Research- The Scavenger Hunt of Writers

Do you approach research as a chore or as a scavenger hunt? I easily get caught up in the awe of research. If someone had told my teenage self that I’d grow up to be a research addict, I would have spewed Orange Crush out my nose. Fast forward a decade or two to my early interest in nonfiction for the age-challenged and I would have hissed at the idea of doing the same level of research for a 32-page picture book as I would for a scholarly adult book. Yep, it’s true.

Next week, I’ll be pitching in at an Austin SCBWI workshop dedicated to research techniques for nonfiction and fiction writers. When it comes to research, whether you write for adults or children, nonfiction or fiction, the tools and processes are the same. I wish I’d had this type of workshop instruction long ago, before I spent several years chasing shiny (barely related) factoids down the literary equivalent of rabbit holes; before flailing around in the wrong dark places to find the information I really needed. I’ve learned a lot through the school of hard knocks, but I can’t wait to soak in the wisdoms, tips, and shortcuts offered by our workshop faculty: award winning nonfiction author Cynthia Levinson, award winning novelist Greg Leitich Smith, librarian-extraordinaire Jeanette Larson, and author and Calkins Creek Books editor Carolyn Yoder. I have a feeling my research will become more efficient. There are a few spots left, so click here for more information about the Sept. 13, 2014 event.

Since I write primarily about dead people, ahem, I mean historical subjects, my research destinations might look a bit different than someone learning about dinosaurs, or habits of today’s teens, or which baseball player did what and when, or how Julia Child’s kitchen was outfitted. But, we’re all on the search for information that aids us in developing our characters, settings, and plots.

Personally, any success I’ve had with research, I owe to:

The staff of my local library, first. Who could love books and the research trail more? When I’m stuck on where to search for obscure information, they’re always eager to jump onto the trail with me. They know just how to get a copy of that rare book or article, often through inter-library loan.
Online Databases, historic photos, EBay

Yes, I said EBay. I have Google alerts set up for each of my subjects. Every time my designated keywords pop up on the web, I am notified. EBay sellers occasionally list souvenirs, books, pamphlets, playbills, photos, pinbacks, etc, related to my subjects. I’ve become somewhat of a collector.


I searched high and low for a rope of this material and circumference. I found it on EBay. It’s related to a manuscript that’s under consideration right now. I can’t tell you what the subject is, yet, but being able to handle this rope and visualize it made a big difference in the storytelling.


I fell in love with archived newspapers, but learned that yester-year’s reporters weren’t always the most reliable sources. I want to believe that there’s an overall higher
standard of accuracy today, but those kinds of assumptions can be dangerous to
researchers. When the spring 2016 release date for my book, En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words
gets closer, I’ll share some of the unique challenges I came across when dealing
with politically-slanted newspapers from the 19th century.

One of the advantages to perusing newspapers from my
subjects’ times is getting a sense of the era. Styles, prices, labor,
entertainment, culture, it’s all right there in smudgy print. Even prices for slaves, which makes me cringe to read. (by the way, Blogger freezes when I try to post pics of ads for women’s clothing. Bah!)

Oh, and I always stumble upon unexpected historical
finds, too.


Like Charles’ Dickens’ serialized story, GREAT EXPECTATIONS. And Sam Houston’s famous speech at Nacogdoches (especially relevant to my Texas friends.)

And there’s always humor to be found, too. A great deal more humor than today, in fact. Some of it is too edgy to post here.



Every interviewer is nervous. Really nervous! But I’ve found that most experts and people with firsthand experience are flattered to be consulted. They love that someone thinks their topic is worthy of a children’s book. Usually, they are very generous with information.

Old fashioned microfilm can be a treasure, too. I squinted my
way to a hard-earned headache at the Shelbyville, TN Library as part of my
research for Step Right Up: The Story of
Beautiful Jim Key (
Lee and Low, fall 2015). As more and more of these films are digitized, use of the
machines is becoming a lost art. Before a DVD version of a collection was
available, I purchased my own microfilm copy, then
struggled, along with a library assistant in a neighboring town, to figure
out their dusty machine.

State and National Archives

I’ve donned white gloves to peruse fragile archive documents, including yellowed and musty scrapbooks from long ago eras. Friends, there is nothing quite like the smell of history and the nostalgia of touching the past. For my research at the Tennessee State Archives, I was not allowed to take anything into the room except a few sheets of paper and a pencil, so I have no photos to wax sentimental over.

Research for my current project took me to a Presidential Library. They have thousands of pages of documents related to my subject, which has nothing to do with the president. They encourage researchers to take photos of documents that they want copies of, so a camera or smart phone is allowed into the room. Now I just need to figure out how to catalog my 472 photos. Don’t think they’re willy-nilly about giving access to documents. I had to give a copy of my driver’s license, went through a one-on-one orientation with an incredibly helpful archivist, and followed strict protocol when ordering material. Every desk space in the room is monitored by the watchful eyes and monitors of staff who are passionate about preserving documents. It was an amazing experience.

Left: Scrapbook from 1949 Europe.

Right: working my way through boxes of historical material. 

In Person

Of course, there’s nothing better than visiting the scene of your historical research to get a feel for the place, but I know it’s not always possible to make such trips. I’ve been known to ask friends to take photos for me if I know they’re visiting an area relevant to a writing project.

To accommodate my needed research trip to Tennessee, where the story of Dr. William Key and Beautiful Jim Key began and ended, we planned a family vacation around it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was more than a little teary-eyed when I visited the graves of both Doc and Jim. Yeah, it’s that personal to me.



