I’ve been lucky enough to have been on several panels at conferences for teachers and librarians. I’ve also started to do more and more school and library visits. In both settings, I’m often asked about the research for my books. I can go into great detail about what I did, but as for how I felt about it? This always makes me squirm. You see, my general attitude toward research is not positive, and this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a certified school librarian. Research is supposed to be my jam. Second, I’m often seated next to Kate Messner, who is a research junky, so I always feel sheepish about answering, especially when I go after her. I want to love research as much as Kate does.
Recently I’ve realized that maybe I do.
I’ve had some time to think more about my research process, and my emotions surrounding it, and I have a few more thoughts about it that I’d like to share, especially as it is back to school time and soon teachers and librarians will be helping students to do their own research.
When I taught research to students, I always told them that research is not a straight line, it’s a coil. You start by looking at the big picture, and keep narrowing down, but you also backtrack. One source might contradict another, or maybe it leads you in a direction you didn’t anticipate, so you’re always going back and digging deeper.
What I’ve realized doing my own research is that while, indeed, research is not a straight line, it does seem to fall into two phases or types. I’m going to call these Mucking Around and Drilling Down.
For me, Mucking Around is the fun stuff. It’s when you learn everything you can about your topic. Some people might call this pre-research, especially when working with students, because it focuses on the topic at the broadest level. But I think calling it that diminishes its value, and could lead students to rush through this phase. Students need to take the time — and therefore need to be given the time — to read and learn widely.
In my own work, Mucking About has meant that for The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill I learned everything I could about the early 1950s, McCarthyism, and the Red Scare. For The Water Castle I learned about electromagnetism, the history of bottled water, science at the start of the 20th century, and more. For my first book, Secrets of Truth and Beauty, I wallowed in the world of raising goats and making goat cheese. Mucking About took me on field trips to the Thomas Edison National Historic Park, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, and to spelling bees. It let me read great nonfiction like The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy by James Cross Giblin and call it work. I could Muck About for years.
This is the type of research writers talk about when they say they had so much good information and were dismayed that they couldn’t possibly put it all in. This type of research is fun because it is researcher-directed and therefore is interesting to the author, or at least relevant to his or her work. Plus it is fun because it is discovery, it is lifting up rocks and seeing what is there, it is uncovering an old wardrobe in an ancient house. You don’t know what you’re going to find, but chances are high that it will be something good. Of course, this is the problem with Mucking About for both students and authors. It’s fun and it’s exciting, and it feels like there is always so much more to learn. But I didn’t choose the term “Mucking About” lightly: you can indeed get as stuck as The Little Blue Truck. I can recall countless students that needed a big push out of the Mucking About phase into deeper, more specific research. Sometimes they were simply enjoying themselves, and other times they were simply stalling. I can understand both of these motivations, because I would be all too happy to stay in the Mucking About phase and ignore Drilling Down all together. But Drilling Down must be done, and that’s what I will talk about in part two.