The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Are you curious?

One of the problems with talking about research is that it starts with some things that are hard to measure, hard to teach.  Curiosity.  Determination.  Maybe even obsession.

It takes the same instincts that drive people to do detective work.  (Okay, I really wanted to include this picture of my own little detective.)

When I ask kids about research, the Internet comes up first about 50% of the time now.  Sometimes I have to coax out books.  I like to show them this pile of books I’ve been reading as I work (unsuccessfully, so far) on a novel set in ancient Egypt.  When I was working on my first novel, The Storyteller’s Beads, I read and read about one of Ethiopia’s most terrible decades…making it all the more fascinating that I recently met the man who was at the head of the opposition army in those days.

But curiosity drives me beyond the internet.  Beyond books.  To interviews, for instance.

I was lucky when I was writing The Storyteller’s Beads that writers had gone to Israel and interviewed survivors of the terrible flight of the Beta Israel out of Ethiopia.  I was also lucky to be able to travel to Ethiopia while I was writing the book.

Both of those things were important for Lanie’s story, too.  I especially needed to pick the brain of Jim McCoy and the other birders he put me in touch with.  He suggested I come to Boston and go with him to Mt Auburn cemetery, birder heaven especially in certain months. 

What birds would be easy to see, even without binoculars?  Great Blue Heron.  Baltimore Oriole.  Northern Cardinal.  Black-capped Chickadee…and more.

What would be a dramatic bird that would make a brand new birder say, “Wow”?  Indigo Bunting, maybe. 

We wandered around the cemetery and sat by the Dell, where birds bathe.  How would Aunt Hannah start teaching Lanie to listen for bird calls?  Jim told me he finds “wichety wichety wichety” an unconvincing way to describe the call of the Common Yellowthroat but likes better the common description for how a Carolina Wren sounds: Tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle!

There’s nothing like learning from someone who knows and loves what he’s talking about.

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