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.

Be Brave

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? –Vincent Van Gogh

Writing is a scary endeavor, don’t you think? There’s that frightful blank page staring at us, taunting us, daring us; then the first
sentence; the first paragraph; the first manuscript page; the ending; and all those paramount decisions we make to fill the space between. Our nerves quake against the inner critic with a nag on repeat: What if I can’t do this? What if I’m a fraud? What if I’m too scared? What if the reviews are hurtful-or true? Every time we face the page, we take creative risks. Big, potentially-career-changing risks.

Damn right, we’re scared! Or… maybe it’s just me?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I dip my pen in the blackest ink, because I am not afraid of falling into my inkpot.”

Well, good for ole Ralph! But I’m currently knee-deep in research for two books I’m writing for an education publisher, and I am a tiny bit afraid. I have reeeally short deadlines for topics that deserve the utmost sensitivity and respect. What if I can’t dive deeply enough to do them justice? Yikes!

photo 3
My declaration of independence/badge of courage

I instinctively reached for my version of the Cowardly Lion’s badge
of courage to brace me through to the end.  Ain’t it purdy?

See, a million years ago, in 1994, I suffered a slobbery, whimpery, crushing heartbreak. You know the kind. I was a weak-kneed wreck until I ran out of tears.
One day, the cosmic switch flipped and I found my sea-legs again. I dressed up in
my favorite white suit with a red belt and red pumps (you can tell this was
pre-writing career.) I trekked to the nearest jewelry store and zeroed
in on this pendant. The cute panda on the front wasn’t the draw. The
back, however, was engraved 1994. Sold! Originally, I called it my
declaration of independence. I know, I know… corny, right? This piece of
gold and credit card balance had a purpose — to remind me to never be a
human door mat again; to stop hiding behind fear and insecurity; to take risks;
to be brave!
I tend to reach for it when I’m feeling anxious, or vulnerable. Like when I hiked the glacial ice fields miles above Juneau,
Alaska; scuba-dived in various oceans; white-water-rafted; blew both knees in skiing trips; submitted to agents; collected rejections; gave my heart away again. Stepping outside our comfort zone reminds us that we are alive.

Andre Gide, recipient of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature wrote, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

I love that, don’t you? Staring down our inner critic takes courage—a shove away from the shores of security. And those shores come in many forms.

DSC03097Last month (2014), I survived a sweltering weeklong Boy Scout camp in
Arkansauna with 150 sweaty Y-chromosome-beings, a bazillion ticks and
spiders, and nights full of creepy crawlies that wandered in and out of
my tent and my bedding. It was uncomfortable, for sure. But, when I faced the multi-stage high-wire Challenge Outdoor Personal Experience (COPE) course, I got scared. The voice of doubt rang in my ears: “You’re crazy! You’re too old, you’re not fit enough, strong enough, tough enough! And, oh-my-gawd,
that’s high!”

I learned something from the effort—from teetering and wobbling on the edge: 1) always look ahead; 2) tell yourself YOU CAN; 3) Remember that someone is watching your back, and 4) Breathe! Sounds a bit like a writing career, doesn’t it?

An unfamiliar scout dad left his son behind and followed my progress through the various stages of the course. He hollered up to me at one point, “I don’t know many women who would try that.”
I steadied my shaking knees and hollered back, “It’s my year to be brave.”

And it still is.
IMG_6561 Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 1.10.12 PM10452969_10153004566362738_8244676173860161833_o
Let’s all be brave, my friends.

Madeleine L’Engle once quipped, “When we were children, we used
to think that when we were grown-ups we would no longer be vulnerable.
But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…To be alive is to be

Smart woman, that Madeleine!

An Author by Any Other Name: Or Who The Heck Am I?


I’m having a whopper of an identity crisis. Well, not That kind of crisis. I mean, I’m not aiming for a red convertible, a party cruise, or a cute cabana boy to feed me grapes and read me poetry (though a girl can fantasize). No, I’m digging my way out of analysis paralysis over the name I will publish under. Never mind that I’ve already had two books for the educational market, plus magazine and newspaper articles, and short stories in anthologies published under Donna Bowman Bratton. For all of those, I successfully gagged this inner voice telling me I should stay true to the name I was born with. Somehow, the stakes feel higher now, with my first trade books inching toward reality. The foreverness of it all seems so, well, forever. Through my more, ahem, mature perspective, the word “legacy” comes to mind. And, just maybe, my inner feminist is causing a ruckus with existential questions like who am I really?

