Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘James Cross Giblin’

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.

Give Readers Something New

This week, I sent my editor at National Geographic a manuscript for another leveled reader. I always think I’ll give myself a few days off after meeting a big deadline, but that never happens. The pull of starting something new is too strong, especially knowing that the first step will be the research. For me, that’s one of the best parts of writing nonfiction and I can’t wait to get started.

JimIn 1991, before I had written my first book, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop in Bloomington, Illinois. I chose that workshop because one of the instructors was James Cross Giblin. He was a long time editor at Clarion and had also begun writing nonfiction books including biographies. With his experience as both an editor and as an award-winning writer, I knew I could learn a lot from him. I wasn’t disappointed.

One thing he said at that workshop really stuck with me. He said that he always tried to give readers something new. His research was not done until he had found information that had not been included in other books about a subject. It’s advice I try to follow.

Sometimes, that’s easy. When I wrote my biography about George Washington Carver I had access to so much primary source material that finding new details was not hard at all. But my job became much more difficult when I wrote about Oprah Winfrey.

That book was part of a series for third and fourth graders about people who had overcome great odds in achieving success and then gave back. I didn’t include Oprah in my original proposal, but my publisher wanted her in the series. I agreed that she certainly belonged in such a series, but there had been so many books about her already. I worried about how I would ever find anything new. The answer came when I focused on the theme of the series and began looking for stories to show how she had helped others. That was when I found an anecdote showing that she had already begun helping others when she was in elementary school. As a third grader, she heard about starving children in Costa Rica. She responded by collecting money on the playground for them.

Sometimes finding new information means getting creative with the research. I was discouraged with progress on my biography about Mahalia Jackson because I wasn’t finding anything new. I told myself that my book was different because while others focused on her gospel singing, I was including information about her fight for civil rights. Even so, I still didn’t feel like I was bringing something new to the table.

Then I came up with the idea of looking at her through the eyes of others. I knew she had been friends with author Studs Terkel, so I decided to research him. I learned that he had interviewed her a couple of times, and I located those interviews. They gave me some great quotes that had not been included in other biographies about Mahalia, and it made me feel that I had done my job.

It’s been more than 20 years since I attended the conference in Bloomington where James Cross Giblin talked about giving readers something new. But it’s advice I still think about every time I research a biography. Trying to bring something new to the table is a challenge, and I’m not sure I’m always successful. But it definitely makes the research interesting, and I hope the extra effort shows in the final result.

What about you? What advice have you been given that is still guiding your work or your personal life even many years later?

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