Friday, November 28, 2014

My Research Process and Using Primary Resources in Your Writing

My Research Process and Using Primary Resources in Your Writing

When it comes to writing narrative nonfiction, primary sources are like gold for a writer. Primary sources, “...are defined as the direct evidence of a time and place that you are studying – any material (documents, objects, etc.) that was produced by eyewitnesses to or participants in an event or historical moment under investigation.”  

Last year, while exploring picture book topics for PiBoIdMo, I came across a fairly random article that mentioned that Orville Wright had flown in a C-69 Constellation in 1944.  I knew he passed away in 1948, and this got me thinking about when Orville ‘stopped’ flying.  The idea of Orville’s ‘final’ flight intrigued me.  I knew all about his first flight, but I had no idea about his last.

I started researching voraciously.  I started, like I usually do with Google.   The pitfall with Google is that you can start on one topic and several hours later be lost in a rabbit hole of information.  When I begin researching, especially when using Google,  the first thing I do is open Easybib and start a new project.  

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Then, every single web page, article or video I watch or read of merit gets added to the bibliography.  It’s much easier to remove sources than to add them later. Easybib has an app that you can use to scan the barcode of any book source. It automatically adds the book to your project’s bibliography.  Best of all, Easybib is free!

The second thing I do is print out those sources I think I may want to dig into more carefully. I have found an outstanding tool that I use in the Chrome browser that makes printing from web pages pleasant.  It is called Print Friendly.  

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It gets rid of all the advertising and navigation and even has some very handy tools that can allow you to tweak the PDF to your liking.  These print outs then get put into my research file for each and every topic I begin exploring; you never know what might evolve out of your research.

I have a file box that I keep my writing projects in.  Each project has two folders.  The first is my ‘research file.’  Here is where I keep copies of web pages, articles from magazines, newspapers, etc.  The second file is where I keep drafts, story maps, diagrams, etc.  I print out each draft (and all the comments, additions, etc) as they are created.  

Next, I broaden my search to my public library.  A lot of times I get a preview of books that might be helpful using Google Books.  This gives me a title that I can then reserve from my public library. I used to think that if a book was not available at my library, I was out of luck.  I learned that just about any book can be found on Worldcat.  If a book is available on World Cat, there’s a very good chance that your library can arrange an interlibrary loan. It often takes more than a month to get the book, but if you have time, it is a very good way to get valuable resources for free.

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Next, I explore magazines and newspapers from the time of
the event.  If you have a library card, you probably have free access to a variety of databases.  I couldn’t believe the wealth of tools I could access through my library.  

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For Orville Wright, I learned about his specific ‘final flight’ on April 26, 1944,  and then started reading the national papers to see if there was any mention.  

At some point in my research, I stumbled upon a very weird nugget of information.  I saw that there was an obscure reference to a US Army Film that had the keywords:  Wright Field, C-69 and Constellation.  I printed out the reference not realizing exactly what I had found.  When I tried to dig a little deeper, I couldn’t find out any more.  I didn’t realize it, but the film was actually housed at the National Archives in the Washington, D.C. area.  I called and shared the file number and asked a helpful person there at the archives if the film was digitized and if so could I download it somewhere.  They told me that it was not digitized, and the only way I could ‘view’ it was to come to the archives.  

A few months later was my spring break and I was D.C. bound.  One of my best friends lives out that way, so we met up and then ventured to the capitol.  It was pretty amazing to enter the archives.  I had no idea what to expect, but security and the rules there were very tight.  You couldn’t bring any notebooks, pens, etc.  All writing tools and resources were provided to you inside the research areas.  You were, however,  allowed to bring phones, cameras, etc. to make your copies of the information.


After submitting a detailed request, we were given official researcher identification cards.  We then went up to the film desk on the fourth floor and made our request.  45 minutes later, we were ushered into a film screening room with our own editing bay.  We put on our white cotton gloves to handle the film can.  I was terrified of messing up the film so I asked the assistant to load it for me.  


Me with my white cotton gloves on ready to view the film.

                                               The editing bay where I got to see the film for the first time.

