Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How to Research a Nonfiction Story - Step One

Back in June while signing books at a conference, two educators suggested that I write about Henry Ford. My initial thought was, "Why? Aren't there a million books about Henry Ford?" Besides, this was an Agriculture in the Classroom conference. Ford wasn't a farmer.

But I was wrong. They told me that Ford owned so much farm land in Michigan that he could probably walk to Chicago without stepping off his property.  Huh! So, as I sat there trying to look busy and welcoming at my little table, I took the first step in researching what would turn out to be my next book project. I googled Henry Ford and farming.

Twenty years ago when I first started writing nonfiction, my first step was to scour my bookshelves for any information that could enlighten me about an idea I had, and to hurry to the library to check out a stack of books on the subject. Today, I don't have to get up out of my seat. I use my smart phone. (And I wonder why I'm heavier now??)

Ford's soybean plastic car - 1941
My phone told me that Henry did indeed own lots of farm land, he built the Fordson tractor, he was big into soybeans, and even created a soybean plastic car!!!  Hold the phone! That was it. That nugget of information became the center of my research snowball. I could even imagine the illustrations. That one phrase - soybean plastic car - told me that I had a kid-friendly topic. What kid, especially a boy, wouldn't be fascinated by that?

A cursory search through Amazon told me that there were no children's books on this subject. Now I knew that I had a kid-friendly, new slant on an old subject. With these two boxes checked off my mental list of must-haves, I knew I could move forward with more research. If someone else had written about Ford's car, I would have found a copy and figured out if  and how I could make my story different enough to warrant an editor giving me a contract for it. Now, all I have to do is see if there is enough information available to make it a viable story. It is possible that nobody wrote about the car because the story just isn't there. To determine that will require me to dig deeper.

Next week: How to Research NF: Step Two

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