I decided to keep my maiden name when I married. I owned a business at the time and the world knew me by my maiden name. I was a-okay with having a different name than my husband until I was stopped for speeding. Don’t judge. You see, my husband was a high ranking police officer in our community, and the subordinate officer who approached my car window didn’t recognize me or the name on my driver’s license. Not that I’m a chronic speeder or law-breaker, but I did have an epiphany that adding his last name to my driver’s license could come in handy in an emergency. Only in an emergency! But names are as invasive as vines, and I found it difficult to have two identities. Now, twenty years later, I feel myself back in that driver’s seat, ready to “press hard and sign on the dotted line,” but my hand is a little twitchier now. I’m removing the gag on that inner voice. It’s now or never when it comes to planning my publishing legacy. With any luck, my reach in the literary world will never be smaller than it is at this moment (year 2014), before the majority of my life’s work hits the shelves and I set out to establish my brand.

When I first asked my family for their opinions about what name I should publish under, they were supportive of the idea. My thirteen-year-old son, always the quick wit, didn’t hesitate to offer his suggestion:

“Mom, publish under the name John Wayne,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to read a book by John Wayne?”

“Um, you may be the only barely-teen on the planet who knows who John Wayne is, er, was,” I countered.

“It’s about my first name,” I clarified. “Or initials. Or first name with middle initial. Or maybe I should use a pen name.”  It turns out there are other Donna Bowmans writing children’s books. Even another D.J. Bowman. Ugh!

“I’ve got it,” my husband said. “Change the spelling of your first name. You could be Don-uh Bowman.”

“Um, no!”

Choosing an author’s name is like choosing a tattoo. Once it is on the spine of a book and in the annals of the Library of Congress, it is there forever.  That’s both a lovely thought and a heavy decision. I mean, come on, we’ve all heard horror stories of trying to remove a tattoo. All those nasty scars!

I’ve polled enough author friends to know that I’m not alone in this name-angst. We already have multiple personalities, on the page, and in public. In a way, our chosen author name has its own personality. While readers may forget and outgrow some of our book characters, we hope they never forget us as authors. Our names will follow us through the unknown future of our lives until our legacies land on the publishing family tree. So. Much. Pressure!

How Do You Choose?

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Will your website domain name and other social media monikers be available?
  • Are there other authors publishing under the same name? Consider what they write and what reputation they have. How will your name stand apart?
  • Will librarians be confused by your name?
  • Who would your bookshelf neighbors be?
  • If using your married name, is your marriage super-glue strong?
  • How will your name be received by young readers? (I have a personal friend who legally changed his last name because the spelling led to pronunciation nightmares. He was tormented as a kid.)
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re ready to embark on the path of analysis paralysis. You. Are. Welcome.

By the way, if you decide to be cute with your name, remember, you probably have only one opportunity to use your name humorously when titling your book. For example:

RAPUNZEL by Harris Long

FISH STORY by Rod Enreel

ARCHERY by Beau N. Arrow


ADVANCED MATH by Smart E. Pants


ANTLERS IN THE TREE TOP by Hue Goostamoose

Examples of folks who chose mononyms (singular names):

  • Avi- Born Edward Irving Wortis. By the way, his parents discouraged him from becoming a writer, so he goes by the childhood nickname given to him by his sister. Ha!
  • Aliki- Aliki Liacouras Brandenburg
  • Sting- Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner
  • Cher- Cherilyn Sarkisian
  • Madonna- –Move along–

When to Consider a pen name:

(There’s not enough space here, so search authors with pen names. Wow! Note that some authors choose a pen name, specifically, because it would
place their books next to best-selling authors.)

  • If you crave anonymity (privacy)
  • *Though, technically, it’s not that difficult to track down a real name.
  • If you’re in the witness protection program
  • If your real name is difficult to spell
  • If your surname doesn’t sound good or you don’t like your family
  • If your real name is too common
  • If you write in very different genres or for different audiences. (But be prepared to maintain multiple online identities.)
  • If you are an elementary school teacher who writes racy or controversial content
  • If your day job would be in jeopardy because of the content of your writing
  • Just because you wanna

When should you use initials instead of a full first name?

