Nonfiction Writing: Wielding the Microscope

I’ve been hard at work on my first-ever fiction manuscript. While the piece is a made-up story, I am trying to make my lead character — a groundhog — as realistic as possible. My first task was to brush up on hibernation facts by checking out a few nonfiction children’s books from the library.

I started by skimming Pamela Hickman’s Animals HibernatingLet’s face it. I know the basic groundhog story: go to sleep and wake up in time for Groundhog Day, see shadow (or not) etc. But reading Hickman’s book, I became so fascinated by the topic of hibernation that I slowed down and started reading more slowly. She captures perfectly the principle of wielding the microscope: choosing a very narrow topic, becoming an expert and finding something interesting in the familiar.

Clifford Stoll talks about this process in his article, “How to Build a Curious Child.” As he says, “if you are bored or think you know, narrow your focus.” This is exactly what Ph.D. students and college professors do. They don’t write a thesis about the entire Civil War or the whole subject of astronomy. Instead, they pick a smaller piece: a little-known battle or Civil War-era family or the genesis of Mars’s moons and spend years researching and writing the topic.

Psychologist Todd Kashdan talks about this principle of making the familiar unfamiliar in his book, Curious? One technique he suggests is to pick a totally unappealing task or topic.  As you do, try to find three novel or different things about it. Then talk about it with someone else, sharing your new-found thoughts and expertise. Kashdan’s research in a laboratory environment showed that people completely changed their view of the distasteful activity when they approached it in this way. And they were more likely to practice this technique in the future when faced with familiar or unappealing tasks and topics.

So, are you ready for some fun facts about hibernation courtesy of Hickman? You’ll never find hibernation boring again.:

  • Actually few animals are true hibernators — groundhogs are one — but several animals are “deep sleepers” including black bears, skunks and raccoons. The difference has to do with body temperature. Deep sleepers’ body temperatures lower only slightly, while hibernators’ temperatures can dip below freezing.
  • Remember all those sci-fi movies where people are cryogenically frozen and then return to life? Welcome to the world of hibernating reptiles. A number of frogs, turtles, fish and insects literally freeze in the winter. Their hearts can stop and their blood can stop flowing. But then when the air warms up, they literally come back to life.
  • Many hibernators don’t eat, drink or go to the bathroom during hibernation. But others, like certain mice and chipmunks, like to nosh throughout the winter. They wake up from their hibernation from time to time and have a little snack. I guess they don’t worry about getting crumbs in their beds.

Wielding the microscope is what makes some nonfiction writers truly great, and I’ll talk about one such writer during my Perfect Picture Book Friday book review.  Stay tuned!

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5 Replies to “Nonfiction Writing: Wielding the Microscope”

    1. Jennifer, Kenny shall remain a groundhog for now, since I’ve opted to go the magazine route. If I ever decide to approach trade publishers, I think he’ll become a chipmunk (badgers are carnivores, too gross).

  1. Cool. I know the feeling of getting wrapped up in a topic. I once wrote a story where one of the characters was a wood frog because I found those creatures fascinating. I usually read up on an animal before writing story about them. I love when fiction is infused with facts. Do you know where I could find a copy of Clifford Stoll’s article, “How to Build a Curious Child.” I would like to read it.

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