding golden nuggets in our research and making them stories!

    1. Dear Kathy (aka Fellow Elegant Archive Rat!),
      When I talk about research with students, I try to show them how “research” is really a treasure hunt. And treasure is hidden everywhere all around! We just have to be creative about the sources we consult, about where we look.
      The internet is a great gift, of course, but we have to be careful not to let it limit our vision–we want sometimes to learn something new, not just repeat the discoveries of others. So learning how to expand one’s peripheral vision is important both for nature walks in the real world and for surfing through facts in the virtual world.

  11. I am still having a hard time picking a topic that has not been written about before. Maybe my list is too broad and too long to choose from. Or maybe I just don’t feel as confident in my choices as such a political topic as the one you wrote about.
    I really like the idea of taking a nonfiction topic like that and turning it into a fiction topic by creating a fictional world that relates to real life.
    A really interesting twist for sure.
    Now I just have to think of something that realtes to my life that I could do, and then do research on what I don’t know.

    1. Dear Jennifer,
      It’s probably impossible to find a completely new topic, right? EVERYTHING has been written about! But (here’s the silver lining) not every corner of every aspect of everything–when you start digging, there’s always new treasure to discover. And mixing fiction and nonfiction can be a wonderful way to discover new approaches to old topics. I believe Ali Benjamin first thought she would write a nonfiction book about jellyfish–but ended up weaving her jellyfish facts and lore into a lovely middle-grade novel (The Thing About Jellyfish). You are right that we have to find the sweet, paradoxical spot where what we DO know overlaps with what we DON’T know! That’s the X on the map where we should dig, dig, dig for treasure…..

  12. Recently, I was at my dad’s house, and I came across a pair of dusty sunglasses. My dad never wears sunglasses, so I wasn’t surprised to see their gathering dust. I picked them up, and they felt expensive. I cleaned off the dust with my shirt, and put them on. Great sunglasses! I claimed them! I asked my dad about them and he had no idea where they had come from. I looked up the brand, and sure enough, they were $250 sunglasses. My dad buys and sells cars, so my guess is someone left the sunglasses in a car that Dad bought, and they ended up in my dad’s house and then into my hands and onto my face. I can definitely see a story emerging about the man who owned the sunglasses — the kind of person to forget he had a pair of expensive glasses in the car that he sells. Reminds me of that Neil Gaiman story about the dead man in the car.

    1. Dear Jen,
      Little objects do have an amazing way of wandering through the world, leaving trails of story glowing in their wake! I hope you do something wonderful with those sunglasses. Good luck!

    2. The Found Sunglasses remind me of an article I read a few years ago about a photographer who takes stills of individual shoes that have ended up in the road. The viewer can’t help but wonder where each shoe came from, who’s missing it, how it ended up there. I agree with Anne, that objects–whether “found” or just “rediscovered”–have stories, and digging up those stories would be so much fun! Such a great premise. Maybe you could even write from the perspective of the sunglasses…like the condom in the wallet in Simon Rich’s New Yorker piece, “Unprotected.”