Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Five Things I Learned
Writing My First Picture Book Biography

You would think that being friends with Tanya Lee Stone would mean I wrote lots of non­fic­tion. But the truth is, until I decid­ed to try and write a biog­ra­phy of Rube Gold­berg, I stayed far away from this genre. As a read­er, I loved it. As a friend, I learned so much read­ing Tanya’s work—not just about the facts—but about the foun­da­tions of sto­ry­telling. But I was hes­i­tant to dive in. Maybe it was the research she had to do. Maybe I lacked con­fi­dence. But when I began my chal­lenge to “write what I didn’t think I was good at,” (a chal­lenge made to decrease my own per­fec­tion­ist ten­den­cies and expec­ta­tions), I found myself enjoy­ing every aspect of this craft.

If you are also inter­est­ed in writ­ing some­thing true—as in non­fic­tion true—here are some things I learned writ­ing Just Like Rube Gold­berg, my first pic­ture book biog­ra­phy!

  1. You need to read care­ful­ly. This may seem obvi­ous, but as a fic­tion read­er, I was used to infer­ring from the text. When you are read­ing to dis­cov­er your true sto­ry, don’t skim! Don’t infer! Take care­ful notes. It’s not like read­ing a nov­el. It’s like going deep sea div­ing for some­thing pre­cious. As you read sources, you are look­ing for TRUTH. Don’t for­get to keep a list of your sources. And every fact needs to be con­firmed in mul­ti­ple places. When I think about it, it’s not that dif­fer­ent from cre­at­ing a char­ac­ter in a nov­el. I have to get to the heart of the person—the ele­ment that will con­nect that per­son to the read­er. But in this case, it has to be true!
  2. Just like in fic­tion, your theme or through-line will appear. The more you get to know your sub­ject, the clear­er THE WHY will become. If you have a hunch about a per­son, time, or place, fol­low that hunch! Keep read­ing! Look for the glim­mer that offers a foun­da­tion and struc­ture to tell the sto­ry.
  3. It’s fun. This was per­haps the biggest sur­prise! I actu­al­ly like research a lot. I loved going to the library. I loved talk­ing to peo­ple about Rube. I also find myself look­ing for sto­ries with new enthu­si­asm. True sto­ries are inspir­ing! They are some­times whack­i­er than fic­tion!
  4. Edi­tors and copy edi­tors are your best friends! (Well, I actu­al­ly knew that already, but I can’t leave them out of this post!) When you start find­ing your voice, you need your team to tell you when you have tak­en a lib­er­ty. For me, writ­ing this book almost became a Rube Gold­berg machine! But as my edi­tor pushed me, I also found new facts that made the sto­ry even stronger!
  5. Your voice is the glim­mer! Your voice is what will invite read­ers into your true sto­ry. Your point of view will offer your read­ers the truth in a way that engages them and makes them want to read and learn more!

Writ­ers, even though I am inter­est­ed in all kinds of top­ics, I stayed away from non­fic­tion for a real­ly long time. Well, not any­more! Per­haps the best ben­e­fit to try­ing non­fic­tion is that it gave me a new way to use my brain and play with cre­ativ­i­ty. It gave me more ener­gy for my nov­el. It sparked new inspi­ra­tion for oth­er pic­ture books that had been in the draw­er for a long time. Best of all, inspi­ra­tion comes in all sorts of ways. I am get­ting ready to sub­mit a sto­ry that came from research­ing anoth­er sto­ry! Remem­ber: writ­ing and all its parts, includ­ing dis­cov­ery, is a prac­tice! Writ­ing non­fic­tion has giv­en me more sta­mi­na for all my sto­ries!

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