Cynthia Grady writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for children, and is the author of I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery and Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song. Her latest picture book, Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind, introduces young readers to the true story ofJapanese American children who corresponded with Clara Breed, their librarian, while they were imprisoned during World War II. Their letters detail the conditions of their imprisonment, their love for Miss Breed, and the important role books play in our lives. Cynthia lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Visit her at www.cynthiagrady.com.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
For me, an emotion and a metaphor come before anything else. Something I see, or read, experience, or hear about, taps into a feeling begging to be expressed. I try to listen to what my surroundings are asking me to write and then plunge in.
How do you conduct your research?
Both painstakingly slowly and absolutely chaotically. With each project so far, I’ve tried a new strategy for conducting research. I wouldn’t recommend any of them to anybody. I am working on a couple of new projects though, and with one of them, I’m going back to 3 x 5 notecards—1-2 facts on each notecard, like I did in middle school. I’ll let you know in a year or two how it worked!
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
The short answer is every kind or source material.
The long answer is this. I begin with general, encyclopedic-like sources to get an overall view of the subject or era I am exploring. Next, I use the most recent secondary sources of the event/topic/era. Then I’ll read secondary sources written close to the time of the era I am researching– to see how time has affected how people think about and view the subject.
During the entire research phase, I am reading current fiction steeped in the subject, as well as fiction and poetry written during the time period I am exploring. Then finally, I explore whatever primary sources I can get my hands on: memoirs, letters, diaries, music, oral histories, and poetry.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
With historical fiction, I tend to write quite a bit before I begin any research at all, because at first, I am writing about a feeling a particular character is experiencing. As the story grows, I begin my research—to ground my character and her/his feelings in a setting and in a story. I may leave the story for several months then, buried in research, before I return to it again.
My current book, WRITE TO ME, is nonfiction—an introduction to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and a brief biography of librarian Clara Breed. It took so long to sell (twelve years!), that my vision for it changed over time. And then, once I was in revision with my editor, the story arc changed somewhat again, so I was sent back into my research, after thinking I was all finished. Going back to a story’s notes after so long was really interesting. I couldn’t believe how bad my note-taking had been! A terribly inefficient, ineffective experience overall.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I love all of the little surprises that I encounter along the way. For example, while researching blacksmithing for my first book, I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN, I learned that most racehorses were groomed, trained, and raced by enslaved men. That information led to the poem “Rail Fence,” a poem I had not planned to write for the collection originally.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
You may have guessed from my answer above, that what’s most challenging for me (and so my least favorite) is how to keep all of my notes organized in a way that makes the most sense. My notes and folders and boxes are such a messy mish-mash—It’s absolutely terrifying to me. I don’t want to make any mistakes or get anything wrong. So, I will persist!