Organizing a Mountain of Research

Final fact-checking for King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara

One of my favorite things about writing nonfiction is research—part scavenger hunt and part archaeological dig into the past. But what’s the best way to organize the resulting mountain of research? It’s a question that always pops up in forums and writers’ groups. The truth is, there is no single right system. Much depends on the topic, the volume and type of materials, and most importantly, each person’s individual style.

Early in my writing career, I flailed my way through index cards, spiral notebooks, file boxes, endless manilla folders. The problem was that, when I needed to find a detail, fact, or quote, it was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. So I pursued a more streamlined process—one that allowed easy access for my immersive writing style and comprehensive research style in a low-tech way. When it comes to my work, I want to be able to find what I’m looking for immediately. For some writers, software programs like Scrivener or Evernote are perfect tools for that goal and their own styles. For others, the spiral notebooks and index cards that make me a little dizzy, are ideal. To each her own! I experimented widely until I settled on a system that works for me. No doubt, my process will evolve over time, but here’s my current 4-step system:

#1—Research like the dickens—beyond the obvious sources

#2—Create digital file folders for thoughtfully-labeled, easily-sharable, digitized or scanned documents, interview transcriptions, etc.

#3—D-ring binders—the perfect adjustable container.
* If the book is topical, I organize the binder by related sub-topics.
* If the book is historical or biography, I organize chronologically, with necessary sub-topic categories, too.
* I print the most reliable sources for the binder.

#4 Create a Book Bible—
* Open a Word document and turn on Navigation Pane or Document Map (usually under the Sidebar option)
* Create category headings using a heading style, which automatically triggers the navigable sidebar, like a table of contents. Clicking on one of the headings jumps the cursor to that section of the document. No more scrolling. Nifty, huh?
* Extract relevant quotes, details, information from the binder sources, books, and interviews, and type them under the appropriate headings, with citations. (Most often, a single source, like a book or newspaper article, has information that fits under multiple categories. For example, a single eyewitness account for King of the Tightrope can include rope information, Blondin’s background, Niagara details, and Blondin’s costume—all of which can be extracted for different category headings. This is especially important when there are conflicting details across sources. It’s much easier to scrutinize disparities when the accounts are in one place.

Creating a book bible is tedious and time-consuming, and the process makes me grouchy. But once completed, I feel empowered and confident. A single book bible (usually 50-100 pages for a picture book) contains the most relevant and important information for my book project in one Word document. When does it come in handy? When it’s time to craft a bibliography; when I need to share a source with my editor; when I’m knee-deep in revision or rewrites and need to quickly find information; if anyone questions the content in my nonfiction narratives. And just imagine how ready I’ll be if Hollywood comes knocking, or if an opportunity related to one of my books arises in the future, when the research is no longer fresh in my memory.

Could I write a nonfiction picture book without researching as deeply and as widely as I do? Probably. Could I wrangle the research without going the extra mile with my binders and my book bibles? Sure, but it would feel like wearing ill-fitting shoes. I know myself and my immersive writing and research style enough to know that condensing and containing information is what I need.

Writer friends, you do you. Whatever your style, however you roll, allow yourself time to flail around until you find what works best for your unique comfort level. In the meantime, I hope you’ll share your own suggestions in the comments.

Happy researching!

Above: Book bibles for Step Right Up (92-page document), Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (54-page document), and King of the Tightrope (49-page document)
Below: A Sample page from my King of the Tightrope book bible, with partial sidebar visible



Picture book biographies—My most-viewed posts

We’re working to re-establish the blog archives and categories that got tangled up in the recent website import. For now, if you’re looking for past posts about nonfiction picture books or picture book biography (or ies), simply type those terms into the blog search box. You can also find the most-viewed posts below.

*DISCLAIMER: These posts were written in 2010 and 2011, as I was teaching myself how to write picture book biographies by dissecting other books. Since then, picture book biographies have evolved and I have evolved as a writer. When my imaginary household staff, interns, and assistants catch up on the backlog of responsibilities, I hope to return to the topics with a more recent perspective. Til then, enjoy!

