Look It Up! Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Fictional Non-Fiction

Posted on June 7, 2012 by in Writing

At WP Towers, we mostly deal with fictional characters, operating in fictional worlds in which the rules of the real world don’t quite apply. But that doesn’t mean we don’t end up doing quite a bit of research. I asked around the office – what are the most interesting things our editors have had to research while working on WP projects?

Vicky Holmes replied straight away:

Rosie, you’re thinking about Kallik meaning “knickers” in Inuit, aren’t you? I swear it said “lightning” when I first looked it up!

Why yes, I have to admit, I was. As it turns out, the Erin Hunter series Seekers is proof that the internet is correct about translating words from other languages roughly 2/3rds of the time. The bears Toklo, Lusa and Kallik were all supposed to be named after words for parts of nature from Native American and Canadian languages. It was only after the series had gone to print that we realised Kallik had been a slight error…

Here are some other editors’ research stories.

Michael Ford says:

Things I’ve researched: Dutch police force organisation, maps of 17th century London, the letters of Mozart’s father and sister, Venetian prostitution, and iron smelting in the 9th century BC.  Perhaps the most surprising thing – that periods of mourning in the Regency were rather strictly defined for the upper classes. For instance, a widow would wear mourning clothes for a year, but should your first cousin bite the dust, you were expected only to grieve officially for a couple of weeks. Should your mother-in-law pop her clogs, though, social custom dictated you wear your sad clothes for six months, even if you were dancing on the inside!

Elizabeth Galloway says:

I’ve looked up beagles, rabbits and cockatiels; how to care for newborn kittens; dinosaur droppings, extinct giant insects and the Cretaceous climate; and how to make a homemade volcano. Most surprising fact I learnt: Velociraptors didn’t look much like the ones in Jurassic Park. They were actually far smaller, with snub noses, very long tails and, most bizarrely, feathers. Those huge, curved claws were accurate, though…

Clare Hutton says:

One of the best parts about working on Seekers is how much I learned about bears! Did you know that polar bears only hibernate when they’re nursing young? And black and brown bears only hibernate if food supplies are low—so bears in zoos don’t hibernate at all. I was really intrigued to find out that, now that global warming is expanding brown bears’ territories into the arctic, grizzly and polar bears are breeding more often: and their offspring are known as ‘pizzlies’. We built a whole storyline in Seekers: Return to the Wild around a pizzly!

Clare also worked on one of WP’s fictional non-fiction titles. The Erin Hunter Warriors series has included several ‘non-fiction’ books about the culture and history of the wild cat Clans. Clare was actually an editor for these books at HarperCollins, before she came to work with WP as one of our creative team:

An interesting part of building nonfiction around already existing fiction in the Warriors world was figuring out exactly why things are the way they are—the Warriors have a Code, very important rules of behaviour, and we went back through Warriors history and invented specific  reasons why each of these rules had become part of the Code. It really enriched the history of the Clans for us as well as for the readers.

And finally, I’ve just finished writing some copy for an entirely non-fiction book based on the Dinosaur Cove series. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked on real non-fiction, and I learned a lot about the difference between looking things up to give authenticity and flavour and corralling my research into a form suitable for actual publication.

So here are my three tips for writing children’s non-fiction, from a complete and utter newbie:

  • Keep it short! Not every fact you find out needs to be included, especially if you can’t find a snappy way to write it up. You may find it fascinating, but will your readers? (Still, you can find room for a favourite piece of irrelevant trivia here and there. Like the fact that the largest, best-preserved T-Rex skeleton in the world is called Sue.)
  • The size of an elephant or as heavy as a double-decker? If you’re dealing with lots of slightly dry weights and measures, try to put them in context. The Dinosaur Cove fact files are particularly good at this, measuring the height and weight of each dino in Jatoms – the measurements of one Jamie or Tom.
  • Fun is good, but true is better. The internet can be an odd place, full of strange ‘facts’. If you’re doing internet research, try to check each fact against at least two other sources, and watch out for outdated information. Wikipedia can be unreliable, but is updated regularly, whereas specialist webpages may have more research behind them but often date back to the Jurassic period themselves!


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