Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

A Writer’s Notebook

research photoI’m starting a new book, which is always exciting. Especially since the first step is the research, my favorite part. I think of the research as a mystery to be solved. I start with a few general sources to get the basic framework. Then I follow the clues with one leading to another.

This makes it sound like my research is very orderly, but that’s not the case. As I follow clues, I often end up flying off in several directions trying to research different parts of a book all at once. It’s my special form of procrastination. Researching so many ideas makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something, but the truth is that I’m not making any forward progress.

Fortunately, I’ve learned to rein myself in a bit thanks to a tip I got from James Cross Giblin at a writers’ conference where he was speaking. He said that he always kept a notebook nearby when he was researching. When he got an idea he wanted to pursue further, he jotted it down in the notebook as something to investigate later. It was a way to make sure he wouldn’t forget that thought, but in the meantime, he could focus on the idea at hand. So I began keeping a notebook for each book. It has helped make my research time more productive.

In addition to jotting down ideas to check out later, I make notes about possible sources. Often the author of one source refers to another reference that I want to check, but following that clue when I’m in the middle of a productive writing or researching cycle is not a good use of my time. So I add the source to my notebook and check it out later.

Finally, I use the notebook as a place to store whole paragraphs that I might use in the text. I don’t set out to write paragraphs, but sometimes passages come to me and I don’t want to lose them. So they go into the notebook. A bonus is that those pre-written paragraphs help when I’m struggling to write the first draft.

I still tend to fly off in several directions at once when I’m researching. The excitement of a new book is hard to control. But my notebook can usually get me back on course. It helps me focus on following each clue one at a time.

In my previous post, I noted that it’s hard to find publishers for biographies for children about people who are not well-known. Hard, but not impossible. In fact, things seem to be looking up for authors who want to introduce a not so famous subject. It’s something Elizabeth Bird wrote about in a recent School Library Journal blog post. “These days, people are interested in celebrating more than just the same ten people over and over again,” she noted. She backed that up with a list of books about “comparatively obscure figures” that have been released just this year. They include two books about Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer; Lonnie Johnson, the rocket scientist who invented the Super Soaker; and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space.

An editor I met at a writers’ conference last fall also said the tide was turning a bit and publishers were getting more interested in doing books about people who are not well-known. Encouraging, but it doesn’t mean that all subjects are suitable for a children’s biography. Publishers are in the business of selling books after all. So in considering subjects for biographies, the author needs to find a way to make a not so famous person appeal to a wide audience.

Balloons_CoverOne way to do that is to find a tie-in to something familiar to readers. Melissa Sweet did that with her book, Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. Readers may not recognize the name Tony Sarg, but they are familiar with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. That connection creates an audience for a book about Sarg.

I’m hoping that kind of tie-in will help interest editors in the children’s biography I’m currently submitting. Most people have not heard of the woman I wrote about, but she does have a little known connection to someone that everyone knows.

A tie-in to school curriculums also gives subjects wider appeal. Has the person you’re interested in writing about achieved greatness in math or science? There’s always a need for books relating to those subjects.

DaredevilSometimes a not so-well known person has such an amazing story it can’t be ignored. That’s the case with Meghan McCarthy’s book, Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton. I knew a little about Skelton and her plane “Little Stinker,” but as McCarthy shows in her book, Skelton’s career as a pilot was just a taking off point. I won’t mention any of her other achievements because part of the appeal of the book is making those discoveries in the reading.

Another reason McCarthy’s book about Skelton has wide appeal is because of Skelton’s “grit.” As a woman born in 1926, she faced many obstacles of the time, but that did not keep her from reaching for her dreams. Stories about people who show courage and determination are inspiring for kids. Those traits are universal themes talked about in homes and classrooms. That makes them good subjects for children’s biographies even if the subjects are not well-known.

Original cowgirlLucill Mulhall is another example of a woman with “grit.” I had never heard of Mulhall until I read Heather Lang’s book, The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall. Out of curiosity, I searched the Internet after I read the book to see if I could learn more about her. I didn’t find much. It made me wonder why a publisher would take a chance on such an obscure subject. Perhaps that is best explained by a reviewer for Kirkus who wrote, “Mulhall may not be a household name, but Lang makes her memorable for anyone who admires go-getters who beat the odds and break barriers.”

It’s not easy to find a publisher for a biography about a relatively unknown subject, but it is possible. The author can improve the odds by giving some thought to the business side of publishing. That means finding a way to make a lesser known subject appeal to a wide audience.

People often tell me they wish there were more biographies for children about people who are not well-known. I know what they mean. I sometimes read about someone not so famous and think about how much fun it would be to introduce kids to that person. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find publishers for books about people who are not widely known.

