At "A Book in Hand" author's forum in Dennis, Massachusetts, I spoke last month to a group of writers about the process of discovery throughout four and a half years of working on Nature's Ambassador. Here are a few points I covered:
Readers may not realize the enormous amount of revelation that takes place during the writing process. Even we writers can be taken aback by the discovery of new information that our original plan must unexpectedly accommodate. Not long ago I listened to novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River; Gone, Baby, Gone) humorously describe his surprise, irritation, resistance, and finally acceptance of the discovery that a minor character in one of his blockbuster novels simply refused to be eliminated. The author had to yield to his own fictitious character! I had notebooks full of information about my subject when I started work onNature's Ambassador. However, if the final published version were limited to what I knew then about Thornton Burgess' life and career, it would have been one-third of its eventual size. I was more than a year into my work before I had to accept the fact that I was not writing the tabletop book my publisher and I had envisioned, but a legitimate biography. As I told the publisher, I had not deviated structurally from the four-part outline of my book proposal, but, of necessity, my depth and range of detail had evolved. I had serious concerns. What if I pursued essential leads, but got seriously off track? Then again, what if I held to my plan, but ignored the massive momentum of my research? In the end, I resigned my self to letting the story lead me, as Lehane had done. What revelations occurred in my writing process? I knew Burgess had a popular radio program in the 1920s and 30s, but I didn't know it may have been the first children's nature program on radio. I knew the children's author was an ardent conservationist, but was unaware of the extraordinary extent of his effort. He conceived of and implemented through the popular People's Home Journal a private land conservation program that posted five million acres for bird sanctuaries. I found letters that heartily congratulated Thornton Burgess for his assistance in passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. I learned he was honored by the prestigious New York Zoological Society for influencing the environmental values of "millions of children." I remember thinking, "What's that figure again - millions? In 1919?" That was less than a decade into his career as a children's author. He wrote for forty-six more years.
I was startled to learn the children's author had attended the 1931 Matamek Conference on Biological Cycles in Labrador, a meeting that assembled leading scientists from Europe and North America to consider the same environmental issues we study today. (Thornton Burgess, by the way, was equally startled to learn that these eminent scientists were quite familiar with and approved of his nature-based books and newspaper columns; his chagrined account of their insistence that he tell them a story is hilarious.) Discovering Burgess' friendship and collaboration with distinguished Smithsonian curator Austin Clark added terrific detail. But when I was provided copies of their animated, near-daily correspondence through the generous assistance of Smithsonian researcher Marcel LaFollette, author of Science on the Air, and curator Dr. David Pawson and his wife Doris at the National Museum of Natural History, it required a marvelous new chapter: "Austin Clark and the Radio Nature League." I knew Burgess had written dozens of books. (In Nature's Ambassador I clear up the confusion between 70 or 170 total books.) But I was astounded to discover those books had sold possibly eleven million copies by the mid-1960s. Booksellers have verified that this was an impressive sales figure at that time. I would learn he had multiple publishers, his last book came out the year he was 91, and that more than half of Burgess' books are still in print, which booksellers say is also remarkable for early 20th century books. New research changed not just the shape and size, but the very purpose of my book. It solidified my growing conviction that an important children's author and conservationist had been significantly overlooked in the history of two fields. Without new discoveries, the last sentence in my introduction could not have been written! So, I've come to expect and welcome discovery in the writing process, and wonder if all writers find this true?