June 24th, 2015
Today’s Blogstitute post comes from Kate Messner, who shares some of her adventures in doing real-life research for one of her books and shares some ideas for helping students branch out when they are doing research in the classroom. Kate is the author of several books for young readers, as well as the professional development books 59 Reasons to Write and Real Revision.
Running Down the Details
I travel a lot when I’m researching a new book. As much as possible, in fact—a habit that sometimes leads to conversations with my husband that begin with, “So why exactly do we need to go to Rome this summer?”
But depending on the research, it’s not always possible to visit every single site I’m including in a story. Here’s an example of how I track down the details when I can’t get there in person.
My Ranger in Time chapter book series with Scholastic features a search-and-rescue dog who goes back in time to various historical events to help people in danger. In the first book, Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail, Ranger is transported to a trading post in 1850 Independence, Missouri, and sets off on the Oregon Trail with a boy named Sam Abbott. Along the way, Sam’s family faces hardships that include everything from stampeding buffalo to cholera, and when they reach the milestone of Independence Rock in Wyoming, the children rush up to see the names inscribed on the rock by travelers who came before them.
In my first draft of this scene, I’d written this:
Even though Sarah is a fictional character, I wanted her to touch the names of real people who had traveled that long, dangerous road. I knew I’d have to do some research to find actual names that were inscribed on the rock.
I started with the heap of books I’d signed out of the library, many of which talked about Independence Rock, but few of which listed names. I didn’t have any luck coming up with names that were guaranteed to have been there in 1850.
Next I searched online, and while I came up with a good variety of photographs from Independence Rock, it was impossible to verify when the names had been inscribed and whether they would have been there in 1850 for Sarah to see.
I was pretty sure I’d struck gold when I came across a great work of nonfiction called In Tar and Paint and Stone: The Inscriptions at Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate (High Plains Press, 2001), written by Levida Hileman. This book not only describes the inscriptions but also lists all of the names that have been documented, with dates where available, and including the general location on the rock (southwest top, west, cave, etc.) where the inscription is located.
I started choosing names from the book, taking care to select those that predated Sarah’s July 1850 arrival. I decided she’d see J. A. Allred’s name . . . and Milo Ayer’s . . . and . . . oh, wait.
I figured out, in the midst of my happy name collection, that these names were scattered all over the rock—not close together where Sarah would be able to read them off of the stone in a single bit of dialogue. And even if I paid close attention to the locations listed in the book and chose only names that predated July 1850 and were located on the west side of the rock, I had no idea whether the inscriptions were anywhere near one another on the rock, or if they were written in a spot low enough for a child to see.
My first thought was to try to find the author of the book so I could ask about the specific locations of some of the names, but a quick search for Levida Hileman didn’t turn up any contact information.
Next I went to the Independence Rock Historic Site website at Wyoming State Parks. There was a phone number listed, so I called it. A park ranger named Patrick Sutton answered, and I explained—rather awkwardly, I suspect—who I was, what I was trying to find out, and why my book wasn’t helping.
“So I was just wondering if you know of any places on the rock where there are names written low enough for a child to see,” I told him.
Mr. Sutton told me there are plenty of names written fairly low on the walls—hundreds, probably—but he couldn’t say for sure what those names were or how long they’d been there.
“But I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got someone else who’d asked me to go out to the rock and take a photograph of a specific name. When I do that, I’ll take some photos for you, too.” He promised to find some of those low-enough-for-a-kid-to-touch names and e-mail me digital photos so that I could cross-check them with the reference book to find some that would have been there for Sarah in 1850.
Then he asked where I was from, and when I answered northern New York, he told me that he’d grown up just across Lake Champlain, in Addison, Vermont. It’s a small world, indeed. He fell in love with Wyoming and has been there more than thirty years now. He has a pile of grandchildren. And once this book comes out, I’ll be sending him a pile of copies to share with them.
Real-world research involves more than looking up details in the online encyclopedia, so don’t be afraid to branch out from the usual library- and computer-based student research. When your students have questions, do you ask them who might know the answers? There’s a good chance your local university or museum has experts who would be delighted to answer questions from your young writers. Encouraging them to have the courage to ask can yield wonderful results.