"Basics of Nonfiction Research" with Mel Boring.

Thursday, August 9, 2001

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Mel is Mel Boring, who's published popular nonfiction with Random House, Walker, Dillon Press, Julian Messner, and NorthWord Press, as well as writing for top magazines like Cricket and Highlights. Mel Boring is the author of ten books, nine of which are nonfiction.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/CANADA, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening! I'm your moderator, Kristi Holl, and the web editor for this site. I'm here tonight with Mel Boring, who will be talking about the "Basics of Nonfiction Research." Mel has published popular nonfiction with many well known book and magazine publishers. Of his ten books, nine are nonfiction, and he's here tonight to share his "inside information" on how to lay a solid foundation with your research. Welcome, Mel!

Mel: Thanks for having me! Being here is really FUN with all capitals!

Moderator: Mel, let's get right into the heart of tonight's topic. Where are some of the best places to look for information for a nonfiction topic?

Mel: Some simple ones first, like encyclopedias. I go to them FIRST to get VERY preliminary info. It's short stuff, can be read quickly, and gives you a road map about the subject you're writing nonfiction about. Secondly, I go to THE READER'S GUIDE TO PERIODICAL LITERATURE. It lists all magazine articles written since "the beginning" and tells exactly where to find them. I also depend early in research on THE AMERICAN DICTIONARY OF BIBLIOGRAPHY, especially for PEOPLE. I also read children's books on the subject which are very factual, simple and short. We'll talk about Internet sources later.

Moderator: Where can someone go for in-person, hands-on information about a nonfiction topic?

Mel: ANY person who knows ANYthing about the subject, first. They may be right in your neighborhood. For example I once wrote a book about birds, but decided not to interview a couple who live about 12 miles from my house. I found out AFTER I wrote the book that the Obermeyers are absolute experts on birds, having fed and sheltered them in their backyard for 50 years! Also, write or email people who are connected with the subject. You might be surprised that the expert on your topic can be found on the Internet with an address, and is open to email. So, pick your "Dream Interview" and surf for them on the Net. Finally, don't overlook KIDS as interviewees. Sure, lots of kids think they know it all, but some really DO. And they are often not thought of as experts, but some are on some subjects.

Moderator: Just how important are photographs in nonfiction articles and books? Whose responsibility is it to get and/or buy them? Can illustrations be used instead?

Mel: Photos are extremely important! In children's books, for instance, your contract specifies that YOU obtain the photos, AND pay for them. So you're caught in a kind of rock-and-hard-place place because if your photos are no good, or just cheapos, they will drag down the quality of the book. Illustrations CAN be used, yes, and they are used increasingly nowadays because of expenses of publishing. I was surprised to read a book just recently, FROZEN GIRL, about the Inca girl of about 500 years ago who was found in the 1990s by archeologists. MANY of the pictures were not photos, but illustrations, and very convincing ones.

Moderator: What are some sources for photos, especially those that don't cost very much?

Mel: is a site which lists 9 different sources for photos and illustrations. For example, one site you're led to is TIME Magazine's. The photos there are VERY pricey. But one other site listed there is the Library of Congress. There you can get any of their millions of photos for the cost of reproduction and postage and handling. A photo at Library of Congress might be as inexpensive as five or ten dollars. The problem may be that the photos you want may not be available on their site as presently constituted. But the search feature will help get you to photos you want. I have even used professional photo researchers in Washington, D.C. to pick out photos, since they are right there. That will add to the cost, of course. But for several hundred dollars, they can save you the more expensive trip to D.C.

Also, "shop" for photos in the books you do research in. All recent books have "Photo Credits," which no one probably ever reads except us writers. The credits tell whose photo it is. Contact that person or company and ask. You may find it's too expensive, but you may be surprised.

Lastly, "shop" for illustrators in published books, both nonfiction and fiction. If you can approach the illustrators yourself, and get them to do the project on spec until you get a contract, it can help THEM too. Example: After EIGHT YEARS of working on a nonfiction book about people who experimented on themselves, it looks like Leslie Dendy, my co-writer, and I may get a contract soon. Knowing that Holt uses lots of illustrations in nonfiction, I'm going to ask Linda Garrow, who did marvelous illustrations for my bugs and birds books, if she would like to speculate on illustration. I'll ask her to provide three samples, including one finished sample, to submit with our manuscript.

