Michael Burgan started writing for children as an editor for Weekly Reader, the classroom periodical. He left there in 1994 and has been freelancing ever since, focusing on history and biography. He’s also done some science and geography and adaptations of classic novels, such Don Quixote, Frankenstein, and Dracula. Michael is currently the editor of The Biographer’s Craft, the monthly newsletter of Biographers International Organization.
What kind of sources do you use?
I still rely mostly on books. I always make sure to have access to a good academic library, and I’ve been lucky over the years to be close to some good ones—University of New Mexico, University of Illinois-Chicago, and Yale. I augment that with books from the local library and ones I buy on Amazon. Of course, I use reputable online resources, too, such a government sites, academic journal articles, respected nonprofit organizations (medical associations, museums, etc.). I use Wikipedia only to check really basic facts quickly, or as a source for more detailed, trustworthy resources. I conduct the occasional phone or email interview. Rarer still are trips to archives; I don’t usually have the time or money for those.
How long do you typically research before starting draft?
Since my books are fairly short, I probably do less research than some of your interviewees. I’d say on average two weeks, though for a book I’m currently doing on the Middle Ages, it was about twice that. My editors usually require outlines, so I do as much research as I need to give them what they want up front, then I get deeper into specific topics as I’m writing. And of course, that process can lead me to discover useful info that didn’t emerge in the first round of research for the outlines.
Favorite thing about research?
Learning new things about topics I thought I already knew pretty well, or exploring topics about which I previously knew little or nothing. Also, when I do make it into an archive, I love coming across an unexpected tidbit. Example: I was in Fall River, Massachusetts, researching Lizzie Borden and I came across a letter from someone written at the time of her trial that said they had used a Ouija board to discover that Lizzie was guilty, but that she would not be convicted. I don’t know if that makes it into other books about her, but it made it into mine! (That also led to my doing a bit of research on the history of the boards, to give my readers context.)
When I do phone interviews, I hate having to transcribe them afterward. But I have to record them and then transcribe; my handwriting is too atrocious and my typing skills are too bad to take good notes on the fly.
Why is historical nonfiction important?
Santayana’s famous quote, of course, comes immediately to mind. Besides keeping us from repeating past mistakes, it gives context to the world as we experience it day to day. And it connects so many different fields of study while showing us our relationship with the people and ideas that came before us. And while history as it’s sometimes taught can strike kids as dry, I think engaging historical nonfiction that has a strong narrative and interesting characters can hold kids’ interest while still giving them important information.