Monday, December 10, 2012

Research Like A Third Grader

by Mindy McGinnis

So, you've got an absolutely fantastic idea to write a romance set during the potato famine in Ireland. Maybe you just like the accent, or are drawn to rolling green hills, but the idea is stuck in your head and you can't get it out. So what's stopping you?

Maybe the fact that the accent and rolling green hills is the sum of what you know on the topic?

I don't think the first step is buying a plane ticket. I'm a thorough researcher and I like to exhibit that in my writing, but I don't start by traveling internationally or finding out the bacterial origination of the black rot that wiped out the potatoes in Ireland all those years ago.

Because that's not what I need to know in order to write this story.

I love non-fiction, but reading a dense book (or two) about the immigration statistics and cultural backlash that arose from the potato famine probably isn't going to fire a lot of creative synapses in the brain. It definitely can inform the story, but you're still on square one and drowning this little seed of an idea with 200 gallons of water isn't the best way to nurture it at the outset.

My advice? Go to the kids section of your library or bookstore. Find a very basic book about the topic you want to learn about in order to start this story. Right now your seed needs simple building blocks of life to get a good start - water, sunlight, soil. It's the Who? What? Where? When? of your story, and a non-fiction book written for children will point you in the right direction without the unnecessary equivalent of chemicals and growth additive type facts that are just going to burn the tender roots of your seedling idea and make your brain switch off.

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, a post-apocalyptic survival tale, Not a Drop to Drink, will be available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins in Fall 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the Thirteeners and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on Twitter & Facebook.

15 comments:

Marin McGinnis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marin McGinnis said...

I totally agree with this advice! Kids' nonfiction gives you a great overview without causing you to drown in minutiae. The DK Eyewitness books are great starting places, as are the Incredible Cross-section books published by Scholastic.

JeffO said...

Good advice, I really wouldn't have thought of using those kinds of books.

Jemi Fraser said...

That's brilliant! Picture books, chapter books and MG novels are all full of info that'll help! :)

Richard said...

I've used those resources a time or two and they are a good place to begin.

lbdiamond said...

Wow, interesting!

Mindy McGinnis said...

Thanks everyone! I'm glad this seems to have helped. Oftentimes even if you know of a setting you'd like to attempt, reading a very basic piece of non-fiction can spark some ideas for the skeleton of a fictional plot.

Susan Roebuck said...

Oh brilliant. My WIP is about commercial fishing which I know zilch about (ahem). Off to the library - I can manage non-fiction for children. The thought of wading through reams of technical data was putting me right off.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Absolutely Susan! It's one of those things where I'm incredibly lucky to have the day job inform the career pretty much daily. I ADORE my young readers NF section. Sometimes I wander over there for inspiration.

SC Author said...

TOTALLY AGREE. The trouble with my second WIP was all the loopholes in the research.... It got way too daunting. You suggestion is awesome; now I just need to fine a children's book about health care... ;/

Mindy McGinnis said...

Oooo. Yeah SC that's a tough one. But actually - it might not be so hard. With the election behind us, plenty of schools had Current Events material designed for their age range. Look into Weekly Readers or the like to see what you can find.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

This is a really cool idea - those grade school books do a nice job of cutting to the heart of the matter of what might be most interesting and/or common, too.

I always think that Wikipedia is the next best thing. It gives useful information from a layman's perspective - but now maybe that's Step 2 of research. :D

Mindy McGinnis said...

True - I will say as a librarian that I will use Wikipedia occasionally for very basic information, *but* the children's non-fiction has the bonus of being straightforward and .... probably fact-checked :)

Matt Sinclair said...

A great idea. I'd thought of this for learning how to speak a different language (to get me beyond 'mas cerveza, por favor'), but not for researching. Clever librarian, you!

Mindy McGinnis said...

Librarians. We're underestimated, always.