Blogstitute: Running Down the Details

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

59-reasons-to-writeI 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:

textEven 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.

rangerI 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.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute,Writing

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michelle  |  June 24th, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Kate, love this example of digging deep for important information to add to the accuracy of your book. Sure a detail that may be overlooked, but you clearly expressed the importance of details! I think this would serve as a great example to share with students as well! Thank you for your insights!

  • 2. Teresa  |  June 24th, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Your example is a nice way to show students that details are important. You needed to ensure the names were in the correct place and from the right time. Sometimes students include details but not necessarily the best ones. They need to know it is important to be accurate. They also need to know that the research process may involve more than looking at only one or two sources.

  • 3. Kelly Mogk  |  June 25th, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your process! It helps me, as a teacher and a writer, to remember to take chances and be bold enough to ask for the help you need.
    Last year, during research on famous Texans, a student of mine emailed an astronaut and interviewed her as a part of her research. Her final project was amazing because she took that step, but more importantly, that experience will stay with her for a long time to come!
    I need to be better about helping students create those types of experiences for themselves.

  • 4. Julie Clay  |  June 25th, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    My students heavily rely on the Internet for information, and I agree that students should be advised to look to other sources. During our WWII unit, we discuss the difference between primary and secondary sources. I try to emphasize how valuable primary sources are and that they can share personal details not found online. Your post reminds us of the importance of not just settling for the first source of information we come across. Thanks for inside look at the detail-oriented writing process!

  • 5. Sarah  |  June 25th, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Kate, I am definitely looking forward to reading your book and participating in your Teacherswrite Twitter Chat. I love the emphasis on teachers writing to better understand the process and therefore better instruct students. I have dabbled in this practice, modeling writing and revision onshort portions of first drafts. I need to be better at completing the whole process and providing these examples for students.

  • 6. Lisa C  |  June 27th, 2015 at 5:52 am

    Wow! That’s quite a process. As a reader I appreciate the attention to detail. I’m bookmarking this to share with students.

  • 7. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 30th, 2015 at 6:34 am

    A great reminder about the importance of historical accuracy. It may seem like such a minor detail, but we need to be aware of how many of our youngest learners hooked into history through books like the Magic Tree House Series and now Ranger In Time. Can’t wait to add this series to my classroom library.

  • 8. Cheryl  |  July 1st, 2015 at 9:50 am

    I appreciate the specific attention to detail. As a reader I assume that what you are telling me is accurate, but your post reminds me of how much responsibility falls on the writer to do just that. Thanks for helping me think about just how much effort has to happen from the writing side so that a reader can trust what is written!

  • 9. Joanne Bell  |  July 2nd, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    The details made your book really come alive. Thank you for putting forth the effort to make truly great books for children to read. With the emphasis now on primary sources, details are important.

  • 10. Elisa Waingort  |  July 4th, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Loved this post! I am going to save it to read it to my students when we are working on non-fiction. It beautifully illustrates the rungs on the research ladder that one needs to climb in order to get answers to important questions. Your description of the conversation with the park ranger brought tears to my eyes. There are so many ways we can get information now. It is a disservice to our students to always send them to Google. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  • 11. Diane Anderson  |  July 5th, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    It was interesting to read about the process, and it added to my enjoyment in reading the book.

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