Teachers Write – 7/16 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Hi, everybody! Hope it was a great weekend for you. Mine included finishing a draft of a book that’s due soon (woo-hoo!), catching fish and eating  s’mores. Ah…summer!

Before we have today’s mini-lesson, we need to announce the winner of Friday’s book giveaway. Congratulations, Denise Krebs! You’ve won Joanne Levy’s SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE. Please send me an email (kmessner at kate messner  dot com) with your mailing address so she can send your book.

Guest author Pamela Voelkel joins us now for today’s mini-lesson. Pamela and Jon write the Jaguar Stones books set in Latin America, MIDDLEWORLD and THE END OF THE WORLD CLUB. Read more at their website – and right now, Pamela joins us to talk about research.


The worst advice I was ever given was: “Write what you know”. Those four little words gave me a twenty-year writer’s block. It was only when I’d spent half my life as an advertising copywriter that the truth hit me. If I didn’t want to write about what I knew, all I had to do was know about something else.

So when my husband Jon started writing adventure stories based on his childhood in South and Central America, I joined him on the project. At first, they were just ripping yarns, with some cool Maya pyramids in the background for local color. But as we started to read about the Maya, we discovered that their story was more amazing than anything we could make up. We also discovered that many of the books in print were out of date. So that’s when we decided to turn our website into a portal for teachers to access the latest research into the Maya, and offer free lesson plan CDs.

Time was passing. Jon had completed a course at Harvard on reading and writing Maya glyphs, but I was still struggling with writing English. I was concerned that I couldn’t describe the sights and sounds of the jungle if I’d never been there so, when I saw an ad for a cheap flight to Belize, I persuaded Jon that we had to go. Not just us, but also our three children – then aged 2, 9 and 12 – to observe their reactions to spooky pyramids and creepy-crawlies and whatever else may await us.

After that we went down every year. It was our second trip that changed everything. We were at a remote site in Guatemala, on a day that was free entry to locals. Our son is very tall and he attracted a crowd of local youths who followed him around, giggling and taking pictures of him. Our tour guide watched this for a while, then puffed out his chest and stepped forward. “Remember these people,” he said in Spanish, “but not because their son is tall. Remember them because they are writing books about the Maya and, thanks to them, children in North America will be reading about your history and culture.” There was a moment of silence. Then these hoodie-wearing, gum-chewing Guatemalan teenagers burst into applause, with the ancient pyramids right there behind them. My heart sank into my jungle boots. Now we had a responsibility to these kids. Now we would have to tell the story of the modern Maya as well. And that’s where our lead character (and everyone’s favorite) Lola the Maya girl came from.

So my advice regarding research would be read everything you can, double/triple check your facts, take nothing for granted, wander down every blind alley you come across, and be prepared for what you find to fundamentally change your story. In the best possible way.

Note from Kate: No…we are not sending you all off on airplanes for a giant field trip for research today…but we are sending you on a virtual field trip.  Like Pamela, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in many of the places where my books are set and to travel for interviews and other research.  I spent a week in the rainforest of Costa Rica researching HIDE AND SEEK, the sequel to CAPTURE THE FLAG, and interviewed one of the world’s leading tornado experts in Norman, Oklahoma while I was working on EYE OF THE STORM. But what happens when there’s no book contract yet, and no advance to pay for that travel?  Or what if the trip just isn’t feasible for another reason – like safety, or travel regulations, or child care issues?  That’s when the Internet is your best friend.

Assignment: Google Maps and Google Earth have satellite images and photographs that will show you the view from many addresses all over the world. This Salon piece has a great tutorial on how to use that street-view feature so you can take a virtual field trip to the setting of your novel.

YouTube, too, has videos that writers can use for virtual visits when a real one might not be possible. In my mystery CAPTURE THE FLAG, for example, some of the chase scenes happen in the underbelly of the airport, on the twists and turns of baggage conveyer belts. Airport security, sadly, does not allow for nosy writers to ride baggage carts, and so my descriptions of characters in those areas were all based on online videos like this one.

Get the idea? Find a video or street-view map or a collection of images of your setting online today. Check it out and take some notes, paying attention not only to what you see, but also what you hear, what you might feel, and what you imagine it would smell like. How would your characters see that place?  Share some thoughts in the comments if you’d like!

23 Replies on “Teachers Write – 7/16 – Mini-Lesson Monday

  1. This is timely advice. Last week I did some chicken research for my WIP by visiting our neighbors who are raising chickens. I wrote about the visit on my blog: http://reflectionsontheteche.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/raising-chickens-for-dummies/

    Here is an excerpt of writing that came from that research:

    Taking care of a chicken requires some expertise. Mae Mae has been helpful. When she was a little girl growing up in St. Martinville, she got 50 eggs of the Heritage variety.

    “We just went down to the post office and picked them up. These were butchering chickens, grown for food. Of course, as a little girl, I had no idea what went into killing a chicken.”