MBVoelker: What resolution is required for digital photos? I am thinking of getting a digital camera and a good photo editing program, but I don't want to waste my money by buying one that won't take pictures at a high enough resolution. I also don't have the budget to automatically buy the top of the line.

Mel: For my just-finished Einstein manuscript I am probably going to get some digital photos, for the first time ever in my writing career. So I'm not very familiar with resolution requirements, either TIF or JPG. They need to be at least 300 dpi is what my publisher, Enslow, has specified.

Moderator: How much time do you spend researching at the library?

Mel: About 20% of the total time of the book, and most of that at the beginning and end of a project.

Moderator: Can anybody order interlibrary loans? How can you do this through e-mail?

Mel: Yes, I order them from the Charles City, Iowa library about 12 miles from us. They used to charge a dollar for each request, but they evidently got better city funding because it's free now. But I'm limited to five at a time. I can't order InterLibrary loans through email simply because our local library isn't set up for that. But I'm told they are going to install the needed equipment and that will greatly help. My main source for books is the University of Iowa Libraries, in Iowa City, about 150 miles from here. I can take out 20 books at a time, but I can renew them by email, as long as no one requests them. So I've had their 20 Einstein books for about five months now, having renewed then four times via email.

Moderator: Do you ever go to the bookstore and buy the research books you need? Is it then a business expense?

Mel: Yes. My method of operation in writing a nonfiction book is to find the book about the topic that is the BEST and I call that the "Bible" of my writing project. And I will buy that one book. With Einstein, however, I goofed. I bought the Denis Brian book, but then I found out that the Ronald W. Clark biography is the best. Luckily, a good friend just happened to have given me the Clark bio. So I lucked out and yes, it's a business expense. I always put a total for books on my income tax form on form C, I think it is. And I label them "Research Books."

Kevin: Who says which biography is the best? A reviewer?

Mel: Partly reviews, Kevin, and partly my own reading and studying of them. Usually a biography will comment on other biographies written before theirs, maybe negative, maybe positive. For example, what was said of the Clark biography is that Ronald Clark, who is a Brit, was dead-set against Einstein's belief in a World Government. On the other hand, what Clark had to say about the Brian bio and other biographies helped me decide that Clark was best.

Moderator: Do you recommend the "Five W's, One H Approach" [Who What When Where Why and How] in doing research for nonfiction articles and books? Why or why not?

Mel: Yes, for SURE. In fact, Kristi, I have used the "5Ws" so long and more recently the "5Ws+H" that I find now it's a very subconscious habit I've gotten into. For instance, in writing about Einstein, I had to know early just WHERE in Germany he was born, exactly, because at the time of Einstein's birth, Germany was extremely fragmented; so the people of southern Germany were more like the Swiss right across their border than they were like the Germans of northern Germany, from whom the Nazis eventually developed. So "Albie," as I came to call him, was much more laid-back than the Germans of northern Germany, at the time he was born (1879).

Moderator: What do you do if you cannot find enough specific information (for example, about your subject's youth for a biography?) Is it ever appropriate to "fill in" with information about the times/area of the country he/she lived in and what his/her daily life might have been like?

Mel: I've run into that with biographies I did of the two Native Americans--Sealth (namesake of Seattle, WA) and Wovoka, the Paiute. About Sealth, there were exactly FOUR books AND articles altogether, not much to go on. In one way, I felt I had "learned all there was to know" when I'd read those four sources. On the other hand, it wasn't much to go on. But I went with it, and it came out pretty well for a first book. A friend of mine wants to write a biography of Mahalia Jackson. But she's found very limited written and other materials about her. So she asked her editor about the problem. Her editor responded as I thought she would: If there are so few sources, there must be a strong need for a Mahalia Jackson book. So she okayed the project.

Moderator: For a nonfiction book, how much research should you do before you query an editor? Can you query with a detailed outline and a writing sample? Or should you go ahead and write several chapters and send them?

