Whether the final result of my work is a story, an article,
or a book, the writing process involves three stages.
First, I engage my imagination in the adventure before me
- with growing anticipation I focus on preparation and research.
Next, there's the excitement and unfolding adventure of
the journey itself. Finally, I settle down to the
last part of the creative process by drawing together the
threads of my research and experience into a story that
can touch the lives of my readers.
As I tell students in my writing workshops, research is
one of the most fun things I do as a nonfiction writer and
as a river traveler. Before a trip, during a trip, and after
a trip, I conduct research. Other words for research include
study, discover, explore, and investigate. Can you think
A lot of people think "research"
is something dry and dusty that happens in old libraries.
It's true that some research does indeed take place in old--and
new--libraries. In fact, articles and books are very important
in preparing for a river trip. They can give a mental picture
of the experience ahead, which can be important in planning
what I should bring and special arrangements I should make--ranging
from the need for a passport to warm clothes. Articles and
books can also give me ideas of things to look for
in my adventure. Learning about experiences writers have
had in the past can clue me in to important aspects of the
river that may have changed. Is wildlife as plentiful as
it once was? Are people using the river as they did in past
times? Are there now dams where there once were wild, flowing
waters and deep canyons? I certainly read before I go. I
also read during a trip, and afterward. Books are a great
resource. But there are other ways to research a river.
People, for instance. Every
river has its experts. Not only scientists and ecologists
and historians, but just plain people like your dad or mom,
or the man and woman down the street, or especially your
grandparents. Older people have a lot of wisdom stored inside
them and love to talk about what they know, including river
stories, river events, and river lore. Most of us are better
talkers than listeners--so you be the listener. They'll
love you for listening to them, and you'll get stories and
information and expertise in exchange.
First thing I do when I'm
about to take a trip on a river is start a list of articles
and books to read and people to talk to. Whether it's a
trip on the Hudson, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Amazon,
the Everglades, the Yukon, the Rio Grande, or Otter Creek
outside my window--first I need to find out who the experts
are. I can talk to them in person, or I can talk to them
by phone. Or I can write them a letter or an e-mail note.
Other methods of research in preparing
for a river trip include fun things like learning what gear
to take. On the Hudson River, I needed a long
canoe for long distances and big water. On the Erie Canal
I needed a shorter, faster, more tippy canoe. This was something
I discovered as I began to learn about the waterway I'd
chosen to travel and to write about. In preparation for
my Mississippi trip, I checked the internet and found all
kinds of information. I also found two people who had canoed
the entire river, and I contacted them via Email. Then we
spoke on the phone. They gave me excellent advice, and I
even hooked up with one of the Mississippi paddlers in New
Orleans. He helped me with some photography, and he gave
me some river facts I did not know before.
Once I've prepared as best
I can for a river trip; once I've read some articles and
books about the river; once I've talked to as many river
experts as I can locate, I am now more familiar with the
watershed I'll be traveling in. I plan the trip as best
I can, making an itinerary of where I hope to be on any
given day. (Even though some of these plans fall through,
other opportunities appear out of nowhere.) And I am ready
I often call the journey
itself "research." An adventure down a river is
learning, exploring, investigating, isn't it? I take river
books with me so I can learn things along the way. I talk
to experts on the river banks. I stop in towns I didn't
even know existed. Most importantly, though, I observe the
river firsthand. No research is as good as firsthand observation.
I smell the river, I see it, I hear it, and I can feel it
in the rocking of the canoe in the waves. All of which I
write down in my journal.
Journals are ways of recording
one's firsthand research. The river journal I keep will
form the basis of the book I will write when I get home.
I have kept up to a thousand pages of journal notes for
a 20-page children's manuscript and a 300-page adult book.
My research on the expedition
is intense. From the moment I wake at four or five in the
morning to the moment I fall asleep after a long day of
hard travel, I keep my eyes and ears open. I value curiosity,
and I ask a ton of questions. Anything I learn that I think
might be useful later, I write down in my journal. Or, more
accurately, I speak into a microphone.
These days I make my notes
with a tape recorder. Notebooks, I have discovered, get
awfully wet in the rain and the spray of whitewater. I have
returned from river trips with notebooks I can not read.
So a few years ago I started to use a micro-cassette recorder,
which I store in a waterproof pouch around my neck. (Buying
just the right pouch is part of my preparation for a journey.)