    Mae Mae told me all about caring for her chickens, what she fed them, how she cleaned up their poop, and all about their strange ways of taking a bath in the dust. I listened, all the while knowing my chicken would never be butchered.

    Mae Mae said when she came home from school one day, she went out to care for her flock, and they were all gone. Her momma had butchered every one of them and put them in the freezer.
    “I told my momma I would never eat another chicken, unless it came from the grocery store.”
    Mae Mae’s hand motions accentuated the violence of her tale. She raised her fist in the air and turned it up quickly. Snap! Just like that! Chicken for dinner.

    Right then and there I decided I would never kill a chicken. I can’t even eat one form the store thinking about its suffering. Momma says death is a part of life and how would we live without the sacrifice of animals. She says that’s why God made them. I say that may be why God made cows and pigs, but chickens are just too cute to butcher.

    1. Margaret,
      I remember my mom telling stories about how they used to kill the chickens (1940s) that they were raising…oh, my goodness. I already posted on your slice, and I think it’s ironic about the timeliness of your topic. I am glad you’re getting to do your research…How’s the broody hen?

    2. Margaret,

      I love this excerpt – great details and an interesting character. Have you ever read Chicken Boy by Frances O’Roark Dowell? It is a great little novel. My sixth graders really enjoyed reading it.

      Keep up the good writing!:)

  2. The island consisted of two parts. The first is a rocky outcrop with sheer cliffs. The surface is pitted with deep vein-like scars crisscrossing vertically and diagonally. Only a few bushes are able to grow, let alone cling, to the rocks. There is a slight valley, and then the second part of the island rises up like a steep incline on a roller coaster ride. It’s more accommodating to plant-life: it’s covered with thick, scratchy brush of variegated colors, from golden to deep green. There isn’t much room for anything at the top of the hill, except an isolated building. Two steps beyond the building is a dramatic, rocky drop to the ocean below.

      1. Ok, here I go again:

        When we landed, we were well protected behind the rocky cliff. I didn’t see how we’d be able to climb as it went straight up, and I couldn’t see what was on the other side. It was so lonely and windy, no birds or rodents in sight. From the boat, we had seen something huge and dark perched on top of the other hill. We had to walk single file on the teensy bit of sandy beach to get a closer look. When we rounded the bend, Melvin almost knocked me over: above the scrubby, dry brush, at the very tip of the hill, a black, shadowy shape began to emerge.

        “Wha-what’s that?” Melvin whispered.

        It tried to sound brave even though my voice was shaking.

        “No-nothing to worry about, Melvin,” I turned to pat him on his arm. “Probably just another giant rock.”

        Melvin gasped, his eyes wide with fear.

        I looked up at the strange shape on the hill. A piercing, yellow light burst out of two small holes, slowly scanning the rocks, headed straight for us.

        1. I am scared! Whoa! What is going to happen to them? I am hooked! Nice description of the scene-Mel’s definitely scared…What is coming after them…

        2. Yikes! Tell us more! You sure do a wonderful job setting up the suspense of this scene and hooking the reader. The problem is that the reader, me, wants to know more. 🙂 Keep up the good writing (and of course, sharing)!

    1. Diane-
      I’m not sure you intended to, but the two samples you posted give powerful examples of revision at work. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I agree with Margaret about the timeliness of this post. I was looking through my files the other day and stumbled upon a project that I had put aside at the end of last summer (due to the start of the school year).

    While visiting the local hospital, I had heard an interesting tidbit about Fleet Walker, the first African American baseball player to play in the major leagues. He played for the Syracuse Stars (the hospital runs a continuous interesting facts about the city, Syracuse, over the intercom). So, I began to do some research. I found newspaper articles (in the local paper) from long ago, read a book about Fleet (got a copy dirt cheap from amazon.com), and found artifacts (some cool pictures of the old stadium) at the county’s historical association museum.

    Here’s an excerpt:
    “What is a shopping mall? I have never heard of such a thing. You are at Star Park watching a pennant bound Syracuse Stars team crushing Rochester, their arch rival. You are also watching the first black player to play major league baseball. You are watching history in the making.” The boy said with great enthusiasm.

    “I didn’t know Jackie Robinson played for the Syracuse Stars.”

    The boy had that confused look again, “Who is Jackie Robinson? The first black baseball player to play in the major leagues is Moses Fleetwood Walker, or Fleet Walker for short. You have never heard of Fleet Walker?”

    Remembering the beginning of the conversation, I saved myself from more embarrassment and said, “Oh yeah, I know Fleet, he just had that incredible pick off at second base.” That seemed to suffice as an answer for the boy, because he smiled and went back to watching the game.

    Fleet Walker was an incredible sight. He was the only catcher I had ever seen catch without a mitt. And he did it with such ease. He moved with such grace on the field and his knowledge of the game was on full display. Fleet was the smartest, most confident player on the field. When he came up to bat in the bottom part of the inning, he smashed a shot down the right field line that got him an easy stand up double. On the next pitch, he stole third base without a problem. In the top part of the inning, he threw another base runner out at second base. Who is this guy?