NEW! Listen to The Porchlight Podcast where author Cynthia Levinson and I discuss the challenges of writing nonfiction picture books.

Nonfiction Picture Books- the power of THEME

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Nonfiction Picture Books – Language and Tone

Picture Book Biographies with First Person Point of View

Nonfiction Picture Books – The Power of Illustrations

Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Truth Inspired – How Story Dictates Itself

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Waiting for the “NOW”. When it’s time to start Writing

Stealing, Tweaking, Voice

Alternating POV and Alternating Tense in Nonfiction Picture Books

Dramatic Point of Vew in Historical Fiction Picture Books

To Nonfiction or Historical Fiction. That is the Question

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Research- The Scavenger Hunt of Writers

Do nonfiction picture books always have a story arc?

Research Resources- Start Growing your Cyber Library

From Befuddled to Eureka- Clarifying my narrator’s lens-P.B. Biography

Revising like a Sculptor


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

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

I’m Teaching a NF Picture Book Class! Join Me!

Children’s nonfiction is increasingly popular these days, especially in the picture book form. Yet, it’s difficult to find relevant instruction in writing books, workshops, or classes. With ever-changing styles and creative approaches, it is important to seek out up-to-date expertise on the subject.

I’m thrilled to be teaching a six-week class about nonfiction picture books and picture book biographies at The Writing Barn in Austin this summer. In addition to authoring the recently-released (and, thankfully, acclaimed) STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM KEY TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS (Lee and Low, 2016), and the forthcoming ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS (Peachtree, 2018), and KING OF THE TIGHTROPE (Peachtree, 2019), I completed my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I researched the heck out of picture book biographies for my in-depth, fifty-two-page critical thesis. See, I am smitten!  Oh, did I mention that I’ve also written books for the education market? Or that I have other p.b. bios. and nonfiction p.b.s in various stages of revision and submission?

Enough about me.

I am planning our class syllabus around a primary goal: to lead you to creative breakthroughs about your own current and future nonfiction projects. We will do this by analyzing published nonfiction picture books as mentor texts. During class times, we will explore decisions about:

Choosing a viable topic
Narrative vs. expository styles
Scope & Angle—finding the kid-friendly story
Intended audience (length and sentence complexity are a clue)
Word count and page length
Structure—linear and nonlinear options
Creative options in nonfiction and how they affect the nonfiction classification
Word choice / Tone
How to leave room for the illustrator
Research (where to start, when to stop, how to organize)
Back matter
I will share relevant process information about my own books, too.

Students will:

  • Revise current projects and begin new projects
  • Receive feedback me and fellow student
  • Join in collaborative discussions with classmates (in class and on a private Facebook page)
  • Read many nonfiction picture books—assigned and student choice–with an analytical eye
  • Maintain an informal bibliography with low-stress annotations.
  • Have fun, be inspired, and develop priceless friendships with fellow writers

Class begins June 11, 2017. Last class is July 30, 2017.
We skip June 18 (Father’s Day) and July 2 (for July 4th travelers).

Learn more about the class and how to register here.

Contact me with questions here

Happy Birthday to Birthdayographies! Interview with Anne Bustard

December 1- Happy Birthday to Birthdayographies!

Psst…please ignore the wacky formatting of this post. Try as I may, I can’t seem to fix it.)  Wow, how time flies! Today, December 1st, marks the anniversary, er,
birthday, of my blog, Birthdayographies. It’s been quite a year! In the past
twelve months, I have added almost two hundred birthdays with respective
picture book titles, bringing the posted or scheduled number to 540.
Whew! Search functionality continues to evolve and improve, and the site
is growing into a substantial tool for teachers, librarians, students,
and writers. Birthdayographies is a work-in-progress squeezed into small
patches of available time-pretty much like any writing project. I am
immensely proud of the growth and the response from followers. There
have been flubs and missteps, of course, and, very soon, the blog will
transfer to a new blog platform to accommodate the volume and growing
need for flexibility.Now, with a year under my belt, I can’t think of a better way to
celebrate this first milestone than by inviting Anne Bustard to the
Birthdayographies party. You may recall that Anne was the originator of
the biography/birthday blog idea. How
lucky for me that, in 2013, she offered me the treasures of her blog,
Anneographies. It was great for her, as her novel-writing blossomed. And
great for me because I already had a spiral jam-packed with a list of
p.b. biographies I read and studied. You can read my first Birthdayographies welcome post from December 1, 2013.

