Suzanne is the award-winning author of over 100 books! Her picture book biographies are mainstays in schools and libraries. Her newest is DANGEROUS JANE, a lovely and lyrical look at Jane Addams, who devoted her life to social reform and helping the poorest in society. She was co-founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the US, and won a Noble Peace Prize in 1931.
Suzanne began writing this book in prose form in May 2013. Her files are filled with 82 revisions of that early piece, titled "Unstoppable Jane." She then decided to change the main theme to "dangerous," and created 18 different versions of DANGEROUS JANE. In August 2014 (after 15 months of revisions), she decided to try the story in free verse. After 26 more revisions in free verse, it found a publishing home at Peachtree Books. Now THAT'S dedication to a project!
I love picture book biographies, and I fancy writing one some day. But I admit that I am completely intimidated by the research! Well, since we have an expert in our midst today, let's pose a few questions to Suzanne:
Q: Hi, Suzanne! Thanks for stopping by! My first question is, what inspired you to write about Jane Addams?
So I decided I needed to share her tumultuous, true story with young readers -- how Jane went from being a beloved humanitarian, to the FBI's "Most Dangerous Woman in America," to the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I hope her fascinating story inspires a new generation to be kind to all people, regardless of their backgrounds, and to never stop striving for peace.
Q: As a nonfiction writer, how do you organize your research? Do you use a program like Scrivener? Or do you use notecards or binders?
S: My organization "system" is rather old school. It consists of three items for each book:
- Email folder - This contains all the email correspondence with experts/historians, permissions to use photos/artwork, etc.
- Paper folder - I fill this with hand-written notes from telephone interviews, brochures or papers from museums, photocopies of research materials, and various story drafts.
- Source doc - This is a lengthy, ever-growing computer document I'm continually updating which contains website links (below each link I copy significant paragraphs from that site), book sources (below each book title I note page numbers with specific facts found on each page), links to online books I couldn't get in hard copy from library, and a list of sources where I found pertinent quotes. This document also has a photo sources list, along with a small copy of each photo for reference. Since Sources docs often become rather long and unwieldy, I bold the facts that end up in the story so I know exactly where I found each one. The length and size of Sources docs for different projects varies greatly. The last story I wrote had a 14-page Sources doc. Another for a space project was 35 pages and had so many hi-res photos that the file was too large to email!
|Suzanne's DANGEROUS JANE folder contains a brochure |
from her Hull House visit, hand written notes from that visit,
copies of 1917 newspaper articles, a 'book dummy',
various story drafts, and more.
Q: At what point in your research do you conduct interviews?
S: I generally do interviews after I've finished a fair amount of research and have a completed rough draft. That way, I'm asking somewhat educated questions and will hopefully gather the facts and details really needed for the story. Of course, I also note extra information the expert may expound upon so I have that background info. But I don't want to waste the expert's time, so I try to think of all the questions I may need answered before we talk. For DANGEROUS JANE, I interviewed several Hull House staff, and conducted email interviews with Jane Addams experts from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, the Cedarville Historical Society, and a few notable historical authors, and others.
Now if the subject of my story idea is alive, I will try to contact him or her earlier in the draft process -- after creating a story outline, but before writing a complete first draft. For example, when I proposed a leveled reader project to one publisher about Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon, I knew we'd want to include photos of his artwork (he now paints moon scenes). So I contacted astronaut Bean early on to see if he'd be willing to participate in the project. Fortunately, he said yes, and I had the privilege of chatting with one of the twelve brave explorers who has walked on the moon. Definitely an out-of-the-world experience for me!
Q: You juggle so many different projects, sometimes releasing multiple books a year. How do you do it all? One book at a time, or multiple projects? (And do you ever sleep?!)
S: If things are going well, I'm generally juggling several books which have been acquired and are at various stages in the publishing process. (I have six books-in-the-works right now with five publishers.) I only work on one or two brand new stories at a time. Meaning, I may have one I'm fine-tweaking and/or submitting and another that's in the earlier researching/writing phase.
Before I begin a new story, I make sure I have at least two weeks without author events or any other interruptions, so that I can really get into the research and writing, and stay immersed until I have a full rough draft. As an aside, it's a scary sight when I'm wrestling down a first draft of a story. I pace around my house with uncombed hair, talking out loud, and asking myself questions. I hand write my first drafts, so handwritten pages with scribbly sentences and huge crossed-out sections are strewn everywhere, along with thick books filled with hundreds of sticky notes.
I usually get a fair amount of sleep. I do lose sleep, though, when a story is not quite working and I can't figure out why. I keep a pad of paper and pen by my bed because sometimes I suddenly wake up with an idea to "fix" a story. Actually, some of my best ideas strike in the middle of the night. I also don't sleep particularly well before a school visit. But that's okay because the night after a visit, I sleep like a log!
Q: How much backmatter is the right amount? What do you think of sidebars? Do they distract from the telling of a story?
S: This is a tough question because the amount of backmatter depends on several things: the topic of the story, the amount of information covered in the main text, the personal preferences of the editor and publisher, and the length of the book (number of pages). For DANGEROUS JANE's backmatter, we included a great quote by Jane, two outstanding photos of Jane doing what she did best (caring for children and fighting for peace), an Author's Note with more details about her peace work, a Timeline, Selected Bibliography, Sources for quotes, and Acknowledgments of those who graciously helped with the research.
|Backmatter from DANGEROUS JANE|
Sometimes the amount of backmatter isn't decided until the book designer lays out the book to see what fits. Even then, things can change. For example, my book THE INVENTOR'S SECRET was originally slated for 40 pages (I think), then was bumped out to 48 pages so it would have 9 (yes, NINE!) pages of backmatter. There was so much cool science content in the story that we knew curious readers would enjoy -- like early car models, inventions, patents, etc. -- that we ended up sharing more than we originally planned.
As far as what backmatter to include in a story submission, I suggest a writer simply provide the content he or she thinks is extremely interesting and pertinent to the main topic(s) of the story, knowing that the publisher may or may not decide to include it all in the book.
Regarding sidebars, personally I'm not a big fan of sidebars in a picture book. But for some topics and layout styles, they work extremely well. Again, it depends on the topic and vision of the publisher. If an author thinks that sidebars would be great with a story, there's no harm in including them. Then just see what the publisher thinks of them and edit accordingly.
Q: Do you share your research with the illustrator? Or does the illustrator do his or her own research?
S: I always email my Sources doc to the editor after acquisition so he or she has the option of sharing it with the illustrator. So far, every editor has forwarded my sources to the illustrator. I also ask the editor to let the illustrator know I'm happy to answer any questions as best I can.
|Illustration of the interior of Hull House with period details|
in clothing, home decorations, etc.
Of course, illustrators do their own research to learn about settings, buildings, clothing, and hair styles, etc., but at least my notes give them a list of reliable sources (and experts) to start with, which hopefully saves them time. Alice Ratterree, who illustrated DANGEROUS JANE, did a great deal of her own research, which really shows in her gorgeously detailed and accurate illustrations.
Wow, Suzanne! Thank you so much for shedding light on the research process, as well as tips on writing and organizing a picture book biography.
And now, readers, I have a special treat!
It's time for a
For your chance to win a copy of DANGEROUS JANE, please comment below and tell us the best way to reach you.
To find out more about Suzanne Slade, visit her website.