Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Behind the Books: Firsthand Research

I want to get back to the list of how I start a writing project, but since I’ve already detoured into the world of research, I’ve decided to stay here a bit longer. After all, it’s one of my favorite places. It is for any nonfiction writer. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to know when to get the heck out of Dodge and move on to the next step in the process.

But I digress. What I really want to talk about today is the power of firsthand research. Since authors who write about history don’t have time machines, they must scour libraries and museums for primary source materials—letters, journals, and the like.

But I write about science, so I almost never have to spend time in musty old basements or get blurry-eyed looking through reel after reel of microfilm. Instead, I get to go outside and experience the natural world. That’s the best part of my job!

I love doing firsthand research, especially when it takes me to exotic places like the African savanna or a coral reef or a tropical rain forest. Nothing beats observing animals in their natural environment. This kind of research provides key tidbits of information that are often missing from the authoritative books and journal articles about the creatures.

Here’s an example. When I went to Costa Rica with my husband’s family, one of the animals on my wish list was a three-toed sloth. I was soooo jealous when my husband and brother-in-law spotted one while I was scouting out birds along the river.

But my patience was rewarded, a few days later I saw one, well, actually two. My 7-year-old niece, spotted a female sloth hanging upside-down with a tiny baby clinging to her. It was a wonderful sight, especially since I shared it with my niece. She was completely enthralled. But let’s be honest. So was I.
I blended my observations of the sloth with my husband’s description of his sighting and my general notes about the rain forests we hiked through to create the opening of my book Sloths.

Deep in a Central American rain forest, spindly spider monkeys spend their days chattering as they leap from branch to branch. Above them, toucans call out to one another as they fly among the treetops. Far below, on the forest floor, butterflies flit among the leaf litter. The woodland is alive with sound and activity.

But one rainforest animal remains silent and still. It is the sloth. All day and most of the night, this shaggy-coated creature hardly moves at all. It hangs upside down and does its best to blend in with its surroundings.

Honestly, when work is this much fun, who needs a vacation?

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