Anne Bustard is the author of the award-winning picture
book biography Buddy: The Story of Buddy
(Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster BFYR). Her debut middle
grade historical novel Anywhere But
(Egmont USA), set in 1960 Hawaii, will be released in 2015.
in Honolulu, Anne moved to Austin, Texas, to attend college, and stayed.
And, Anne happens to be one of the nicest people on the planet.
Donna:  Hiya, Anne! Welcome to the Birthdayographies party! Without you, there wouldn’t be a Birthdayographies.
Anne:   Happy First
Birthday, Birthdayographies! Thanks for inviting me to visit today! And thank
you, for championing this genre!
Donna:   Anne, in 2005, you launched your blog, Anneographies, featuring picture
book biographies by subject’s birthday. What inspired this very original
Anne:   The idea
for Anneographies sprang from my love of picture book biographies. I wanted to
find a way to celebrate and share them every day, or at least, as many days of
the year as possible.

As a
former children’s only bookseller and then educator of pre-service teachers, highlighting
new and backlist titles was important. But how? What format might resonate with
potential visitors and me?


Well, I’m
a calendar person. Word-a-day calendars, this-day-in-history calendars,
websites that offer this-day facts—I’m in! So, it won’t surprise you to know
that I keep a calendar dedicated to birthdays. Birthdays! That was it—the
common denominator. And so the blog was born.
Donna:   Anneographies featured approximately 350 picture book biographies. How
did you come up with so many titles to include? Who was your intended
Anne:   Over
the past fifteen-plus years, picture book biographies as well as collective
biographies have flourished. I did my best to include as many as I could. I delighted
in regular visits to libraries and bookstores. For me, it was a wonderful treasure
hunt—with finds at every turn.

As to
the audience, I imagined educators, librarians and parents using the blog as a

Donna:  Why
do you think picture book biographies are an important genre?
Anne:   Quite
simply, these thirty-two to forty-eight page wonders of text and illustrations
inspire and illuminate. Each one shines a spotlight on a life that has changed
the world—a life that required some combination of sacrifice, struggle,
determination, discouragement, hope, insight and achievement. Picture book biographies
show readers what’s possible—which is just about anything.



often, they honor a person from the past, and in doing so, enrich young readers
understanding of history. They invite readers to see the world from someone
else’s perspective. And as natural springboards for further inquiry, they can
lead readers to other books and resources.  Like
all good literature, picture book biographies touch readers’ hearts and minds.
Donna:  What do you find are the biggest challenges to writing picture book biographies?



Anne:  I’ve
only written one, so I’m certainly not an expert here. But I will say that
commitment is critical. I have researched other possible subjects, but
eventually I stopped. I wasn’t invested enough to see their stories through. I
wasn’t passionate enough. I wasn’t in love.



down primary resources and verifying facts to the nth degree is a formidable
challenge. On the other hand, uncovering a particularly elusive piece of
information or making a surprising discovery is incredibly sweet.



