Pre-Researching: The Key to Quickly Landing on Marketable NF Ideas
By Mary Boone
I have a favorite running shirt that says: If it was easy, everyone would do it. True about marathoning – and true about writing books for kids.
Most of us know that feeling of excitement when you stumble upon a nugget of an idea you think might be “the one.” For nonfiction authors, it is easy to allow that enthusiasm to suck you into the research vortex. A few hours of research can turn into days of research, which often turns into months or years. Before you know it, you’ve spent hundreds of hours sifting through newspaper archives, old diaries, scholarly journal articles, and the like, and you’re not even sure the topic is worthwhile or workable.
Trust me, I’ve spent many months researching non-marketable books in the past. That’s why I now do what I consider PRE-research. I limit myself to 10 to 15 hours to do cursory research to determine if an idea is book-worthy. Here’s what I consider:
What else has been written?
According to the American Library Association, there are approximately 26,000 new juvenile books – board books through young adult – published each year. Take the time to research the market. How much direct competition would your book have?
Want to write about Martin Luther King Jr.? He’s obviously a worthy subject, but there are already thousands (yes, thousands!) of books about him. That feels like a fairly saturated market. Which leads to my next question …
Do I have a fresh angle?
Most topics have been written about in one way or another. Do I have a fresh take? Angela Farris Watkins, for example, wrote about MLK Jr., but she did it from a different angle. My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart (Abrams, 2010) is told from the perspective of his young niece and presents readers with a glimpse into this important man’s personal life. More recently, Nancy Churnin wrote Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank (Creston Books, 2019). King and Frank were born the same year on separate continents, but both faced prejudice and violence. Churnin’s book details the activists’ parallel journeys to find hope and peace.
Mark Twain once wrote: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
No matter what topic you’re researching, from activism to seashells or recycling to ground-breaking discoveries, ask yourself if your angle is new and fresh. Will your kaleidoscope view be different enough to appeal to agents, editors, and young readers?
Why would young readers care?
And this is, perhaps, the most important question of all. You can have all the enthusiasm in the world about your topic, but unless you can appeal to young readers through a fascinating story, or startling facts, or humor, your manuscript may never become a book.
Think for a moment about single-use plastic bags and how they seem to litter every ditch or roadside you've ever seen.
Your pre-research period doesn’t have to have a set time. But once you’ve done enough research to know your story without digging too awfully deep, it’s wise to ask yourself if the idea is truly viable. Not all ideas are. It doesn’t mean you have to completely abandon the topic. Just look for a new way to tell the story. Or, shelve the idea until you find the right hook for your story. In the meantime, happy researching!
BIO: Mary Boone has written more than 50 nonfiction books for young readers (click the previous link to view them) on topics from biomimicry to inventor biographies. She has taught writing courses at both the high school and community college level, and she loves presenting at writing conferences. Mary is a member of SCBWI Western Washington’s Advisory Committee and serves as a judge for Rate Your Story. Her upcoming middle grade book, Bugs for Breakfast: How Eating Insects Could Help Save the Planet, will be released in October by Chicago Review Press.
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