Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oh, The Places You'll Go...

….. and the people you’ll meet when you write nonfiction! I know I’m not alone in loving – sometimes preferring – the research part of the job. Getting out of my head and on to the phone. Out of my office and into the big wide world.

Unless you’re writing about the president or a Beatle, you’ll probably find that the expert(s) on your subject are willing – nay, delighted – to speak to you. Most likely, they live in a rarified world with a few colleagues and a spouse who already know all their stories. You are a new audience, eager to hear what, how, and why their work is so fascinating and important. Of course you don’t begin by saying “Tell me about ______.” You read everything you can and formulate intelligent questions. What can they add that you haven’t already learned?

For my first book, The Wind at Work, Paul Gipe, a noted wind energy expert, invited me to his home for an interview and a look through his extensive photo collection. He let me use his photos free of charge. I also arranged a private tour of a wind turbine factory, got some free photos, and the company has been a loyal promoter of my book every since.

The Guild of Volunteer Millers in the Netherlands includes over a thousand windmillers and their apprentices. I visited one on a Sunday afternoon as he ran “his” restored windmill. Not only did I get a closeup look at and listen to the mill, but I learned that the windmills have to be operated regularly to prevent woodworm larvae from hatching in the beams. It's the vibrations that do that. A few miles away a tourist attraction with several windmills was jammed with people and busy millers. I had a windmill and a miller all to myself.

Not long ago I was researching a particular event in London in 1598. A new book came out that described the event in greater detail than I had found elsewhere. But still I had questions. I emailed the distinguished scholar/author and got a response within half an hour. The man mentioned his son as a prospective reader of my book.

Many towns have historical societies, or perhaps just a display case in the public library, with artifacts from the town’s past. Even more towns have one citizen, probably a native, who is the amateur historian extraordinaire. I’ve had many talks and walks with these folks, who proudly pass on countless stories about their native place. NB: Double the time you think the talk/tour will take. Recently I arrived mid-morning in a town in Norfolk, England for such a tour. I expected to be finished by lunchtime, after which I planned a leisurely drive to York for dinner with friends. I didn’t leave Norfolk until 4 p.m., and ended up dashing halfway up England well over the speed limit.

My travel research began in the 1980s when I wrote for airlines magazines. I rarely took a trip I couldn’t deduct from my income taxes. Besides the pay and the deductions, I found that having a focus for the trip made it more fun. I can’t seem to break the habit – nor do I want to – now that I’m writing children’s books. My recent trip to England involved two talks/tours in two different towns with aforementioned amateur historians extraordinaire.

Then on to Paris where my subject had many adventures. I didn’t meet any experts there, but I did rent a bicycle and found the places he lived, worked, and was imprisoned – snapping photos along the way. I also took some guided walking tours that gave me more information, photos, and local color.

After Paris, I spent a week in the Dordogne region, exploring prehistoric cave art. On this rare occasion I had no research in mind, no story ideas. I didn’t even save my receipts. Then, touring the last cave on my last day, I heard an anecdote that sparked an idea. Aha! Now, home again, I’m contacting authors and curators who will, I hope, lead me to the bi-lingual world authority who can tell me where……. and on it goes.

As for those missing receipts, I’ll have to rely on my credit card bill to help me with the IRS. Luckily I charge everything to my card, which gives me miles to take more trips to research more books….

Now, tell me your exotic, adventurous, disastrous, serendipitous research tales.

1 comment:

April Pulley Sayre said...

Great post, Gretchen. I love the detail about the woodworm. Like you, I love to see the intricate connections. Keep up the good work!
April Sayre