Soon, the editing bay screen came to life.  The silent film flickered and then there before me was a full account of the day.  Orville touring the great plane, inspecting it, climbing up the ladder, taking off and then coming in for a landing.  The whole event captured in one short film.  And as quickly as it started, it was over.  Weeks of planning and organizing my schedule and that was it.  Well, not actually.  I rewound it and watched it several more times.  The final time, I set up my tripod and made a copy of the film.  The archives staff assured me this was okay.  There were no copyrights on the film; it was public domain.  Here is that film for your viewing pleasure for the first time online.

Orville Wright's Final Flight from Todd Burleson on Vimeo.

C69 Archival Footage Small from Todd Burleson on Vimeo.

Now, because we were in D.C. we had to go to the Smithsonian.  There we viewed the extensive Wright Brothers resources including the actual Wright Flyer.

The original Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

On my way home, I drove to Dayton, Ohio.  While there, I visited Wright State University and was able to view and make copies of several documents that pertained to my story.  I visited Carillon Park, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and several Wright Brothers exhibits and displays.
Wright Brothers Stainless Steel Monument at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

Model of the Wright Flyer suspended from the ceiling of Wright State University.

One of the coolest and most subtle Wright Brothers monuments at Carillon Park in Dayton.

The Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop at Carillon Park.

The Wright Family Grave Plot.

 I took loads of photographs and bought way too many books, posters and models.   Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to bring all of these as resources on school visits!  

My final stop was the main Dayton Public Library.  I needed to get a copy of the original article that journaled the flight that took place on April 26, 1944.  The Dayton Daily News was not part of the database that my library had access to.  I got to use a good old fashioned microfiche machine.  The particular pages that I wanted to copy did not copy well on the microfiche, so I asked to see the original bound edition of the newspaper.  After a little grumbling by one of the assistants, they went into the bowels of the library to dig it out.  A little while later, there in front of me was the yellowed Dayton news from that very day.  It was interesting to not only read about my topic, but also the news and events from around the world that were featured in the paper.


Let me leave you with five tips to make your research process as effective as possible.  

  1. Document EVERYTHING!  Sign up for and use Easybib or other bibliography generating tool.  
  2. Allow yourself to ‘wander’ through the fog of the internet.  I discovered the archive footage note about twenty-seven pages in on a google search; I usually give up on about page three.
  3. Don’t be afraid to go to the original source: for me that was Dayton, Ohio and the many research institutions that exist there.  These people are generally the only people in the world who are as excited about your topic as you are!
  4. Even if you live far away from the source, use your local library.  Ask your librarians to help you reserve resources using Worldcat.  It is totally free and incredibly useful!
  5. The National Archives are yours!  Go visit them!

"What is a Primary Source? - Primary Source." 2009. 27 Nov. 2014 <>

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lynne Avril, Illustrator Extraordinaire: The Illustrator's Side of the Process by Kathy Halsey

Make friends with illustrators, picture book writers. OK, yes, I tracked illustrator Lynne Avril down at Changing Hands Bookstore.  BUT, when you find the illustrator of over 80 books, including the new Amelia Bedelia series doing story time on a Saturday, what would YOU do? 
Kathy, Lynne and a spontaneous Lily McBloom in background
We chatted over lattes and shared mutual experiences. Authors and illustrators have LOTS in common, and Lynne graciously let us in on the illustrator's side of the picture book process. I hope you learn as much as I did from her thoughtful answers! 

KH: Can you explain how you begin to tackle the art for a manuscript?

LA: First, I want to say how awed I am by the writers I work with, and the wonderful stories they give me to work with. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do, than illustrate these creative works of imagination.

The ideas start flowing with the first read of the manuscript. The author’s words create the scene in my imagination, and I go from there to bring it into “reality”. Because what I create is truly a reality for me. Sometimes, and I’m sure I share this experience with authors, I come out of “the zone” and hours have passed, and I feel like I’ve been somewhere else – in whatever storyland I’m working on at the moment!

There are so many things to think about at first. It is a lot like directing a movie, where a book is turned into film. There are characters to create (casting), background scenes to create (on location, props etc), clothes to design (costume department), and especially and most importantly, the ACTING, as you feel and describe the emotions of the characters.