  • So that your name is gender-neutral
  • For a smidgen of anonymity (see above)
  • To evoke an air of name-mystery
  • Because it sounds scholarly, or poetic, or just plain cool
  • Just because you wanna

Maiden name rather than married name?

  • If you want a simple division between your personal life and your author life
  • If you want to ensure foreverness of name if an unforeseen life change (ahem, divorce) occurs in the future
  • A quick scan across the authors I know revealed scads of women who took their first husband’s name, became well-known by that name, then remarried after divorce or the death of their spouse. Judy Blume is one example.)
  • If you want to honor your birth family and/or your childhood self
  • Just because you wanna


I’m days away from pulling the trigger on the absolute, final, forevermore author name I will publish my trade books under. The upcoming expiration of my website domain name has provided just the deadline I need. If all else fails, I can always revert to the names suggested by my ever-so-helpful family.

Don-uh “John Wayne” Bowman

Donna Janell Bowman is a central Texas speaker, writing coach, and author of award-winning books for young readers, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter; Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler; and King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson. Donna has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.


What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Debut

I’ve been getting all kinds of antsy lately, worried that I am supposed to be doing something to prepare for
my spring 2015 debut. I’ve been plenty busy with other projects. I’ve sold a second book (woohoo!) and revised another for an interested editor (fingers crossed.) And there are the revisions on other projects, etc, etc. But, there’s something special about this debut experience. A first book is like a first child, right?

Some pre-release duties, like website updating, blogs, business cards, brochures, mailing lists, and library contacts, are predictable. Expected. But, how do we debut authors prepare for the unexpected?


I reached out to some pretty awesome EMLA (Erin Murphy Literary Agency) authors and asked them what they wish they’d known as they approached their debut release and what advice they would give to those of us stocking up on anxiety. I hope you will get as much out of their responses as I have.

What about that title?
Jeannie Mobley, author of KATERINA’S WISH (McElderry, 2012) pointed out that authors often lose a beloved original title during the pre-release revision process. Your book will be around for a long time, so it’s important to negotiate, with your editor, a title that you will be proud of. Mike Jung, author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES (Arthur A.
Levine, 2012) expands on the notion, encouraging authors to be prepared “by writing up some alternative versions that you’ll be able to live with.

How about those blog tours?
Jeannie Mobley suggests spreading blog interviews out over time, rather than clumping them all into just before and just after the book releases. Especially close to holiday seasons, and award seasons. Janet Fox, author of SIRENS (Speak, 2012) noted the variations in blog styles: “I’ve found the most value for time in doing a creative blog tour. Not
just the answer-the-questions kind, but one that maintains a thread or through-line and informs. For my 1920’s historical, I wrote ten posts on different aspects of the 20’s, and got a huge response.”


Natalie Dias Lorenzi, author of FLYING THE DRAGON (Charlesbridge, 2011) says, “If your time is limited, be
choosy about which blogs you agree to provide interviews for and pay close attention to the audiences they reach. For YA writers, blogs that reach book club facilitators, readers and librarians will give you more mileage… For middle grade and picture book authors, reaching readers via blogs is highly unlikely (there are a few, like

“In my opinion, librarian and teacher blogs are the most worth your time (and I’m not saying this just because I’m both, I promise.) I say this because librarians and teachers are the most likely to get your books into the hands of readers…Think of a blog tour as a chance to make your audience aware of your book. Take a look at who leaves comments on a blog–is it mostly other writers, or do other folks chime in, too?” Psst…Check out the below list of librarian and teacher blogs that Natalie has shared with us! Awesome, right?

School visits rock, but…
Pat Zietlow Miller, author of SOPHIE’S SQUASH (Schwartz & Wade, 2013) says, “School visits are a lot of fun, but they also are a lot of work in terms of preparing them, conducting them and decompressing afterward.” When she was faced with a flood of awkward requests for free school visits, Pat came up with a tactful and professional response similar to this: ‘I love doing school visits! What I charge depends on how long I’m there, how far I have to travel and what type of reading or presentation I do. I’d be happy to talk to someone from the school and see what they have in mind.’


