Notes from a Reluctant Researcher

The Most Perfect Thing in the UniverseLoah Lon­don­der­ry, hero of my new mid­dle grade nov­el, The Most Per­fect Thing in the Uni­verse, is the daugh­ter of a not­ed ornithol­o­gist ded­i­cat­ed to sav­ing endan­gered birds of the Arc­tic tundra.

That sen­tence con­tains four words that, when I start­ed writ­ing, I knew lit­tle about: ornithol­o­gist, endan­gered, and Arc­tic tundra.

Uh oh.

I’ve nev­er been a fan of research. I pre­fer to make stuff up, and even when my world-build­ing demands facts, my first, lazy incli­na­tion is to fudge my way through. With this book, though, I had to knuck­le down.

Unlike non­fic­tion writ­ers who dive into exten­sive research, I looked for facts to give my sto­ry the ring of truth. I already knew that the Arc­tic is warm­ing at a rate near­ly twice the glob­al aver­age. Now I need­ed to under­stand more about how chang­ing cli­mate pat­terns endan­ger wildlife and how con­ser­va­tion­ists strug­gle to pro­tect threat­ened species. Because my book cen­ters on Loah, not her moth­er, I didn’t try to under­stand every­thing (as if I ever could!). Instead, I found facts that added to the story’s emo­tion­al com­plex­i­ty and gave poor Loah a dif­fi­cult con­flict. While she appre­ci­ates the urgency and impor­tance of Dr. Londonderry’s envi­ron­men­tal work, she also deeply miss­es her moth­er, whose expe­di­tions take her away for months at a time. She fears her moth­er loves birds more than her.

Arctic tundra summer landscape
Arc­tic tun­dra sum­mer land­scape on the Bar­ents Sea

I’d imag­ined the tun­dra as a des­o­late place. Instead, books and online con­ser­va­tion sites had me swoon­ing over its stark win­ter beau­ty and blaz­ing spring bril­liance. I fell in love with cari­bou and musk ox. I dis­cov­ered the Arc­tic tern, which makes a year­ly migra­tion from one polar region to the oth­er and back, a round trip of about 25,000 miles. I learned that, in con­trast to the tern, some birds nev­er stir far from the nest where they hatch. I loved the par­al­lel with Dr. Lon­don­der­ry and her bold expe­di­tions and home­body Loah.

Again and again, I found my research con­nect­ing with my sto­ry — or was my fic­tion con­nect­ing to my research? I’m still not sure. I do know that one of the book’s themes became that each of us defines home in our own way, and that every home is pre­cious. When Loah most needs help, she finds con­nec­tion and sup­port in new friends, a hap­py echo of the eco­log­i­cal inter­de­pen­dence of all liv­ing things.

The title was anoth­er gift of my research. It’s drawn from the words of the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry nat­u­ral­ist Thomas Went­worth Hig­gin­son, who wrote, “I think that, if required on pain of death to instant­ly name the most per­fect thing in the uni­verse, I should risk my fate on a bird’s egg.”  (Leave off those last three words, and you have a very fun writ­ing prompt!) 

It was immense­ly reas­sur­ing to be fact-checked by an ornithol­o­gist from the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry. He had some trou­ble with the fic­tion­al bird I cre­at­ed, and I squirmed a lit­tle over ver­i­fi­able truths vs. poet­ry, but we worked it out.

Though the book is fin­ished, my inter­est in birds and the envi­ron­ment is keen­er than ever. What a treat to recent­ly read about the reap­pear­ance of a black-browed bab­bler, a bird that, like the fic­tion­al one in my book, had not been seen for decades and was feared extinct! Ornithol­o­gists are jubi­lant – me too.

Nature has its mys­ter­ies, and so does the writ­ing process, where facts and imag­i­na­tion can twine togeth­er in ways love­ly and unex­pect­ed. Maybe next time I won’t be so reluc­tant to begin my research…

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Connie Van Hoven
2 years ago

I enjoyed this arti­cle so much! Can’t wait to try your writ­ing prompt on some kids I know and I’m excit­ed to read/share your book with my bird­ing family.

tricia springstubb
2 years ago

Thanks, Con­nie! Hap­py bird­ing, hap­py reading!