Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Make Research Pay: Turn “leftover” ideas into nonfiction children’s magazine articles


Do you groan whenever anybody suggests that your story needs more research?
Does the idea of diving into books and Wikipedia pages, old newspapers or archives bring back nightmares from high school, college, or some other period in your life?

I've been doing a lot of research lately for a chapter book I'm writing that takes place in medieval Egypt.  The subject is fascinating, I love it, but along the way, I've accumulated a ton of information locked up here in my mind... and nowhere to let it out.

Sure, I could write another book.  But I was looking for a quick way to use that information in a way that could help my career as a children's writer.  So I sold it to a kids' magazine, and now those ideas will have new life and reach a lot more kids than my book probably will.

The Problem with Research

I want to explain how, but let's back up a step or two for a second to talk about research overall -- and then I'll share some ideas for how you can make your research pay.

Even if you love writing, heck, even if you love how research gives your writing more depth and authenticity, you probably know at least three things about research already:
1) It's a lot of work - even if you love the topic
2) It eats up a lot of time - especially if you wind up going down all kinds of rabbit holes, as always happens to me
3) You can't just dump all your research into your manuscript or you'll kill readers with boredom!

This last point is most important:  even the most important research isn't always relevant to the story you're telling.  Which means that a lot of research, fascinating as it may be, is going to turn out to be a waste of time.


(This is me, researching my book!)

imageIn this interview with Writers' Digest, Andy Weir, author of The Martian and now Artemis, talks about his in-depth research process.  You can see there how much work he has put into researching every single detail for Artemis, the economics of the moon colony and space travel and whatnot, just like he spent years (while working full-time doing something else!) researching the science of Mars exploration for The Martian.

Dealing with “Leftovers”

Now, if Weir had tried gathering up everything he discovered and tossed it into the story, he wouldn't be the bestselling author he is today. 

So what do you do with everything you find when you research?

Well, you weave it into your story, of course.  Think of the details you find in your research as gems, and just sprinkle them here and there in the story.  Not too many... just enough to make things feel authentic.

And what about the leftovers?
Because I guarantee you'll have a million "leftovers." These are the little tidbits that don't belong in your story but that you adore. 
Usually, the advice for stuff like that is, "Kill your darlings" (aaaagh, it's too painful to think about!) but what I'm going to suggest is that you can give all those darlings new life -- as nonfiction articles for kids!

Quick Tips to Transform Research into Articles

I always talk here about taking a career focus, and writing / publishing nonfiction can do that, letting people know you're more versatile, and maybe even bringing in some money on the side.  But what can you write about? 

Here are a few quick ideas to get you started:

  • Write about one aspect of your topic.  My book is set in medieval Egypt, and the article I wrote deals with medicine in the medieval world (from a kid's perspective, of course!)
  • Write about a fascinating personality.  My book briefly mentions Maimonides, a Jewish doctor in the middle ages.  Profiles of compelling personalities (from a kid's perspective!) are evergreen and always in demand.
  • Write a compare-and-contrast piece.  If your research takes you to another time and/or place, write a short article comparing/contrasting this with what kids know today.
  • Find another age group who might be interested in the topic -- if your book is young adult, figure out what aspect of it might interest younger kids (medieval bathrooms!), or vice versa (dating in medieval times!)
  • Write about daily life.  How did people get around?  How did they buy and sell things?  Where (and how often) did they take a bath (anything in the bathroom is evergreen!)?  You probably have a treasury of these tiny details; now write about a few of them!
  • Go out of the box altogether.  Connect your topic with food and share a few recipes, put together an art project, or even write a poem connected with your research.  Anything goes - as long as you make it fun and fascinating for kids.

Now What?

Of course, you're not limited to writing just ONE article!  Go back to the list above and see if you can spin the same topic into two or three different articles. 

With everything I've learned about medieval Egypt researching this book, I could write articles about maybe a dozen or more topics:  trade routes through medieval Egypt, what life was like for kids in medieval Egypt, what people ate in medieval Egypt... well, you get the picture. 

And here’s a magical BONUS to this strategy:  if you’re stuck writing whatever it is that you were doing the research for in the first place, it might even help to take the pressure off and write something else, like a nonfiction piece, which is generally more straightforward in its structure.  Then, you can go back to your writing recharged and less discouraged about your prospects as a writer.

(And maybe even with a few extra dollars in your bank account!)

Start by reading a few kids' magazines to get an idea of what they're looking for as well as the tone of the articles they accept; you should try to write to the same length and style as current articles, offering kids a fascinating glimpse of everything you've learned... through research.

I want to say one more thing about research,  that is super, SUPER important: 
While you're writing your story, don't even think about research.  Just write the thing, okay? 

Some writers get waaaay too caught up in research and wind up in all those rabbit holes and never get the original story written because they got hung up on some little minute point.

During the writing stage, nobody cares about authenticity.  This is the time to simply NOT CARE.  Nobody needs the colour of the gunsmoke or the direction of the mountains or whatever to be exactly correct.  The period of writing is when you craft the best story possible. 

Then, later on, you can do some research and correct your facts, sprinkling in tidbits you've discovered through research to give your story depth and authenticity.  And with the "leftover" research, you can get writing, creating fascinating nonfiction right alongside your fiction.

I'd love to hear any tips you might want to share in the Comments below.  What do you do with the precious tidbits of information you glean researching your stories for kids???


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