Aimée Bissonette is the author of numerous books for children including NORTH WOODS GIRL, MISS COLFAX’S LIGHT, DRAGONFLY, and HEADSTRONG HALLIE. Her picture books are inspired by her love of nature and stories of resilient women. Aimée lives in Minnesota and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where she hikes, snowshoes, and hunts for agates. You can learn more about Aimée’s books at www.aimeebissonette.com.
What typically comes first for you: a subject? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
To date, all of my historical nonfiction has involved biographies of women who intrigue me and whose stories I want to share with young readers. I often come across my subjects by happenstance. I learned about Harriet Colfax and her work as our nation’s longest serving lighthouse keeper one summer while reading The Women’s Great Lakes Reader by Victoria Brehm. I learned about Jerrie Mock (and ultimately Joan Merriam Smith) when I read Jerrie’s obituary. I was amazed that I didn’t know anything about Jerrie and Joan despite the fact that their historic flights occurred during my lifetime. I came across Hallie Morse Daggett’s story while conducting unrelated Internet research for another project. Gail L. Jenner’s wonderful blog piece on Hallie hooked me immediately.
In all three cases, I couldn’t put the women or their stories aside. These lesser known “everyday heroes” were smart, persistent, confident, and resilient. They seemed to be great role models for young readers. I conducted additional research – scouring libraries and online sources – to confirm that was the case. In each instance, it was and I felt I had the green light to explore further. (Occasionally, additional research provides details, and in some cases red flags, that reveal a subject is not the best candidate for me. My published biographies at this point are all picture books and some things that could work for an older audience have to be off limits for the younger crowd.)
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
Over the years, I have gotten much better at collecting and organizing data – a direct result of learning the hard way! I now know that I need to be able to say where and how I came across every piece of information I include in my text. There are no “free passes” just because I’m writing a picture book. Nonfiction picture books need to be as accurate as books for older readers and copy editors will rightfully demand to know the basis for every statement made.
I don’t use specific software when collecting data, but I do track all of the sources I consult and I faithfully back things up to “the cloud.” For each new project, I create a separate folder of Internet bookmarks in my browser so the sites I deem most helpful will always be at my fingertips.
I also create a master document in Word, in which I list all the sources (print, online, photos, etc.) I have reviewed, annotating each listed source with notes about what I found and why I think it’s helpful. (I also make a separate list of sources I have consulted that are too peripheral to the subject or otherwise not helpful so I know if I have already ruled out a source if and when it comes up in later research.)
Lastly, I create a timeline. I plug in details about my subject’s life, as well as important cultural and world events that occurred in my subject’s lifetime. When needed, I even add fashion details. Details like these provide context and make stories richer. Harriet Colfax, for instance, was impressive for what she did not only because her work was difficult and dangerous but because, unlike her male counterparts, she had to do it in petticoats and button boots!
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
My favorite sources are first-person accounts. What a window they are into the souls of my subjects! First-person accounts not only convey facts about my subjects, but how my subjects viewed things that happened when they happened and how they were personally affected. First-person accounts also are marvelous for showcasing societal views and the language of the time.
In researching Harriet’s story, I was elated to learn that a volunteer at the Michigan City Old Lighthouse Museum (on the site of the lighthouse Harriet tended) had painstakingly transcribed Harriet’s entire lighthouse keeper log. Years and years of entries in Harriet’s own voice were available to me – wow!
Likewise, newspaper interviews of Hallie Morse Daggett provided Hallie’s true view of her life as a “lonely” fire lookout (she loved the solitude) and the “scary” electrical storms that shook her tiny lookout cabin (she found them “simply grand”).
Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith both penned firsthand accounts of their “race,” which provided innumerable facts about flying and the difficulties each pilot faced, as well as a glimpse into the rivalry between them.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
How long I research varies with each project. Sometimes it takes a long time to retrieve sources. (I cannot thank my local library enough for the work they do helping me obtain academic articles and texts that are only available from afar via intra-library loan.) Sometimes I go down “rabbit holes” involving related people and events, only to surface weeks later with the realization that none of that added research is critical to my story. And sometimes I just need to hit the “pause” button on researching while I wrestle with finding a way into the story. That was the case with Aim for the Skies. I tried so many times to figure out the right structure for what I thought was going to be a biography of Jerrie Mock. It took me a couple of years to realize that my story had to include Joan Merriam Smith, too, and the incredible race between them.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching and writing historical nonfiction?
I have learned so many fun facts while researching my subjects – even the subjects who I later decided were not right for my picture books. But one of the truly joyful things for me about writing historical nonfiction is connecting with other writers who share my excitement about my subjects – so much so that they, too, have devoted months or years researching and writing about them! For instance, Laura Deering is a writer who contacted me after Miss Colfax’s Light was released to share information about the other Harriet Colfax (my Harriet’s sister-in-law who served as a Union nurse during the Civil War and afterwards continued her life of service in the Deep South and in Minnesota). Tiffany Ann Brown is a writer I’ve been trading emails with recently. She wrote her own book on Joan Merriam Smith titled Fate On A Folded Wing, from which I have learned so much. Researching and writing can be an isolating endeavor. It’s always fun to meet a kindred spirit.