I understand why. Publishers are in the business of selling books. Obviously, a biography about a well-known person will appeal to a larger audience than one about someone many people do not know. That presents an interesting problem for writers. How do they make their book stand out from the dozens, and in some cases, hundreds of books already out there about a particular person?

That’s not too hard with the leveled biographies I’ve been writing for National Geographic. Those books are part of a series and they have special features that make the books different from others about the same subjects. One of those features is the “Cool Facts” spread which offers opportunities to bring in fun tidbits about the subject. With the “In His [or Her] Time” section, kids can learn about what it was like when the subject was young.

Lincoln Tells a JokeThe style of the National Geographic readers helps me, but what about other writers who don’t have that framework? For them, the problem of making their book stand out becomes harder, but not impossible. The key is to find a unique point of view. That’s what Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer did with their book, Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (And the Country).

With all the books written about Lincoln, I didn’t think it was possible to say anything new about him. But the authors did it by focusing on Lincoln’s sense of humor. Many children’s books make the fact that Lincoln lived in a log cabin sound glamorous, but Krull and Brewer show the dirt floors and the beds that were actually piles of cornhusks. In the winter, snow blew through cracks in the wall. Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine and Lincoln had to help build her coffin. His childhood was hard, and he certainly had reason to be grim, but instead he turned to laughter. On Sundays, he and his friends escaped to the woods where Lincoln stood on a tree stump and read to his friends from a book called Quinn’s Jests.

Krull and Brewer’s book continues in that vein showing the challenges Lincoln faced and how he eased the pain with laughter. The authors include many of the jokes Lincoln told noting that he often laughed harder than anyone at those jokes. The illustrations by Stacy Innerst also provide humor. The one of Lincoln’s desk with the teetering stack of papers needing his attention is one of my favorites.

inventors-secret-cvr_largeSuzanne Slade wrote about two famous people in her book, The Inventor’s Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford. I’ve read Slade’s book many times and I’m still amazed at all the great details she included about both Edison and Ford in such a limited number of words. At first, she focuses on one at a time. There is a spread with some fun details about Edison as a boy. It is followed by a spread about Ford’s early years. Slade gives details about Edison’s early inventions. Then the focus switches to Ford and his dream of creating “a car hardworking families could afford.”

As Ford struggles with creating his car, he hears about Edison’s successful inventions. What’s his secret? Ford wonders. His determination to find the answer to that question drives the story forward. It’s a fun, fast-paced story that proves it is possible to write something new about a subject even though it seems like everything has already been said. It just takes a unique point of view.

Of course it’s also possible to find a publisher for a biography for children about a not-so-famous person. I’ll have some thoughts about that in my next post.

Rejection-754834[1]I saw an interview with James Patterson recently where he said he got 31 rejections with his first book. Of course, numbers like that are meant to be an encouragement to those of us who are racking up rejections. But the interview also made me think about how much publishing has changed.

Gone are the days when authors can joke about having enough rejection letters to wallpaper their offices. Part of that change is because these days many publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. They only take submissions from agents. Also, many of the publishers who do accept submissions have a policy of replying only if interested. That can be discouraging for writers.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to avoid some of that frustration because much of my work is for educational publishers and they operate a little differently. Those publishers know what they want, and they are looking for people to write the books they need. It means I start a project knowing that it is something a publisher wants. There is no stress about spending a lot of time on a project and then not being able to find a publisher for it. Also, if you do a good job for an educational publisher, there’s a good chance you’ll get future assignments. With today’s publishing climate, it’s nice to have those relationships with educational publishers.

Of course, I also have ideas, such the picture book biography I’m working on, which don’t fit the needs of educational publishers. And so I’m collecting rejections. So far, I’ve sent my picture book to an agent and four publishers. The agent, who I had met at writers’ conference, said the manuscript wasn’t competitive in today’s market. But she gave me some good tips for improving it. That kind of personalized attention is rare these days and I appreciated it.

As for the editors, one of them sent a form rejection with a short handwritten note wishing me well in placing it elsewhere. Disappointing, but at least it’s definitive. With the other three publishers, I’ve had only silence. They follow the policy of replying only if interested, which leaves me with mixed feelings.

I’m grateful that they even accept unsolicited manuscripts when so many publishers don’t. On the other hand, their silence gives me hope when it shouldn’t. I need to fight the urge to cling to the possibility that the editors haven’t had time to read the manuscript yet. After all, it’s only been a few months and we’ve all heard stories about the stacks of manuscripts waiting for an editor’s attention.

However, in my more realistic moments I realize that my book was most likely recycled months ago and I need to send it out again. I’ll do that, but first, I have rewriting to do. I made the changes the agent suggested, but as I continue to learn more about picture book biographies and read those that have been successful, I see other ways to improve the manuscript. So I’ll do some rewriting and then get it back in the mail.

