For the latest issue of my Research Secrets column in Writers Forum I have interviewed Anne Rooney about her research process for her non-fiction children’s books.
Anne Rooney’s books range from lavish, large-format to smaller, cheaper books. Dinosaur Atlas (2017) and Animal Atlas (2019) for Lonely Planet are good examples of the first type, with fold-out maps, flaps, and fantastic illustrations. How to be an Eco-Hero (2020) is an example of the smaller format and has line drawings.
Anne loves doing research. She said:
“There’s a childish part of me which goes ‘Wow! look what I’ve found!’ — and that’s essentially what my books are. My older daughter says my job is basically being a perpetual student, and that’s pretty much true.” (Anne Rooney)
Anne explains that research can take you to all kinds of places: the distant past, deep below Earth’s surface, the furthest reaches of outer space or far inside your own (or something else’s) body. This is why she finds it more adventurous than writing fiction. Throughout the interview she used her book, Dinosaur Atlas (illustrated by James Gilleard), to demonstrate what she meant and discuss the research she covered.
“It covers the whole world and 160 million years, so it is quite ambitious. It sounds like it’s just ‘find out about dinosaurs’, but it’s far more than that.” (Anne Rooney)
Anne explained how her research varies considerably from one book to another and how it differs slightly between fiction and non-fiction, but not necessarily more than between different types of non-fiction or different types of fiction. She told me the real difference is whether you are completely immersing yourself in an unfamiliar environment — 16th-century Italy, say — or checking details, such as which flavour crisps were available in 1980. The same applies in non-fiction. Some topics take tons of in-depth research and others take far less.
“Perhaps research for fiction can get you into more trouble more easily. In Off the rails (Evans, 2010; reissued, Readzone, 2014), a boy witnesses a crime from a moving train. I took the train journey, found the right spot, and tracked the other locations and journeys on Google maps. A few days later, my younger daughter challenged me: what had I done? Why did Google maps have an overlay marked ‘dump body here’? That doesn’t happen with non-fiction — though my lists of street prices of illegal drugs have raised eyebrows occasionally.” (Anne Rooney)
Anne also spelled out why there’s as much work to do understanding and sometimes explaining how we know something as what we know. Do we know what colours dinosaurs were? Why not/how? How do we know what they ate? In a world with a very cavalier attitude towards facts and truth, books for children need to set a good example by showing how truth is rooted in rigorous investigation that can be replicated and explained. Dinosaur Atlas features life size photos of bits of dinosaur. Anne suggests that museums are the best source for this: actually seeing a tooth the size of a banana makes it clear that absolutely has to go on the page.
To research a book like Dinosaur Atlas, first Anne sets out what she needs to know. The parameters are set by the format of the book, including illustrations. An important part of research is providing an artwork brief and reference – that is, pictures the artist or picture researcher can use as a guide. The better and more detailed the ref is, the more likely they are to come up with a suitable picture the first time round.
My PhD supervisor told me years ago that you don’t need to know everything, you just need to know people who know everything you need to know. One of the best resources is people. I’m lucky to know lots of knowledgeable and helpful people! I had a consultant on this book, Dr David Button, who works at NHM in London and could answer any tricky questions I couldn’t resolve on my own.
She explained that with a book like Dinosaur Atlas, the reference has to be accurate, and that means knowing which sources are reliable and which not.
“There’s a lot of dinosaur stuff out there and it’s important to know which sources are reliable and which not. You need to look for things that cite authoritative sources. It’s not all reading. I also watched YouTube videos produced by reputable channels such as PBS and the BBC to get some kind of idea of dinosaurs as living creatures.” (Anne Rooney)
She mentioned there are some brilliant professional paleolithic artists out there and Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) created by experts where you can see the exact posture for theropods, because dinosaurs such as the T-rex didn’t stand upright as they are often shown, but had a more horizontal posture.
Her starting point for choosing dinosaurs was to get a good geographic spread. She started with the Natural History Museum’s Dino Directory as you can search about 300 dinosaurs by date, by type (eg theropod, sauropod, ankylosaur) and by continent, so it was a great way to get an initial list of possible candidates. Anne told me for details of specific dinosaurs, there are some great online databases, such as Prehistoric Wildlife and blogs such as Everything Dinosaur.
Her research tip for other non-fiction book writers, it to integrate research into your life.
The world is buzzing with fascinating information. Keeping your research antennae alert all the time and note down everything that might be useful for any book you might ever want to write, anything that sparks your curiosity, even if you don’t have any immediate use for it.
She also explains you need to keep on top of your particular areas of expertise. Read the relevant magazines or journals, subscribe to email updates from all the relevant organisations and not everything potentially interesting and suggests that you keep track of your sources rigorously. Footnote everything. Keep the library call marks and the URLs of all your sources. You never know when you might need to go back to them.