I’m sometimes a real research geek, especially for my nonfiction picture books. You kind of have to be to write nonfiction for kids—I want my characters to not only be factually correct, but emotionally accurate as well. That can be a tall order in nonfiction, especially when primary sources are scarce.
This is a wee bit embarrassing to admit, but only in the past six or seven years did I realize that research should be playing a role in my fictional picture books as well. What’s so refreshing about this kind of research is that it is SO EASY! And you don’t have to keep meticulous notes about sources—or ANY notes about sources. This kind of character-detail research is something I do to help bring my characters to sort-of life, especially when my characters are animals.
Let us begin in the beginning. When I started writing about a buffalo going to kindergarten, I knew I wanted to include something about snack time, because it, along with rest time, was the activity I excelled at in Miss Katinas’s kindergarten class.
I already knew that buffalo chewed cud, like cows. But it occurred to me that I had lived to a fairly ripe age without ever once learning exactly what cud was. Fifteen seconds of internet research later, I had the information I needed to write this section, many reviewers’ favorite (and one editor’s least favorite):
“Your buffalo is probably looking forward to sharing treats with a classmate. But he may be the only one who eats grass, then throws it up in his mouth and eats it again. Remember: Everyone’s special in his or her own way.”
Kindergarten students take great delight in screeching “EWWWWWWW!” upon hearing that.
Years later, when editorial concern caused me to change the pot-bellied big in Bogart and Vinnie: A Completely Made-Up Story of True Friendship into a rhinoceros, I panicked a little. I didn’t know much about pot-bellied pigs but I knew even less about rhinos. I did a few internet searches and found a little detail I loved. I read that you could tell a rhino was happy if its tail was curled. (Update: upon trying to confirm that detail for this post, I learned that this in fact means a female is ready for mating, so let’s move on.)
I’m probably giving away too much when I tell you that the narrator in I Won a What? (out in 2016) tries to win a goldfish by throwing a ping-pong ball into a goldfish bowl, but actually wins a whale. It was so fun to write, until I got to the point where he had to bring the whale home and I realized I knew nothing about whales. Whoops.
I wasn’t sure what kind of detail I was looking for until I found it. Reading reviews of whale-watching expeditions, I learned that many people felt that when they were on the boat, peering down at whales, the whales were looking up at them with the same level of curiosity. And that was it, that point of connection. There’s something almost mystical connecting the boy in my book with the whale he wins. I loved writing those scenes of them overtly and slyly watching each other.
My research isn’t confined to animal characters in picture books. When writing about Casey, the main character in Screaming at the Ump, I knew that living on the grounds of an umpire school defined him in a lot of ways. So I read what I could find about umpire schools. But when I sat down to write an umpire school scene, my imagination really let me down.
I went online to the websites for umpire schools and absorbed everything that was there but still couldn’t write a convincing scene.
So I did what any sacrificing writer would do in the middle of January. I left New Jersey and flew to Florida, to experience an umpire school in person. I stayed for days, taking notes, getting a feel for the place—a weird mix of military precision and informality. And I went home fully capable of writing those scenes with conviction.
In addition to allowing me to create more convincing characters, writing with factual information behind me makes me a more confident writer. It’s worthwhile to take the time to think of how you can best develop your characters. Instead of adding random details, you can often add a bit more depth by working with factually based details, which you can often find with a simple Google search.
Plus there’s an extra bonus: any time someone catches you surfing the internet, you can claim you’re just doing research to strengthen your characters’ believability. Tell them I suggested it.
Audrey Vernick is the author of the New York Times Notable Book Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Teamas well as seven other picture books and two middle-grade novels. She enjoys visiting schools during the academic year and not visiting schools/being at the beach in the summer.
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And check out the Exercise Book for Audrey’s tips on researching your characters.
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