Mel: Do JUST ONLY enough research for an arrowhead-sharp query! A query is how most nonfiction writers begin their projects. And the query is what I see as the "neck of the funnel." And you have to go through the narrow funnel neck to get to the wide opening that is a contract for the book. A query MUST be SHORT and SHARP, in three parts: 1) A HOOK: You must hook an editor just as you will hook your readers on the book. So, I might write to an editor: Most people know that Albert Einstein was The Person of the Century in TIME Magazine. But how many people know that, as a child, Einstein was thought to be "retarded"? I put that last word in quotes, because "retarded" is not politically correct these days. Today I would use other words to get across the same "hook." Then 2) is to tell the editor the scope and focus of your book. For the one I used I might describe the focus as being how Einstein may have been dyslexic before there was dyslexia. Then the 3) part is to tell the editor why you can write the book. This third part is where some writers might give published credits. But I think editors are much more receptive to something like, "My aunt used to live next door to Albert Einstein in Princeton, NJ, in 1950 to 1952." So tell the editor why YOU are qualified to write the book. Maybe you're a teacher whose specialty is dyslexia. I know a lot of people think that if they can snow an editor with publishing credits in that third part, they're in. But I think differently. So you've published 87 times, thinks the editor. That doesn't guarantee you have what it takes to write THIS book. They are more open, I think, to more unusual qualifications. And your qualifications are there, if you have an interest in writing this particular book. So dig down and find those treasures. Be honest, but sharp!

Moderator: Do you use the Internet for research?

Mel: Yes, a lot. Let me first give some of the goodies on the Net that I've used. I mentioned encyclopedias earlier and Britannica at: is a good freebie. My own personal favorite is World Book at, but they cost. You can try their 30-day trial, but eventually they ask you to subscribe.

Then there are the search engines. My favorite is Everdene at because it gives a whole BUNCH of engines, including my very favorite specific search engine, dogpile. Also, I use Ask Jeeves quite a bit, for specific questions, such as, "Where can I find out what the 100 Swiss francs a month was worth in 1896 when Albert Einstein got this allowance from a wealthy relative of his mother's?" With Ask Jeeves, or any other search site of its type, it's important to be as "SHORTLY SPECIFIC" as you can. For instance, the Swiss francs question I cited would be pared down to fewer words, and especially key words.

You can find articles about any subject at: And that is periodical articles, some that go way back. For newspaper articles of the past few years, use the NY Times at which is a freebie, though it only goes back two years. I also use a utility called AnswerSearch for very involved questions. You can download a free trial of AnswerSearch at It costs about $100, BUT I downloaded and installed mine about a year and a half ago, and I can still use it, though out of conscience, I think I'll buy it soon (-:}.

For dictionary help on more involved words, I use Now and then you may run into foreign words on the Net. A free program called Babylon Pro will help. It is not for lengthy translations, but it will give you a word at a time. Go to, and download the "Babylon tool - OnLine use only," because Babylon has LOADS of useless-to-me bells and whistles.

Also for translation of foreign words, is a German dictionary. I used that to find out what Einstein meant when he said, "Grossarctig!" I do read some German, but that was a new word to me. So I went to the "Leo" German dictionary and found out that when an eclipse of the sun proved Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, he said, "Grossarctig!" ("Splendid!").

For ANY Internet site, make yourself a "shortcut" so you can go speedily back to it any time. Just right-click on the site you want a shortcut to, then left-click on "Create Shortcut" and then create it on your desktop. I had shortcuts for Einstein to maps of Switzerland, even of Zurich, in the late 1890s.

Moderator: Thanks for those specific web sites! Mel, after you find them, how can you tell which sites are reliable?

Mel: The sites that give lengthy articles about a subject can be very suspect, especially if they are NOT signed by a specific author that you can cross-check about. You can still get solid info from unsigned articles, but it has to be "taken with a shaker of salt." Compare the info in it with books and articles that you know are bona fide, and for any particular subject, like Einstein, you soon learn how to "separate the wheat from the chaff." What I find the Net MOST useful for are just "specific facts," such as the translation of the word, or a map, or a definition of a word.

Moderator: Do you even verify information from what you consider reliable sites?