    I actually found out that a local library has documentation about him from the early part of the last century. So, my research continues. Thank you for the advice and the helpful research tools.

    1. Andy,
      You have piqued my interest with this segment. Is it a time travel piece? I would have said Jackie Robinson was the first black to play in the major leagues, but what do I know? I do think that they call it the top half and the bottom half of the inning, rather than the word part. Boys will certainly be interested in this historical/ time travel novel.

      1. Thanks, Margaret!

        Jackie Robinson was the first African American ball player during the modern era. Fleet played in the major leagues in the 1880’s when the International league, which is still around today, had teams that started a new major league. Fleet’s story is so amazing, but also very sad. I just think that it is really cool that he played in the tiny city of Syracuse, New York, which is only known for its snow.:)

        Thanks for catching my error – top or bottom half of the inning, not part. Duh!

  4. Thank you for this lesson! As an author, I use these resources a lot. But I also love finding webcams from the settings or the elements in my books. I check in with them every day at different times. Because webcams are live, I can see my setting in a variety of weathers and conditions and time of day and seasons. http://www.earthcam.com/ and http://www.the-webcam-network.com/ will give you a whole variety of place webcams, but I also just type my general setting + webcam into Google to find others that aren’t listed.

    And I don’t only use them for setting. My next novel is set on a lake in New Hampshire. There are loons in the story and I found a loon webcam from Minnesota so I could watch a pair of loons on their nest every day with the eggs and then with their chick. Research always gives me great information, but there’s value in seeing it for myself, because then it is not filtered by what someone else thinks is important. Even though the webcam was in MN and my story is set in NH, loons act the same way both places so it didn’t matter.

    If you can find a streaming webcam, you’ll see not only a static image, but a place in its differing moods. I look at what the trees do when the wind moves them. How the light reflects on the water as the sun sets. How the colors change with the weather. How the mountains disappear with the fog. How the people are dressed who pass by. It’s not the same as being there, but I find it’s a big help in addition to the other resources you’ll use.

  5. Kate,
    First of all, thanks so much! I am excited to have won Joanne’s book! Yippee! (I sent my email address.)

    Secondly, I’m glad to hear Pamela say the worst advice she’s ever gotten was to write what you know. Excellent! I love her personal account about how she became a writer and researcher.

    Two weeks ago I was at the Iowa Reading Conference, and I laughed when Richard Peck said something similar. I think it was like this…”I’ve written 40 books, but if I had only written what I know I would have one unpublishable haiku.” He said writing was all about research.

    Thanks for the challenge!

  6. I’m working on a piece from a weekend trip to downtown Chicago…to me that is like a trip to a foreign land even though I am from an urban area north of the Illinois border. Thanks for the assignment so that I document all the things I saw, otherwise it would just fade away into a distant memory.

  7. My research has been helped so much by National Archives and the historical photos available to view from the Dept. of the Navy since my wip is set in WWI. I love your advice to take nothing for granted! Even found, speaking of chickens, that breed I started to describe didn’t exist until the 30s. Indeed a timely post today.Thanks!

  8. Wow! I am so amazed at how Google Earth can take you so many places. Like I said, in my post here: http://theamyrudder.blogspot.com/2012/07/google-earth-wow.html I could literally play with Google Earth forever! As I used GE, my characters journeyed through the city of Akron. My post tells all about the things they might see, hear, smell and feel. There is a rich history here…it’s not quite the armpit people think it is… 🙂
    Anyway, thanks for the fun work…I can see how students would love using Google Earth as a tool to explore the world. I will be happy to use it in my classroom when school starts!

    I like your advice about “climbing every mountain”. I will leave no stone unturned!

    1. Amy,

      Google Earth is so cool that I end up spending way too much time using it. A major problem I have when researching is that if the details catch my attention, I spend a crazy amount of time researching. While researching, I think that I should be writing, but I am having so much fun that I don’t want to stop. Even if I don’t use all of the information, at least I learned something.:)

      1. Andy,
        I think it’s good to let the details catch your attention…that’s a good thing! I often find that I am drifting on the details too. I wonder if our camp authors have advice on whether or not there should be a limit to drift time when researching?…what do you think ladies and gents? I think it can be helpful because you might run across something that would relate to your book, right?

  9. Great post, Andy. Keep going! I write historical fiction and going on the hunt (I call it History CSI) for historical detail is part of the fun for me. As a trained historian I learned that in gathering in research on a certain event or even artifact, there should be the Rule of Three. Three verifications in any form of primary (an account, a letter) or secondary falls into this. Then how do your characters live and at during this time period. What is the media of the time? Transportation? Making and preserving foodstuffs. http://www.archives.gov/education/history-in-the-raw.html