General, but fabulous marketing advice:
When it comes to choosing your marketing energies, Cynthia Levinson, author of WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, 2012) encourages authors to go into the process with eyes
wide-open: “I wish I’d known how much time it would all take–blogs, presentations, interviews, videos, library and school visits, trailer, website development, teachers’ guide, conference proposals, multiple trips, articles. It was fun but my recommendation is to figure out what you most like to do and focus on those. Feel free to set priorities, and decline the opportunities that cause you stress or distraction. Your book has value and stands on its own. It’s your publisher’s job to
publicize the book. Yours is to write the next books.

“Most of all, enjoy! You deserve it.”

 “I also wish I’d known how many people would ask me, ‘So…where can I get a copy of your book?’ says Pat Miller,  “So I made sure to know which bookstores in town carried it.”

“As far as gigs,” says Jeannie Mobley, “try everything the first time around, see what you enjoy and what you
don’t and then pare it down to the things you enjoy doing as you continue to promote (or better yet!) promote your second book.”

What about those reviews? They all agree that it’s a good idea to stay busy and distracted while waiting for reviews to
trickle in. Rather than fretting, always be working on another book. Mike Jung reflects on the review process in a humorous way: “Reviews can be a mutant porcupine demon of anxiety. But do not forget how awesome it is that your book is published and how awesome you are for having written it!”

Stress? What stress? “Stock up on chocolate,” says Janet Fox. “Hug your dog. The launch day will come and go and you’ll think, ‘what, no fireworks???’ That’s okay. Your baby is out in the world and you made it happen.”

For the finale to this What to Expect post, Jennifer Nielsen, author of THE SHADOW THRONE trilogy (Scholastic Press, 2012), brilliantly sums up the debut experience with a healthy mix of optimism and realism.

“Keep your expectations in scale. Some debut books are breakout hits (Divergent, for example), but most aren’t. For most debut books, the Amazon rank won’t skyrocket upon release, or if it does, it’ll slowly fall to a more average number. Most don’t hit the bestseller lists or take home the big awards. Most debut books won’t
garner requests to speak at conferences, or even at schools outside of your home area (if that). And I sometimes think we believe that if our debut doesn’t do all of that, that it’s a sign we’ll forever be mid list, or that we’ll never be “big.”
“It’s just not true. Don’t let yourself become discouraged. These things only mean that it’s your debut book and
it takes a long time for word to get out about an author, even if the publisher is doing mad publicity for you, and even if all the reviews are glowing. The fact that you are finally a published author is HUGE and amazing and wonderful, but don’t be distressed if the world continues revolving as usual on your release day. You might find your book on an end cap at B&N, or not. Don’t worry if half your family doesn’t get around to reading it for a while, or if your kids’ school doesn’t ask to host your launch party for the whole school to attend.
“The #1 best thing you can do for your first book is to write and sell your second. Every book raises your profile,
which is particularly important with young readers because once they find a book they love, they go on a search to see what else that author has written. Do everything you can to get the word out pre-release, but put your best attention on your next project.
“Everyone has to start somewhere. Publishing is like climbing a mountain. There’s no single trail to the summit, and always a higher summit waiting once you reach the one you were aiming for. The only thing that matters is you keep climbing, and with each book, you will. Let go of any worries about where you are on the mountain – because we’re all just climbing too – and just enjoy the climb, as every author should.”
Many thanks to Natalie Dias Lorenzi for sharing her favorite teacher and librarian blogs below:

K-5 Librarian:

3rd Grade Teacher:

Elementary School Librarian:

Public Librarian (who is now a stay-at-home mom as of a few months ago):

Children’s school librarian:

Mother/Daughter Book Club:

Public Librarians for YA:

Youth services librarian:

Two teachers:

* Former teacher, current coordinator of instructional technology:

* Two teachers of reading (high school):

* These last two blogs co-host a meme called “It’s Monday–what are you reading?” that draws in lots of librarians and teachers, so check out their links each Monday and read the comments.

Note: This post originally appeared on on 4/3/2014.