Today, I’m chatting with author Patricia Newman about non-fiction. I had the pleasure of getting to know Patricia when we were both invited to participate in Ellen Hopkins’ inaugural Carson City Lit Fest in June. We were introduced by the equally talented Suzy Morgan Williams (Bull Rider), who was my host for the weekend. And then in that way that often happens, we simply slipped into a conversation that lasted well beyond the weekend.
I find a great satisfaction in talking with people who write in genres that I have yet to tackle. Particularly non-fiction, because at heart, I’m a girl who loves facts and figures and research. When I was a kid, I read reams of biographies and how to books and I’m still a fan today, even though I’ve yet to write one.
So it was with that mutual passion for learning stuff that I sat down with Patricia Newman, virtually speaking, to find out how she writes and what she writes and what inspired her to the field.
Joy Preble: How did you get started writing non-fiction? What first drew you to it?
Patricia Newman: I was drawn to nonfiction because I like research. Without meaning to sound pompous, learning new things has always appealed to me. I explore topics that pique my curiosity and fire my passion because if I’m not invested in a topic I will not be able to engage readers. I also like to puzzle out how best assemble the cool information I gather into an appealing format for children, but it’s a huge challenge for me. Where do I start? What’s my opening line? How will I hook my readers? What themes do I want to explore? The theme determines which pieces of the puzzle fit.
JP: When you are researching a topic, what's your process?
PN: I wish I could say that I’m organized and that I can lay my hands on the source material for every fact I’ve ever researched, but I cannot. I usually start with whatever prompted the idea—a newspaper article, a radio report, a TV special—then burn up the Internet in search of sources. If my topic is historical, I search the library catalog for nonfiction books for grown-ups. These sources usually contain bibliographies with primary source citations and terrific ideas for next steps. I always, always look for someone to interview. For Jingle the Brass I interviewed a retired Southern Pacific engineer. For Nugget on the Flight Deck, I interviewed a Navy fighter pilot and an Air Force pilot. And for Plastic, Ahoy! I interviewed three scientists who traveled to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Interviews are my favorite form of research because I meet the most fascinating people.
JP: Any interesting or funny stories from the people you've met while researching?
PN: I mentioned above that a retired Southern Pacific engineer named Al provided expert input for Jingle the Brass. When I first made the appointment with Al I wanted to conduct background research for a young adult novel on women working for the railroad during World War II. Al showed me around the old railyard and pointed out where various shops were located. He showed me where the water tower was. And how the transfer table worked to shift locomotives from the yard to the maintenance shop. He talked using the language of railroaders—phrases like bending the iron; ash cat; mud hop; and ticker. If it wasn’t for him, I never would have written Jingle the Brass. (And I’ve never returned to that novel, either!) When Jingle the Brass was released, I asked him what he thought of the illustrator Michael Chesworth’s slim, sprightly engineer character. He said, “There were some skinny engineers, but they were usually the grouchy ones.”
JP: I see from your bio that you have passions in many different subject areas from languages to literature to music to computers and much more. How has your formal education -- and your informal education-- informed and influenced the topics you are drawn to write about?
PN: My formal education gave me the ability to read critically and ask questions. I studied child development at Cornell University and the degree has come in handy with respect to the various developmental stages through which children progress. But my formal education doesn’t determine what I write about. Those topics are the things that make me laugh or ponder--the topics that send me to the Internet and the library to learn more. And I’m never sure where the next book or magazine article idea will come from. Recently my daughter and I have collaborated on animal articles for children. She currently works at the San Diego Safari Park, and I have to say it’s very cool to write with your kid! Our first article for AppleSeeds (Jan. 2013) was about birds’ super powers. Our second is about elephant migrations (Odyssey, Oct. 2014), and we’ve proposed a third to another magazine.
JP: Most authors have fascinating stories about unexpected things they learned while researching a book. What are some of your unexpected lessons?
PN: a. Nugget on the Flight Deck: A jet released down the cat stroke (catapult path) goes from 0 to 200 miles per hour in three seconds. During school visits, I show kids a video clip of a jet taking off a carrier. It never gets old.
b. Plastic, Ahoy!: On each confetti-sized piece of plastic floating in the ocean you could find approximately 7,000 different kinds of bacteria. The bacteria attract one-celled organisms which attract grazers and predators. So each tiny piece of plastic no bigger than your pinky fingernail has an entire ecosystem living on it.
c. Dolphins saved the shark attack victim I wrote about in Surviving Animal Attacks.
d. In Navy SEALs I wrote about the “sugar cookie” treatment: SEAL candidates who perform too slowly during their training exercises have to dive in the surf and roll around on the beach to cover themselves with sand (like a sugar cookie) before they can rejoin their team.
JP: Is there a topic that you really fell in love with or which spoke to you personally and would love to approach again, perhaps from a different angle?
PN: Conservation. I’ve just proposed a conservation-themed book to an editor, which reprises a theme in Plastic, Ahoy! Also, many of the animal articles my daughter and I write have a conservation bent to them.
JP: For the prospective writers out there, some advice for the novice non-fiction writer?
PN: I spoke about the steps to writing nonfiction at a New England SCBWI conference and I told the audience that when I began writing nonfiction, I tended to go from the idea stage to what I call the feeding frenzy (research) stage with no thought as to how I would collate and organize the information I gathered. As a result, I ended up searching (sometimes for days) for the correct citation to a particular quote I wanted to use. I implore you to organize your sources and citations very carefully. Nonfiction authors who can’t find the proper source citation for a particular quote or fact are forced to cut it—even if it’s the most spectacular quote/fact ever.
JP: What are you working on now?
PN: I have four nonfiction novelty board books coming out—two in the fall of 2015 and two in the spring of 2016. My illustrator and I are working on delivering the final text/art to the publisher. I also have a few fiction and nonfiction picture book manuscripts under consideration with editors. My Plastic, Ahoy! photographer Annie Crawley and I are collaborating on a new ocean book. And I’m struggling with a YA novel.
Thanks so much, Patricia, for such a fascinating conversation!
If you want to know more about Patricia Newman and her books, go to: