For many years, I only pulled out my notebooks when I went hiking or explored natural areas near my home. But in 1996, I began a special notebook, a travel log, when I went on safari in Africa. After that, I kept a special notebook for each major trip I took—the Galapagos Islands, the Costa Rican rainforest, the coral reefs off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Hawaii, the Florida Everglades. Those travel logs now reside in special folders inside a giant file cabinet in my office, and I pull material from one or more of them for almost every book I write.
When I became a fulltime freelance writer in 2000, an account advised me to keep records of how I spent my days to use as evidence if I was ever audited by the IRS.
At first, each entry was just a brief listing of projects I worked on each day.
But soon they evolved into much more. Today they are a hodgepodge of everything from lists of books I want to read to research notes to snippets of poetry.
They include sketches and observations, lists of title ideas, and thoughts about how to structure manuscripts in progress.
My notebooks might seem like a cluttered mess to someone else, but not to me. By keeping all kinds of thoughts and ideas together in one place, I always seem to be able to go back and find what I need when I need it.
I never go anywhere without my notebook, and I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s my most critical writing tool.
One thing I like to do in my notebook when I’m out exploring is make quick lists of observations. I write down anything that makes an impression on me, and then I try to use the observations to write a haiku.
During a recent week-long residency at Wealthy School in East Grand Rapids, MI, I accompanied a group of students in grades 3-5 to a local wetland. I was intrigued by three female mallard ducks furiously feeding, probably because they wanted to fatten up before migrating.
One student said, “It looks like their heads are vibrating.” What a great comment! That was all the inspiration I needed to start writing.
Here are the notes I took:
You can see I used pencil because I wanted to be able to erase. Based on those notes, here’s the first haiku I wrote:
shaking, quaking, vibrating,
I wasn’t totally satisfied with that, so I left some blank space in my notebook. I thought I might give it another try later.
Sure enough, while I was eating dinner, I had an idea. I realized that if I showed a photo I had taken of the ducks along with the haiku, I could use my words more wisely.
Thanks to the photo, I didn’t need the first line of the haiku at all. Readers could see the three mallard ducks I was writing about. That allowed me to include some information about the setting.
Here is my revision:
Three vibrating heads
in a shallow wetland,
What do you think? Which version do you like better?
Melissa Stewart is the author of more than 150 science books for children, including FEATHERS: NOT JUST FOR FLYING (Charlesbridge, 2014, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen), an ALA Notable and winner of the Cybils Award for Nonfiction and the Nerdy Book Club Award for Nonfiction. She is the co-author (with Nancy Chelsey) of PERFECT PAIRS: USING FICTION AND NONFICTION PICTURE BOOKS TO TEACH LIFE SCIENCE, K-2 (Stenhouse, 2014). To learn more about Melissa and her work, please visit her website.
I am very grateful to National Geographic, one of Melissa's publishers, for offering a giveaway of these three wonderful nonfiction books - SNAKES, DEADLIEST ANIMALS, and METEORS - to one lucky commenting winner! Please leave your comment by Sunday, January 31 to be entered into the drawing.
As winners have sometimes not claimed their books, I would like to remind you that I will announce this month's winner in this space on January 31, and I will also make announcements at my Twitter page and at The Poem Farm Facebook page. Please consider following either of those pages if you would like to receive such updates.
Please know that Sharing Our Notebooks welcomes all kinds of notebook keepers - of any age and interest - to open up their pages and share process. If you are interested in writing in this space, please contact me, Amy, directly.
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