Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same.
Thank you so much for inviting me to share a bit of my writing journey!
Thank you, Beth, for joining us today! What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Usually it’s characters, like Elizabeth Jennings, doing something out of the ordinary that grab my attention. They might be endearing, intriguing, a little quirky, or truly astounding. When I find an idea, I dig in to see if it holds any potential as a children’s story, and if it does, I start reading everything I can find. I usually aim for narrative nonfiction, but sometimes due to limited information, I go with historical fiction.
How do you conduct your research?
I start on the Internet and do some wide reading. I gather sources from bibliographies and then dig for background, motivation, character, historical context, and emotion. There’s always, always a bigger story beneath what had first gotten my attention, so the challenge becomes: What piece of this larger picture is my focus? How can I tell the story in a unique way? What’s my significant thread that will connect to today’s children? What’s the takeaway? Then I go deep – searching for whatever I need for that telling. After I start writing, research continues as I go after specific questions that arise and details of the time and place. If I get stuck, I often look at articles which offer new ways of thinking about the themes.
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
I’ve worked through various methods and have settled on a system I describe in this blog post.
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
I start on the Internet with “legitimate” sources, and then I scour bibliographies. I search out books that will give me a sense of the time and place. I follow the trail of sources one to the next, then move on to explore more varied sources.
- Even if you only need a chapter of a book, don’t ignore the introduction and conclusion. They often contain valuable context and considerations.
- Immense collections of digitized historical texts are a treasure trove!
- Medical articles can shed light on a health condition.
- Blog posts can sometimes surprise you with additional sources or opposing views (and once, in a comment, I found a participant in the event I was researching).
- I sought out court records on Elizabeth Jennings’ case through various government offices. (Unfortunately, whatever records there were may have burned in a warehouse fire. Another challenge to work around.)
- For “Smelly” Kelly, I searched census records.
- Museums and associations, such as NY Transit Museum and Abraham Lincoln Association, and historical societies and organizations are often able to provide names of experts. For Lizzie, I was fortunate to find an expert on the court system of the time.
- Oddly enough, Facebook had a Chester A. Arthur Presidential Library and Museum page that led me to an expert on Arthur.
- Libraries—from the Library of Congress to the local library in the town where an event occurred.
- For Revolutionary Prudence Wright, I gleaned from the local DAR chapter, town historian, and town website.
- All these organizations are populated by people that love what we love! And they can often refer us to experts.
- Also weather, moon phase, and other details to make your story come alive can usually be found online.
Sometimes, as in the case of “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, there just isn’t much—a few articles and a chapter of a book. For others there’s a mountain of information that needs to be sifted through—as in the case of my story about Tad and Abe Lincoln—a lot on Abe, not much on Tad.
Research is still a huge learning process, but I’m getting better at leaving no stone unturned and searching for information on any names, places, events, and issues connected to my topic.
What is your favorite thing about research?
Discovery! Old texts! Photos! Records! A name, a place, an event coming to life! (Maybe all those Nancy Drew books influenced me more than I thought! I’ve become an historical sleuth!)
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
The holes. Holes in the historical record are a challenge to work around (like Webster’s missing alphabet).
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
I think the biggest problem with historical fiction is the wide range—from 5% true to 95% true. As a writer and reader, I prefer historical fiction as close to nonfiction as possible. In Lizzie Demands a Seat, I needed to change a few words in her dialogue when converting her reported speech to direct speech and also replaced a few oddball incomprehensible words for kids. These slight modifications make the book historical fiction and open it up to some readers not realizing that, aside from these very few details, the story is true. I feel it’s important for authors to let the reader know where your story fits on the scale of truth.
Why is historical fiction important?
For me history is not about dates and places, but about people meeting the challenges of their circumstances. Historical stories have the potential to help us understand the human side of history, inform our own lives, and provide models of resilience and hope in difficult times. Our actions, voices, ideas, and choices matter. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, BEN FRANKLIN AND NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION. Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, Simon & Schuster 2018.
LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT: ELIZABETH JENNINGS FIGHTS FOR STREETCAR RIGHTS. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Calkins Creek, 1/7/2020 ✰ Kirkus review
“SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES: HOW JAMES KELLY’S NOSE SAVED THE NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY. Illustrated by Jenn Harney, Calkins Creek, Fall 2020
TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE: PANDEMONIUM, PATIENCE, AND PROTEST IN THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE. llustrated by S.D. Schindler, Calkins Creek, Fall 2021
REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT: LEADING THE MINUTE WOMEN IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE. Illustrated by Susan Reagan, Calkins Creek, Spring 2022