You don’t want all your books to look the same, in fact it’s impossible, as each story is special, and each has a feeling that comes with the first reading from the impressions you pick up of the author’s style. So you may choose from a variety of techniques – maybe watercolor, gouache, pastel, outline, no outline. Even if you work digitally, there are many choices. You may approach the story realistically or whimsically. The colors may be wildly glorious, or darkly somber. But it all has to come together to tell the story.

To make a long story short, then come piles and piles of sketches, overviews and corrections by the editor and art director (and sometimes the author if he/she has clout), and then on to the final artwork – all this takes months and months. And after that, a LONG year until the book is printed, bound, and released. Lots of work!

KH: What suggestions do you have for writers in making sure we leave ample room for illustrators and their magic?

LA: Well, if you are a picture book writer, you already know the mantra, “less is more”. That is not only good for your writing, but gives us illustrators something to add! A picture book is known as a marriage between words and pictures. Each side adds a dimension to the story.

KH: Many writers I know debate about adding illustration notes in their work. Your opinion, please…

LA: There are instances where I receive certain short notes from the author in the manuscript, which can be very helpful. But if you have written a strong story, and you have a good illustrator on board, your work is done. Sit back and hand over the reins. You are the word person, and the illustrator is the visual person. You may be pleasantly surprised!

KH: You’ve illustrated scores of picture books, including the Nellie Sue “Every Cowgirl” series by Rebecca Janni, the new Amelia Bedelia picture books, I Can Read books & chapter books. Is your approach to picture books different than early chapter books? Do you have less work in telling the story in a chapter book?

LA: Believe it or not, the Amelia Bedelia chapter books are as much work, or more, than the picture books. The picture books are 32 pages, and the chapter books are about 140 pages with multiple pictures on each page (more in mine than the normal chapter books!). The art is in black and white, and ranges from spots to full scenes.  I do them in black line, and paint them with ink washes. There is so much to do – so many details to figure out, like the floor plan of the house, the decoration of a room, the furniture, street scenes with architecture. The chapter books I did several years ago for Random House (Starvation Lake) had one scene per chapter, and that was a piece of cake. But I love these, with all the art – the books have a LOT of energy!

KH: I love your newest books, I’M GONNA CLIMB A MOUNTAIN IN MY PATENT LEATHER SHOES and UNDERPANTS DANCE. Does the tone of the story play a part in which medium you choose for illustration?

LA: Yes, I use different mediums for different stories. Amelia Bedelia is painted in gouache with black pencil outline.  UNDERPANTS DANCE was also done in gouache, but outlined with my favorite ink pen, which has a very fluid and thin line, to express her movement. I wanted to show a lot of white spaced in that book. CLIMB A MOUNTAIN is actually done in chalk pastel, rubbed into the paper, and mixed with matte medium, because I was more interested in double page spreads with full bleed and large areas of color and texture.

KH: You really engaged the kids at your presentation the Saturday we met. How does a writer/illustrator make that happen?

LA: Well, I think they always like to watch somebody draw – I know I do! It’s almost like a magic show. And most kids at that age still like to draw too. It’s kind of sad when that disappears in most people. And if you, as a writer or illustrator, are excited about what you do, the kids catch on to that and respond enthusiastically!

KH: We discussed deadlines and edits for illustrators and authors. I don’t think we writers maybe appreciate what all goes on from the artist’s perspective. Can you enlighten us?

LA: My art director, Sylvie LeFloch, at Greenwillow (Amelia Bedelia books) is a GREAT partner! She is often my second set of eyes, and much like an editor is to a writer. We have great teamwork and do everything we have to do to get the work done on time. And I have never been late for a deadline. It can get pretty intense, but I thrive on that.

KH: How do feed your creative side? I know you travel yearly to Paris and play bass in a blues band.

LA: Travelling to Paris is very important to me, to recharge my artistic energy. I find when I’m there, I can’t stop drawing. I’ll work all day, and then I go out to relax, and I’ll find myself at a sidewalk restaurant, with my sketchbook out, DRAWING. There is so much culture there – all kinds of art expositions, beautiful architecture, bookstores everywhere. As far as the music, living and working alone is very important to me, but I need to get out and be with friends too. Music is very energizing and healing.

I was thrilled to meet Lynne and hope you have a better idea of how a master illustrator works! THANK YOU, Lynne!!!! Now go out there and climb a mountain in your patent leather shoes!