After completing my journey
down a river, it's time to write the book. The hardest thing
for me is to hammer out a first draft. Why shouldn't it
be difficult? A blank page sits before me, and now I have
to make something from nothing.
To make the task less daunting,
I take each step at a time. I don't focus on the finished
product, but on smaller tasks. First thing I do is type
out all the notes I've taken on my tape-recorder. Usually
that's about 90 pages of text. Sometimes it's a lot more;
other times it's less.
After the notes are typed,
I go to a quiet place. I need complete concentration when
I work on an essay, story, or book. Often this is in my
own home, but before anyone is awake. Four or five in the
morning is my most productive time.
On my first morning of work,
I review my notes, leaf through history books about the
river at hand, then put everything aside. I try to think
how best to tell the story of my adventure. I want the adventure
to come alive. I want the reader to feel the adventure the
way I felt it. So I think about structure, about beginning,
middle, and end. I think about pace, the speed of the story.
I think about tone, how the words sound. And I recall my
feelings as I went down the river.
I work for many hours, but end
up with about three pages a day. Some days fewer, some days
more. I try not to edit myself too much the first time around.
I want to get at the heart of an adventure, its feeling.
Thinking too much about my writing can stop me dead in my
After five or six days, I
complete a rough draft of a short book. It's usually very
rough, pretty bad actually. But I let it sit for a day,
then rewrite it before sending it to my editor. I know it
still needs a lot of work.
When published, the book
will be 48 pages. That means I have to send a 20-page manuscript,
typed and double-spaced. I also send about three hundred
photographs from my journey. No more than fifty of these
will end up in the book.
After I send the book off,
I wait for my editor's call. Sometimes he doesn't call for
weeks. This is hard. When he calls, we talk about the draft.
This begins the editing process. He says it needs work.
And I feel disappointed, but I know he's right. He sees
things I can't see because I'm too close to the material.
He helps me with the overall thinking of the story. He asks
me questions like: Should this be in the present tense?
Can I add some history here? Can I shorten this passage?
How might I tighten the prose in places?
Always his comments
are helpful. I don't agree with him at times. For six months
we edit. We edit by talking over the phone, we edit by fax,
and we edit on computer disks. I rewrite again and again.
Gradually the book takes shape.
PUBLISHING OF THE BOOK
designer scans fifty photographs into the computer. Some
of these photos are ones I've taken from my journey. Others
are historical photos that go along with the text. Once
the text and photos are in the computer, the designer then
fits the text (which is still being cut and reworked and
checked for factual errors) with the photos, then prints
out various designs. The editor and I consult with the designer
at this stage and make comments. The design phase goes on
for a month or so. Finally the book is ready and the
designer puts the text with the photos.
When the cover and the book are finally
designed, page by page, the whole thing is sent to the printer
in Hong Kong, overnight mail, and a few months later the
color proofs come back to the publisher. At this stage the
photos are checked to see if the color seems right. The
text is not changed at this point, but corrections are made
if the photos need changing, and the corrections are sent
with the disk back to Hong Kong.
Now the printer starts to
print something called F&G's, the Folded and Gathered
galleys. These pages look like the final book but are not
bound together. Essentially an F&G is an early version
of the book, which can be sent out to book reviewers for
comments (favorable, we hope). Meanwhile orders are now
coming in from bookstores and libraries and schools, and
perhaps five thousand copies are being printed and shipped
across the ocean.
Finally, two or even three
years after I had the idea for this particular river journey,
a Fed Ex truck rolls up my driveway. My dog Daisy barks
at the truck because she hates the sound of those Fed Ex
truck wheels. The Fed Ex lady gives her eight dog biscuits,
which keeps her quiet while I get my package.
When the truck drives off,
Daisy barks once again. I open the package and look at the
finished book for the first time. What a feeling! To see
something I've worked hard at, and which has taken so long
to produce, is exciting.
But the truth is, by the
time that truck rolls up my driveway with the book, I've
already taken my next river trip and am working on a new
manuscript. So I move on to the next journey, always keeping
a notebook for future ideas.
It's a good life: researching
river journeys, taking river trips, writing the drafts and
producing the books. I'm one lucky dude. Mostly I love to
learn about the people and history and geography of each
new river, so different from the one before it.
Have a look at my river books:
Amazon, Hudson, Everglades, Yukon,
Erie Canal, Rio Grande, and Mississippi.
See how different each one is. What are the differences?
What are the similarities?
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