Yes, research is a scavenger hunt. Whether you write about dead guys or novels about contemporary life, research can be exhilirating, emotional, thrilling, even disappointing at times. It is always enlightening. Even when you’re led down literary rabbit holes, they are full of wonder.

SCBWI Grants, the Cost of Research, and My Most Used Research Sites

Whew! Time flies.

The hustle and bustle of spring seemed to arrive early here and with it came the SCBWI grant deadlines of March 31st. Last year, in 2012, I was awarded an Honorable Mention for my nonfiction submission. It was indeed an honor, especially after learning that only six of the 500 entries received such letters. it was flattering, but it wasn’t the $2000 cash award. That particular project is now on submission, but I’m never without a new project.

If you write nonfiction, you know how expensive research can be. To be thorough, we need to travel. Truthfully depicting a person’s life and actual setting requires sensory familiarity. Maybe more importantly, there are undigitized resources sitting in libraries, state archives, historical societies, museums. Too often, when I try to tap into these sources from a distance, I find that the hardworking curators and archivists simply don’t have the budget, time, or staff to copy and mail materials. And, often, no copying is allowed at all. Period. If you want to see it, you have to go in person where you’ll sit in a carefully lit, temperature controlled room, struggling to make copious pencil notes while wearing clunky white gloves. I happen to love that kind of hands-on research. But it is cost prohibitive.

So, I buckled down with my 2013 grant application. I had already snuck in some preliminary research between working on other projects over the past year. Now, I had to give this my full attention. I blocked out the rest of the world (as I always do when I begin a new project) and amped up the remote research. I bought used and rare books and, thanks to my wonderful local librarians, secured others through inter-library loan. I filled a binder with archived newspaper articles, made friends with curators by phone, and identified people to interview. I dug and dug and dug until I felt I understood my character and her chronology enough to form a narrative. Now I could write my 2500 word sample or, in my case, a shorter picture book biography. If I’m fortunate enough to secure that grant, I’ll book my flights to two specific locations where the ultimate research gems are waiting for me.  I can’t let this, my fifth picture book biography, go out to editors until I’ve gotten my hands on these elusive sources.
Click here to learn more about the annual SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grants.

I may have shared these in a previous blog post, but here are some of my favorite general research avenues. Maybe you’ll find something helpful, too. (be sure not to add an ‘s’ in here. Otherwise, you land on Geneaology Bank which might also be a good source, but I’ve never tried them.) (be sure you do include an ‘s’ in here. Otherwise, you land on an Arab site.) (Helpful for for establishing family trees.) (archive for New York Times) (used books) (used, rare books) (Library of Congress)
Obviously, I access museums, historical societies, and archivists related to each individual project, too.

Oh and stay tuned for some long-awaited, happy news. Soon. Very soon.

Research Resources- Start Growing your Cyber Library

I’m blogging a bit differently for the month of December. Today, I share some online sources that have either been helpful to my own research, or that are part of my cyber-library for future reference. Naturally, this isn’t an all inclusive list (like that would ever be possible) and it’s a bit of a hodge podge, but it’s a place to start. I hope you’ll find some treasures here, whatever genre you write.

Do you know of an online source that should be added to this list? Please add it in the comments section and we’ll watch this list grow.

Throughout December, I’ll continue to share my favorite sites, blogs, and books. Pop back in when you get a chance.


Style and Grammar
Grammar Handbook by the University of Illinois-Urbana
Chicago Manual of Style online
Modern Language Association (MLA)
The Elements of Style 
Purdue Online Writing Lab
Purdue ” ” APA style is especially well covered here
Long Island University “Citation Style for Research Papers
Citing Sources (Duke University Libraries)
Citing your Sources (University of California Berkeley)

Free Bibliography software

Sites about agents
Query Tracker 
Agent Query 
Publisher’s Marketplace (see who’s moved where and who’s sold what)
Literary Rambles (Casey McCormick blog) 

Language Translation
Yahoo Babel Fish
Google Translate 

Online Dictionary/Thesaurus

Geography and history
World Factbook

World Clock

Want to know the reading level and number of words in a published book?
Rennaisance Learning

Sources for hard to find Books 
Abe Books

Research Sources-History (no particular order)
Library of Congress
Colossal Directory of Children’s Publishers (Colonial history) 
History of the USA 
A Research Guide for Students (for writers, too. Find style guides, and how-tos)
World Almanac for Kids
In the First Person (index to letters, diaries, oral histories, and personal narratives)
Calisphere– University of California- primary sources and more
Early America archives- primary documents from 18th century.
Smithsonian Magazine
National Archives (a little pricey, but it’s a convenient way to track a life)
National Parks Service
National Security Agency (NSA)
Chronology of American History (nonprofit digital library)
Google Scholar 

General Reference- Ref Desk
Highbeam Research
Newspaper archives
New York Times archives
Chicago Tribune Historical archives
Oxford Journal Historical archives
U.S. Census Bureau
Historical Census Browser 

Oxford African American Studies Center

Your public library like offers electronic access to EBSCO, Oxford Reference Online,
WorldCat (find resource material from other libraries as well)
Gale Virtual Reference Library (look who’s got ebooks now)

Current value of old money. Convert money values as far back as 1600’s

Fashions from history
Fashion Era
History of the 20th Century
Fashion Institute of Technology
Fashion History Museum

Official Museum Directory

Online image source and historical photos
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs
U.S. National Archives 
Life Magazine 
Various historical societies, museums. university archives,
Corbis Images 
Smithsonian Photographic Services 

Addendum. 12/19/2011- Special thanks to Ms. Hernandez, teacher at a California charter school, for passing on a student’s list of additional resources. Many have been incorporated into this list. Yay for students with initiative!