Mel: Yes, always. Even the most seemingly obvious info I check out. I sometimes think that writing nonfiction can turn you into the world's biggest skeptic. But that's what an editor will do, "skepticize" your writing; so it's best you do it first. You'll of course even find discrepancies in books, bona fide books. One will say that Albert Einstein became a US citizen on October 14, 1940, another said it was in 1936. So you must patiently read all the sources you can and find a consensus. And that consensus is always there, it seems. If three books say one date and only one book says another date, that's consensus.

Moderator: What's the FASTEST way to get the information you need?

Mel: On the Net, by all means, because it's right there at your fingertips. Like the "grossarctig" definition, I could have gotten into my car and driven into our small town where lots of German-speaking people live, and that would've been enjoyable, but not nearly as quick. I also give at least an A- for quickness to a huge institution like the University of Iowa Libraries, and all major university libraries. While getting info there isn't quite as instantaneous as the Net, I can go down there, and in one day's time, I can find most all the books on a topic that I need to give it a well rounded treatment. I'm BIG on libraries, still, and very much in LOVE with librarians. No matter how smart a person might think they are, I find a librarian--who may not have all those smarts in the head--has "smarts on file," and can help you find the sources you need.

Moderator: Can you explain what a database is?

Mel: I built a database, for example, for my Einstein book is a very simple one, listing all the books and articles I used for a bibliography. And my database's organization is by names and pub dates and publishers and so on. On the Net, where we think about databases, a database is the listing of, say books, by a library like the University of Michigan's (my birth state). If you can get into their database you can find all the books you need. But their service may be free for students there, but at a cost for outsiders. There are, however, lots of free databases, and the University of Iowa has one, for instance, listing periodical articles of the past several years. If I were going to write about wolverines, what database would I turn to? The U of Michigan's, of course, in the Wolverine State. That's a simple illustration of where I could find the most, and the most up-to-date info about that animal. On the U of Iowa's database, which I access down there on their computer system, I can find virtually anything and the great joy of a large university library is that it's not only a library, but MANY libraries, from music to engineering to physics--you-name-it.

Moderator: Do you have particular favorites (databases)?

Mel: Mine is the one we here in northern Iowa can access. It's called "Electric Library." It's my favorite because it's so local, and our town librarian gives us the user name and password to get into it. In our Electric Library (which I think is all over Iowa), I can find periodicals and titles of books, and a location for them.

Moderator: How do you ask a search engine question so you don't get a pile of useless information back?

Mel: "Sparingly," I'd suggest. If you just feed a lot of words in, you'll get every site that has to do with EACH and EVERY one of all those words. So you want to limit them by using the boolean approach. "Boolean" comes from boolean algebra, which is about sets and combinations that simplify things. For starters, you can put quote marks around any words you put into a search engine, and it will ONLY come up with that particularized combination of words. You can also do a boolean search with an asterisk. If I put "Anders*" into a search engine, it would come up with anything associated with a person whose last name is Anderson, Andersen or Andersan. If my boolean combination is "anderson and garnett," (because capitalizing isn't really necessary), it will come up with all items on the Net that have people with the last names of Anderson and Garnett together, such as co-authored pieces, so searching with these combinational devices saves time.

Moderator: You touched on this earlier, but what happens when you land on a page that isn't in English?

Mel: You can use Babylon Pro, that I mentioned, to translate an individual word. However, there are menu items on some browsers through which you can translate whole pages of material. I did that a couple of times a long time ago, so I'm not sure what the browser drop-downs are for it, but they are there if you look through your browser's abilities.

Moderator: How do you measure at what point you've done enough research and it's time to start writing?

Mel: I feel I'm ready to start writing when I have enough material for the first chapter, or ANY chapter. So, for instance, if I'm writing a biography, which (for children) usually has the childhood chapter at about chapter 2, I'm ready to write that when I've soaked up the limited material about the subject's childhood. On the other hand, perhaps in writing an Einstein biography, I run through a lot of material about his Specific or General Theory of Relativity, which will likely occupy one chapter, and I'll write that chapter. I'll want to get writing on that one delimited part before I get confused by reading about all other parts first.

Moderator: Is there another source for gleaning information besides using a search engine?

