“Ask an Editor” is a forum wherein SCBWI members submit questions that are answered quarterly as part of our Kite Tales blog.
Hi Christine–Since you write nonfiction, are you an expert on those topics? How much does an author need to know to write nonfiction and get it published?—Gen, Pasadena
My first nonfiction picture book was about underpants. Was I an expert? Absolutely not. I had no idea how much there was to learn about this garment’s history until I extensively researched.
My next nonfiction picture book is about monarch butterflies. I have hands-on experience working with butterfly conservation in a number of ways, but that only got me so far. To understand this topic in depth still required many hours consulting current reference sources.
The thing about research is to let yourself gather broadly, then narrow down with specificity. For example, envision a chessboard with its 32 pieces. Now imagine that each piece holds information tied to the topic you’re working on. As you write, pieces are eliminated. If you’re writing picture books, you may use only a couple of pieces of your overall research—some in the text, more in the back matter. For middle grade or YA, possibly more of the facts you found will wind up in the book. Or not. Much of what we discover while researching informs how we write and isn’t necessarily on the page. This is similar to the way that novelists will develop an extensive character profile and background, but most of that isn’t shared with the reader. Instead, only select pieces are woven in to inform the story as needed.
For information about what’s happening in today’s marketplace, go to SCBWI.org. Sign in and click on “Publications,” then “The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children.” Download The Book and read the article “Nonfiction for Children: Growing and Changing.”
Bottom line, am I an expert on underpants and monarch butterflies? The answer is still a resounding no. However, I’ve researched extensively and, at both publishers, there were layers of fact-checking to ensure the books were as accurate as possible at that moment. Data changes. For example, newer archaeological underpants finds were discovered and the western monarch was acknowledged as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Fiction is probably faster to write, but if you love to spend time poring over facts, like to lose yourself down rabbit holes, and enjoy trivia, then find a topic you won’t bore of and dig in! Research until you know enough to accurately convey that subject matter to your intended audience. I wrote my butterfly book in fiction and nonfiction, prose and verse. In the end, it ended up as narrative nonfiction in rhyme with facts throughout. You never know where the journey will lead, so write on.
To ask a question which may be answered in an upcoming Kite Tales, please follow this link and fill in the form. You must be logged in to your SCBWI account to access this feature: http://losangeles.scbwi.org/ask-an-editor/.
Answers by Christine Van Zandt, literary editor and writer, and owner of Write for Success Editing Services.
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Rabbit hole is right! Ha! Laughed a lot reading A Brief History of Underpants, and looking forward to the monarch butterfly story!