How I Make Research Fun
By Natalie Rompella
We’ve all read our share of uninspired student research papers. Why? We’re often asking for boilerplate facts (Where does your animal live? What’s its diet?). These details are important for the student to know, but their research journey can be so much richer.
I remember writing research reports in elementary school. Back then, the process involved picking through the card catalog for sources based on a general subject, such as bears. If I was lucky, I’d find some dry, informative books, an even drier encyclopedia, and maybe a magazine article that the librarian had to locate in the back of the library that had one weak paragraph on the subject.
When I began my writing career, I had no idea how much of my time would be spent on research. I especially didn’t realize that I would need to do so much for writing fiction! So what does fiction research entail? Here’s my journey for my middle grade fiction novel, Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners. At the end, I will share my tips to use with students.
My interest in writing about sled dog racing began back in 2006. I was writing a nonfiction book about ten sports that started in the United States titled Famous Firsts: The Trendsetters, Groundbreakers, and Risk-takers Who Got America Moving! I was short one sport. For the sake of including a variety of different states, I went with sled dog racing although I knew absolutely nothing about it. So I began to read and learn.
There weren’t a ton of books about the sport back then at my local library. Luckily, by this time, the Internet was an option (I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I had been writing this book in the 1980s!). Being a bit quirky, I never just look up one subject, such as “sled dog racing;” I like to pair odd combinations and see what comes up. I learned about some strange dogs that way (such as a team of sled dog poodles as well as a team being parachuted to the starting line).
But it wasn’t until I dove into the actual sport that I became captivated.
I watched a documentary on the Iditarod that followed some of the mushers on their 1,100-mile journey of the race. I got to feel what it was like to be in their shoes, with their dogs, in Alaska, racing.
Long story short, I completed my nonfiction book, but my brain wasn’t done with the information. Now I wanted to write a novel that featured sled dog racing. But I realized I still didn’t know enough. I kept my eye open for any mention of the Iditarod or sled dog racing.
First, I went to a local demonstration on the sport. I applied for a writing grant to travel to Alaska for research. Although I won the grant, the timing wasn’t right to travel at that time.
Instead, I loaded up my family (including my nine-month old) to check out a sprint race just a couple of hours away in Wisconsin. And here was my a-ha moment.
The minute I opened the car door, I was bombarded with the sound of dogs barking. I could see my breath in the cold air. This was what the sport was really like!
Actually being at an event gave me the advantage to meet mushers (the racers) and ask questions. Since I had already studied the basics of the sport, I let my curiosity guide me with educated questions not found in books. Through their answers, I learned more about the subculture of the sport. I felt their passion (and it was rubbing off on me!). These people adored their dogs. They enjoyed being out in the cold and in nature, and I loved soaking everything in.
I had become familiar with mushing terms, such as gee (go right) and haw (go left) but it was different to see vocabulary words actually being implemented as a necessity for the sport. And I learned new lingo that wasn’t necessarily included in informational books. I knew I was onto something.
By this point, it’s 2010—social media was in full swing. I joined a Facebook group for mushers, and a young musher friended me. It turned out she lived near my mother-in-law in Michigan. We got in touch, and I visited her family’s dog kennel. She answered a ton of questions and read my book for accuracy. Through it all, it wasn’t just the facts she provided in her answers but the phrasing she used that gave Dasher, the young musher in my book, a voice. (It’s actually really cool—this musher was the true Dasher—it was like I had written about her!)
But I was having too much fun to stop my researching process even though I probably had more than enough information for a fiction or a nonfiction book. Someone tipped me off that an Iditarod musher was doing school visits nearby. After hearing him speak, I got in contact with him. He also answered my questions, but then…he invited me to attend the Iditarod as a behind-the-scenes guest! I used my writing grant and, in 2012, went to Alaska.
This was a life-changing experience for me. I got to hang out with mushers who were preparing for a monumental event in their lives. I watched as all of the things I had read about were done…all the picket lines and tug lines for the dogs. I got up in the middle of the night as mushers were caring for their dogs, and I chatted with people I now considered leaders in the sport. I observed first-hand how upset a dog got when it wasn’t chosen to race.
How did all of this get utilized in my novel? It developed my voice. I could feel Ana, my [non-mushing] main character’s awe when she rode in a dog sled for the first time. I felt Dasher’s disappointment when she sprained her ankle and could no longer mush in the upcoming race. I even had a better sense of the personalities of all the different dogs.
So how can my experience help your students? Here are my tips for gathering information to use in fiction and nonfiction writing projects:
- Don’t only use print sources (authors surely don’t!). Allow students to watch videos or witness something related to their subject in person (go to the zoo to see their animal’s movement and what kind of enclosure is needed). Even if they don’t gather facts from it, it may spark a new direction for the topic or new questions for further research.
- Let their experience lead the questions (versus giving them the same boilerplate list). This allows the points of interest to be the focus.
- If possible, find ways for the student to hear experts talking, whether on social media or through videos. It makes the vocabulary come to life.
- After students have done some initial research, try to set up an interview with an expert on the topic: email, phone/video call, or snail mail is fine. The expert can answer questions, veer the topic in a more interesting direction, or help students understand an important aspect they hadn’t considered. (Be sure students prepare their questions beforehand.)
- Allow students to share what they learn as they go. This is beneficial in so many ways! We all know how useful it is for students to teach others—helping them understand a subject better as well. As an author, my job can be very lonely. When I start talking about my subject, I’m getting a chance to share my excitement with others. Often, someone will ask a question that I realize I don’t know the answer to, and my research continues. As well, talking about it might inspire other students to spin their hunt for facts in a more dynamic direction.
- Encourage students to read all sorts of print related to their topic—including fiction, magazine articles, and newspapers. This allows them to immerse themselves in the world of that topic. They can feel a stronger connection to it. They can also try their hand at writing another piece with the information they gathered, such as a work of fiction.
Unlike my childhood connotation of the word “research,” I now know that it means immersing myself in a topic I enjoy. As teachers, we all know it’s often a matter of how we phrase a topic as to how our students feel about it. Let’s make research fun!
Natalie Rompella is the author of more than sixty books and resources for kids, including the middle grade novel, Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners (Sky Pony Press) and the insect picture book, The World Never Sleeps (Tilbury House). Natalie is a former elementary and middle school teacher, as well as a former museum educator and curriculum coordinator for the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. She enjoys doing school visits for grades K-8. Find out more at https://natalierompella.com.