Did I
mention the writing? Drafting and revising umpteen times until each word sings
is daunting. But possible!
Donna:  When your own focus turned to fiction, you very kindly offered the
Anneographies content to your most picture-book-biography-obsessed writer
friend. Me! I am still very honored. It has now been twelve months since the
Anneographies content was transferred to Birthdayographies. The list of
featured titles has grown to 540, with no end in sight. As the grande dame of
the birthday/biography idea, how does it feel to watch your brainchild evolve on Birthdayographies?
Anne:   Wow!
540 titles! That’s fantastic! You’ve definitely taken the blog to another
level. Congratulations on your amazingly strong year. You deserve all the
birthday cake you can eat. I particularly love your inclusion of books from
educational publishers. They are a brilliant addition.
Donna:   Okay, time to fill us in on what you’ve been up to since the
Anneographies-Birthdayography switch on December 1, 2013. What have you been
working on? Is there any news you’d like to share? How can readers find you?
Anne:   A few days after the switch, I learned a book contract for
my debut middle grade historical novel was in the works! I was, and still am,
beyond thrilled! I’ve spent the last year double-triple checking historical
facts and revising. Anywhere But Paradise
will be published on April 14, 2015.



Readers can visit me anytime at

Many thanks to Anne for joining us on Birthdayographies. Stay
tuned, dear readers, for more books, more birthdays, and more ways to
share the wonder of picture book biographies. As always, if you have
suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. And, if you find
Birthdayographies helpful, I hope you’ll share it with teachers,
students, librarians, and writer friends.

Thank you for your support!

Twenty Memorable Nonfiction Titles from 2012

2012 is coming to a close and, as I skim through the list of nonfiction and historical fiction picture books I’ve read and studied this year, a handful of new releases stand out as memorable, for various individual reasons.  Of course, there are oodles of outstanding middle grade nonfiction books out this year, too, but I’ve chosen to narrow this particular list to the picture book form only.

Without futher ado, here are the standouts from my personal readings of 2012 releases:
(Note, they are in alphabetical order by publisher because that’s the way I record them in my reading log-more on that later.)

 MINETTE’S FEAST; THE DELLICIOUS STORY OF JULIA CHILD AND HER CAT by Susanna Reich. Illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams, 2012)

BILL THE BOY WONDER: THE SECRET CO-CREATOR OF BATMAN by Marc Tyler Nobleman. Illustrated by Ty Templeton (Charlesbridge 2012)

BAMBINO AND MR. TWAIN by P.I. Maltbie. Illustrated by Daniel Miyares (Charlesbridge, 2012)

EMILY AND CARLO by Marty Rhodes Figley. Illustrated by Catherine Stock (Charlesbridge, 2012)

BROTHERS AT BAT: THE TRUE STORY OF AN AMAZING ALL-BROTHER BASEBALL TEAM by Audrey Vernick. Illustrated by Steven Salerno (Clarion, 2012)

THE CAMPING TRIP THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Barb Rosenstock. Illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein (Dial, 2012)

ELECTRIC BEN: THE AMAZING LIFE AND TIMES OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN written and illustrated by Robert Byrd (Dial, 2012)

THE FANTASTIC JUNGLES OF HENRI ROUSSEAU by Michelle Markel. Illustrated by Amanda Hall (Eerdman’s, 2012)


NOAH WEBSTER AND HIS WORDS  by Jeri Chase Ferris. Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

JUST BEHAVE, PABLO PICASSO by Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Arthur Levine Books, 2012)

IT JES’ HAPPENED: WHEN BILL TRAYLOR STARTED TO DRAW by Don Tate. Illustrated by Gregory Christie (Lee & Low, 2012)

ISLAND: A STORY OF THE GALAPAGOS written and illustrated by Jason Chin (Roaring Brook, 2012)

MONSIEUR MARCEAU by Leda Schubert. Illustrated by Gerard DuBois  (Roaring Brook, 2012)

ANNIE AND HELEN by Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by Raul Colon (Schwartz & Wade, 2012

BON APPETIT! THE DELICIOUS LIFE OF JULIA CHILD  written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz & Wade, 2012)

A BOY CALLED DICKENS by Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by John Hendrix (Schwartz & Wade, 2012)


LOOKING AT LINCOLN written and illustrated by Maira Kalman. (Penguin (Nancy Paulsen) 2012)

TOUCH THE SKY: ALICE COACHMAN, OLYMPIC HIGH JUMPER by Ann Malaspina. Illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Albert Whitman, 2012)