In the meantime, I’m curious, writers, how do you deal with those “silent” rejections from publishers who only reply if they’re interested? How long do you hold out hope that your manuscripts are still under consideration?

 

Arctic-Adventure-Small@2xSally Isaacs has “always been fascinated by the lives of other people” and her writing reflects that interest. She has written 50 nonfiction books for children. They include books about American history and historical biographies about people such as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her latest book, Helen Thayer’s Arctic Adventure: A Woman and a Dog Walk to the North Pole, took her in a new direction. It was released by Capstone Publishing earlier this month and I was curious about the journey of that book.

How did you get started as a writer?

After college, I found myself living a few miles from Reader’s Digest. I was attracted to the gorgeous building and the publishing hub-bub that went on inside it. I wrote to the “Personnel Department” and basically offered to do anything. I started as a temp, filing reprint articles. Some nine years later, I was editorial director of the Education Division. On the job, I did a lot of writing for children and started freelance writing, too. I still write a lot for educational publishers, and I’ve had 50 nonfiction books published.

What led you to choose Helen Thayer as the subject for your book? 

In 2009, I had signed up for a Highlights Foundation Workshop on Writing Biographies. I needed a subject! I decided I wanted to write about a strong woman explorer who could be an inspiration for young girls — and mostly for me. I sifted through library books and found Helen Thayer in a chapter of a book.

The road to publication can sometimes be a long one, especially with picture books. Can you tell us about the journey of Helen Thayer’s Arctic Adventure?

At first, I thought this would be a biography of Helen Thayer, covering several of her explorations. In the workshop, I decided to focus on one journey, and write a chapter book for grades 3-4 about Helen’s one-month walk to the magnetic North Pole.

After writing the book, I contacted Helen and asked her to review it and write a short introduction. She didn’t like the idea! She felt it competed too much with her own book Polar Dream. While I could have continued, I really wanted her blessing (and I thought it would make it more appealing to a publisher). So, I rewrote the book as a picture book.

Over the course of four years, I submitted the manuscript to publishers in children’s trade and school/library markets. The most important critique I received was to be sure the language was exciting so that the reader felt compelled to find out “what happens next?”

Besides that advice, much of what publishers wrote made me feel like a yoyo.  Cut the number of words. Add more background. Give information about Helen’s motivation. Consider turning it into a chapter book! I rewrote the book at least four times.

At the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference in 2014, I signed up for a one-to-one consultation. Michelle Bisson, from Capstone, reviewed the manuscript and liked it as it was – a picture book. As I expected, she hoped I could get a quote from Helen Thayer to put in the book and also get permission to print at least one of the photos she took on the exploration.

By this time, I had conducted two telephone interviews with Helen, and she agreed to write the Introduction and sell a photo to Capstone. (The rest of the book would be illustrated.) I was thrilled to have a publisher and Helen’s blessing!

You’ve written many biographies about people in history, but Helen Thayer is still making history. What are the pros and cons of writing about a living person?

I was excited to be able to talk to my subject, to ask questions and get clarifications. This was an opportunity I never had with Pocahontas, George Washington, or Lewis and Clark, among others. And though I wrote about Bill and Melinda Gates, I never got to interview them. Additionally, I thought a living explorer would be inspirational to children. We usually think of explorers as part of history. I wanted children to know that exploration is available today!

On the other hand, I was  — and still am — deeply concerned about pleasing Helen with my book. Every sentence needed to be true. I wanted to convey her personality, and her ability to go after her goal and move through her fears. I imagined her critical voice in my mind.

Accessibility was another issue. During this process Helen was traveling and exploring. For my first interview with her, I had to wait until she returned from a month-long hunting excursion with the Bushmen of Tanzania. She also travels on speaking engagements for her organization Adventure Classroom, so I was often waiting for email responses.

In the end, she read my final manuscript, corrected just a few details, and wrote the Introduction (which ended up in the back of the book). I sent her the published book a few weeks ago, and I have not heard from her.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

1) Show, don’t tell.

2) Give the reader a reason to turn the page.

3) Don’t let the manuscript sit on the shelf. Keep sending it out.

003082ct_MediumJody Jensen Shaffer has written 27 books for children including both fiction and nonfiction. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Highlights for Children, Babybug, Turtle, Humpty Dumpty, and Clubhouse Jr. Jody has written several biographies including books about celebrities such as Liam Hemsworth from The Hunger Games, Taylor Swift, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Recently, Jody celebrated the release of two historical biographies, What’s Your Story, Frederick Douglass? and What’s Your Story, Sequoyah? Both books are part of the Cub Reporter Meets Famous Americans series from Lerner Publishing. The Cub Reporter is a cartoon bear character who interviews the subject of each book. Although the reporter is fictional, the answers given by the subject are all fact.What's Your Story, Frederick Douglass cover

How was the research for your Frederick Douglass and Sequoyah books different than the research you do for your celebrity biographies?

