Last week I wrote about the kind of research I do when I get an idea. I have to answer two key questions: Is it kid-friendly, and is it a new idea or new slant on an old subject? Henry Ford's plastic soybean car fits the bill, so I move to question number three: Will there be enough information about the subject to make the project viable?
I have run into dead ends before. Getting my hopes up about some arcane topic only to discover that the little tidbit that tantalized me initially was all there was. No historical records existed. I suppose I could have made it my life's work to scrape together the few remnants that remained and built on it so that I became the expert, but my heart, and my attention span, was just not that into it. I'll leave that to some grad student looking for a dissertation topic.
But my gut feeling is that there is more to my plastic car story than what I have uncovered so far. After all, Henry Ford is one of the most famous innovators of the 20th century. So, my first task is to read as many biographies as I can about the man. Doing research for a nonfiction book is like creating backstories for fictional characters. You need to find out what makes them tick. Where did they come from? What and who influenced them? There are a lot of biographies about Ford, so I select the ones written by reputable researchers; ones with lots of end notes and a big bibliographies that will direct me to other sources. I start to build my own working bibliography.
Your real characters need to be grounded in a time and place. You need to know about the world they lived in. For this project that means reading about the Roarin' Twenties, the Great Depression, and about life in Michigan.
I also read up on ancillary topics, too, like soybeans (Did you know there are more than 300 kinds?), and about the Ford company (FYI: The ill-fated Edsel was named after Ford's son, who was named after Ford's best friend, who was a food chemist at the plant.)
My working bibliography grows exponentially, and I know that there is more than enough information out there to make my Henry Ford story a go. And that's a good thing, because my editor already approved it. :)
Next Week: Step 3 - Looking for those Primary Documents