Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), CECILIA PAYNE: MAKING OF A STAR (SCIENTIST), illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter/ Instagram @KirstenWLarson.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Normally I’m drawn first to characters. Typically the real people who intrigue me most are underdogs — people who achieve something no one would ever expect of them. Knowing much of the history of early aviation, I couldn’t believe a woman was designing an airplane on her own during the same period as the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtis. Women couldn’t even vote then, yet there was Lilian Todd engaged in the biggest challenge of the age – the quest for flight. As soon as I saw the images of Lilian wearing her gilded-age gown and sitting in her airplane or hunched over her workbench, I knew I had to tell her story. I could see the illustrations in my mind.
How do you conduct your research?
Normally I start with secondary sources. For me, I’m better able to understand primary sources when I can fit them into some kind of context. I use those secondary sources to point the way to primary sources, and I am always thankful for books filled with footnotes, indices, and bibliographies. I find primary sources most helpful for hearing my main character’s voice and for providing sensory details needed to build scenes. Primary sources aren’t always reliable for facts like dates, for example, and I always look for corroborating sources.
With that said, my process for WOOD, WIRE, WINGS was different. There really weren’t any secondary sources about Lilian Todd specifically, just a few pages in a biography about her funder, Olivia Sage, and a mention of Lilian in a history of the Aeronautic Society in New York, of which she was a member. So while I say my normal process is to start with secondary sources, with Lilian I had to start with newspaper and magazine research, which is where I found the bulk of the information about her. At the same time, I read secondary sources about the early history of flight to gain a broader understanding of the period and how Lilian’s work fit into it.
You do have a specific system for collecting data?
For each project, I have a good-old-fashioned file box for books, drafts, critiques, and hard copies of sources. I also have a corresponding online folder in Evernote. I use Evernote’s web clipper plug-in for the Google Chrome web browser. The web clipper allows me to clip and save anything I see on my screen, including journal articles, historic newspaper PDFs, photographs, and much more. I also have the Evernote app on my phone and use it to take pictures of pages from library books, which is much faster than scanning them. All of it gets dumped into the Evernote folder, allowing me to search for the pieces of information I need.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
Researching and writing is a circular process for me versus a linear path. At the outset, I research until I see the same information over and over and have internalized the timeline of significant events. Then I write what I call a “kitchen sink draft” containing every date and fact imaginable in strict linear order. That draft serves as a timeline I can refer back to as I play with the story’s structure and try new approaches. But always at every stage of the writing and revising process, I have to conduct additional research to find specific details as I build scenes. For example, in writing WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, there’s a scene where Lilian introduces her airplane at the 1909 Interborough Fair. It was a dramatic moment, and I needed the reader to experience the event as if he were there. As I started to write, I found I needed to know a lot more about what was happening at the fair. This required additional newspaper research where I learned ladies were launched from cannons and horses raced around a track. There were details illustrator Tracy Subisak was able to show in her illustrations, so I could leave them out of the draft.
What is your favorite thing about research?
Research is really the reason I write. I write because I’m curious about just about everything, and writing is a good excuse to become an expert in a subject for a time. If I can synthesize my research in a way that allows me to write a book for young readers, then I truly understand the material myself.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
I hate footnoting! After I write my “kitchen sink” draft, I let go of the names, dates, and places and just write, mostly from my memory of what I’ve researched and read. Then I have to go back and find each and every fact in my sources, make sure I have the information right, and document the source. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, and it takes forever. I know it would be much better to dip into sources as I write and note where I find pieces of information, but most of the time I find it takes me out the flow of the story.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
One aspect of Lilian’s life I found fascinating was she was a STEM educator before STEM was even a “thing.” She founded the Junior Aero Club in America because she realized children of her day would be the airplane designers of the future. The Aero Club met in her Manhattan apartment (which was also her workshop), held balloon contests and entered their airplane models into competitions.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
I always have to remind myself that pioneers are also products of their time period. When I learned about Lilian’s Junior Aero Club, I was disappointed when it seemed the group was comprised of boys and not girls (though the boys’ mothers were involved too). But Lilian was a product of her age. She didn’t set out to build an airplane because she wanted to break barriers for women. She felt she had to invent no matter her gender. Inventing was who she was, and she felt she’d inherited her inventive nature. With that said, Lilian did experience tremendous discrimination, which she mentions in some of her interviews. But she didn’t necessarily see herself as paving the way for all women.