Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tired of Being the Tortoise

Several years ago I wrote a book called Bacteria & Viruses, and while doing the research I came across a curious anecdote. Two Polish doctors fooled the Nazises during WWII using a benign bacteria. The germophobic Germans quarentined whole villages because they thought there was a typhus epidemic when there really wasn't. I photocopied the page and tucked it away in my idea file and went on to finish the Bacteria and Virus book.

A few years went by and other projects came up -- co-write a book on New York State, finish a biography of George Washington. But the story stayed in my head. Occasionally, on a dull day, I would search the Internet for more information about the incident and I even ordered the doctor's book although it was written in Polish. Another year or so went by and I finished another biography (For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson) and an adult nonfiction title (The Anatomy of Nonfiction: How to write true stories for children). That brings me up to last week.

So I'm sitting at my desk thinking, "What should I do next?" What about that WWII story? So, several years after I first got the idea I finally dug out the information and tracked down the phone number of the daughter of one of the doctors. I called and she answered immediately. She was pleasant and kind. I liked her voice. But then she stopped me in my tracks. She could not talk to me because she was negotiating a contract for the English translation for her father's book and possibly a movie. I thanked her for her time and wished her the best on her projects. Then I hung up the phone and cursed myself for being such a tortoise.

Why hadn't I jumped on the project when I first heard about it? She might have been eager to share with me personal stories, diaries, letters, and memories of her father. Why did I just sit on it? I am always telling students that the story that keeps nagging at you is the one you write. Then why didn't I take my own advice?

The sad thing is this is not the first time I have been usurped. Many years ago I learned of an artist who created the first life-size replicas of dinosaurs, or at least what scientists thought they looked like at the turn of the century. I even had a sister-in-law living in Europe at the time visit the site and take photos for me and collect info. Almost done with my research and half way through the writing Barbara Kerley's book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins came out. The illustrations by David Selznick won it a Caldecott Honor. My project was dead in the water.

What have I learned? I want to be a Hare. I want to jump on ideas, write faster, and query quicker. The adage - so many books, so little time -- is apropo. But from now on, I am going to do my best to even up my odds.

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