Mel: Yes, there are newsgroups on the Net for ANY subject and of course MANY for writing. For instance, I'll just pull one out of the hat here. It's at I've already found out that this particular group (which I have never used myself) is interested in miscellaneous kinds of writing. Most of the writers newsgroups I've found are for fiction. For nonfiction, you name ANY subject, and there will be a newsgroup about AND interested in it. If I wanted to write about fire engines of the 1920s, for instance, just before what are called "production vehicles" came out in the 1930s, I would begin with the words "fire engines" on the Net in a search, then do a "boolean narrow-down" of my search terms to zero in on specific fire engines of the 1920s.

Moderator: What's a newsgroup exactly?

Mel: It's an INTEREST GROUP, really. I think the "news" is a kind of misnomer, though it really could be considered the "latest news" about a subject. For example we have a Scottie, a Scottish Terrier. We got her five years ago and as soon as I got the Internet, I went searching for "Scotties" because I knew there'd probably be some Scottie lovers who had gotten together in a "newsgroup" out there. And sure enough, I found the latest news about Scottie breeding, and Scottie dog shows, and ALL kinds of Scottie paraphernalia!

Moderator: Do you have to pay a fee to subscribe?

Mel: For some sites, you do. But most that I've found are free "news" that I think misleads. What it is is INTEREST. For another example, very current, if you install a new operating system on your computer, there will be a "newsgroup," an INTEREST Group of people wanting and needing to find out about it, and to ask the same naturally-dumb questions we all have to ask when something is new. If you install WindowsME, for example, I KNOW you'll find a news/interest group, because I did. And sometimes a company like Microsoft will actually set up a newsgroup so they don't have to answer and re-answer all of my dumb questions again and again. (-:}

Moderator: Have you ever conducted interviews over the Net?

Mel: No, I haven't, but I think it could be done, and easily. I almost did that with Einstein, but the timing just didn't work out. What I would have done is to search for the home site of the Zurich Polytechnic Institute in Switzerland, where Einstein went to college. Then I would have zeroed in on the Physics Department of the "Poly," as it was called, and get the names of the instructors. I have found people overseas very eager in many cases to discuss a subject and for some of them, to use English, which they may not know as well as their native tongue. And I would have been prepared with SPECIFIC interview questions, such as: "Would Albert Einstein--who first flunked the entrance exam at the Poly--have a hard time passing it today in 2001?"

Moderator: When you are researching, how do you decide how much stuff to print, and then, how do you organize it?

Mel: I start out as a child starts out, perhaps because I am so childlike in my approach to learning. But I want to "know nothing" going in, because I want to learn along with readers. I think that is important to adults as well. We all have read books in which the author seems like a great know-it-all, and has nothing in common with ME, who doesn't know a thing about the subject. On the other hand, we've read nonfiction authors who have the freshness of I'm-just-learning-this-myself, and here's what I know so far. Then as soon as it's needed, I organize the subject. With biography, that organization is pretty well done for you. But with a subject like birds, it isn't. So in writing about birds, I wanted first to find out if most bird people classify birds by size, color, or what. And it turned out to be the "or what," because different people classify them by different criteria. In my children's book on birds, we could only cover about a dozen, so my early criterion was THE MOST FAMILIAR birds, and that narrows it down. So, for example, I didn't write about the hornbilled umbrella bird of boola-boola!

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to stop now, but we're out of time. Thank you for coming tonight, Mel, and for sharing the nuts and bolts of researching with us. New writers are told to "write nonfiction!" because it sells better, but without this foundational knowledge about research, it's hard to know where to begin. Thanks for your help tonight!

Mel: Hey, thanks, Kristi, it's really fun to sit here in my office and just chat. THANKS FOR THE FUN TONIGHT!

Moderator: You're welcome! Do come back in two weeks on August 23 when Valerie Harms will be talking on "Marketing Tips for Writing Article and Book Proposals, and Publicity on the Web." Valerie is the author of eight books and many articles, and she has promoted her work on the Internet, in addition to having much experience with the press, radio, and TV. Authors today must sell their work in queries and proposals, and they're encouraged to promote their work in the media, but there are so many forms and so many ways to do that it becomes confusing. What works? What doesn't? Come back in two weeks to find out! Until then, good night, everyone!

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