Good question! Research for each subject is different. For the celebrities I wrote about, my research included reviewing newspaper interviews from their hometowns from when they were young and more current interviews with popular magazines and reliable internet sites, even YouTube. For Douglass and Sequoyah, my research involved finding reliable, scholarly work written about these men. Douglass had another benefit: he wrote his own biography (several, in fact), so I could access copies of them on the internet and cross-reference details against what others wrote about him. For Sequoyah, I used government sites and books.

What's Your Story, Sequoyah coverHow did you get started as a writer?

Even as a child, I liked to write. Then I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in English. I wrote for adults at that time. I began writing for children when my kids were little. I was enamored with all the clever, lovely, touching, gorgeous picture books, early readers, and chapter books we’d read together. Then when my youngest started kindergarten, I started getting serious about writing for children.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

I get the kids to school, respond to emails, then dig into whatever writing project I’m working on. It might be researching my next biography subject or putting the finishing details on an outline. I work until the kids come home, and depending on our evening activities, I might work during the evening, too.

What do you enjoy about writing biographies?

I love learning about people, which also means learning about the places they come from and the people who surround them. I especially like finding out the tiniest details, things that might not make it into a book because of restrictions of some kind.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Use the fewest, most appropriate words you can, without losing the meaning of your piece. Also, always consider your audience.

You have a fun nonfiction book and a couple of picture books scheduled for publication. Can you tell us about them? Do you plan to write more biographies?

Yes, I do! The “fun nonfiction book” is The Way the Cookie Crumbled by Simon Spotlight. It’s all about the history of cookies, and it’s appropriate for elementary-aged students. It’s filled with tons of delicious information about cookies. It’s scheduled for release on July 5, 2016.

Then in 2017, Prudence, the Part-Time Cow will come out with Henry Holt. It’s about a cow who finds her own way to fit in with the herd.

Following that, Nancy Paulsen/Penguin will release A Chip Off the Old Block in 2018. It’s about a rock who takes a journey to discover how he can make a difference in the world. It’s a blend of fiction and nonfiction, so there’s plenty of back matter for those who want to learn more about rocks.

And I love writing biographies, so I’m sure I’ll continue doing that, too.

 

Pioneer womanIt’s hard to say what influences me to read a particular book. Sometimes it’s recommendations from friends or something I read, perhaps a review. Other times I may choose a book on a whim. That was the case with Ree Drummond’s memoir The Pioneer Woman. It was the illustration on the hardcover edition of the book that got my attention. I liked the image of the cowboy on his horse raising his hat and turning slightly in the saddle to smile at the woman riding with him. The woman, of course, is smiling up at him. The scene reminded me of the westerns I watched as a kid – Dale Evans and Roy Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Annie Oakley. After all that reminiscing, I couldn’t resist the book.

The subtitle, “Black Heels to Tractor Wheels,” serves as a good summary of the story. Drummond was at a crossroads in her life. She had spent seven years in L.A. and was in a relationship that she knew was not what she wanted. She returned to her parent’s home in Oklahoma to think about what she wanted to do next. She had begun making plans to move to Chicago when she met the cowboy she calls Marlboro Man. Soon after that, her transition from “black heels to tractor wheels” began.

Drummond’s memoir covers a narrow time frame from meeting Marlboro Man to their wedding and the birth of their first child. On the surface, it’s a love story, but there are also subplots that give the book depth including details about life on a ranch. If someone cornered me at a party and started talking about ranching, I would probably yawn and make a quick escape. But it was fascinating to learn what ranching is like through the eyes of someone who is experiencing it for the first time and wondering if she can adjust to that lifestyle.

As Drummond contemplates marrying Marlboro Man, she finds it hard to accept that her parents are thinking about ending their marriage. There is also the ex-boyfriend who still has hope for their relationship. Drummond weaves all of those parts of her life together in a well-written story.

As I was reading The Pioneer Woman, I discovered that Drummond’s book The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinnertime was on the bestseller list. As a biographer, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about what she had done since the time period she describes in her memoir.

It turns out that the cookbook I saw on the bestseller list is her fourth one, and she has a show on the Food Network. She also has a popular website where she shares her photography and recipes and blogs about life with her family on the ranch. The blog is where Drummond’s memoir began with humorous posts about her transition from city life to country girl. Her readers enjoyed those posts so much that Drummond decided to tell the whole story in a memoir.

She also writes children’s books that feature her “very lethargic” Basset hound, Charlie. She has her own product lines, and in August, she and her husband are opening a mercantile store and deli/restaurant. Drummond has come a long way from the young woman in her memoir. In that book she wondered what she would ever do for a job when she lived on a ranch so far away from the nearest town. She has obviously figured it out.

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