Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Original research for picture books

Before Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, few of the books I’d written involved original research. And while I was writing Boys of Steel, I don’t think I stopped to think about the fact that I was doing original research. Now I find myself choosing projects because they’d require original research. It’s a good kind of addictive.

By “original research,” I mean digging up previously unpublished information, typically by looking in places no one else has before.

It takes longer. It often leads to more dead ends (how can you be certain you’ll find something useable in any given direction if you’re the first to check?). But it’s also more fulfilling, and not only for the writer.

Just because a subject has never been the focus of its own book before doesn’t mean the research for that book is original. (The reverse, of course, is also true.)

For example, my 2012 book on Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator of Batman, is the first book to focus on Bill, but not because no one before me could find enough material on him. I could’ve written it using only published books such as Batman: The Complete History by Les Daniels (who passed away 11/5/11) as my source material. But that wouldn’t have told the whole (to the extent that’s possible) story. It certainly wouldn’t have told some of the most interesting parts of the story.

While I did refer to Daniels’s book, among others, I also interviewed dozens of people who had not been interviewed about Bill before and tracked down documents no other writer had referred to before.

I don’t know how recently authors of nonfiction picture books began doing original research but this development has gotten some attention lately in the publishing media. The fact that it’s a topic at all is a symptom of the myth that books for young people are (a) not “real” books, (b) easier to write than adult books, and (c) simplistic in both subject and prose. (Can you imagine seeing an article focusing on how the author of a biography for adults did original research?)

In creating nonfiction (or fiction, for that matter), I feel original research is as critical as original writing. It’s not enough to have a good story. We should strive for a good story that is also a fresh story. Adding to the record gives meaning and lends permanence.

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