What inspired you to be a writer?
I’ve always been interested in reading so I think indirectly I’ve been inspired by other writers. As a kid, I liked sketching and imagined that one day I would be a cartoonist. I created comic strips, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was playing around with words, stories and pictures, and that’s largely what writing is all about. So my own inspiration has come from a number of places, I suppose.
What do you enjoy most about writing non-fiction?
I love uncovering new information and learning about things I didn’t before. With each book, I get to become a bit of an expert on a subject of interest to me and hopefully readers do, too. I love when readers tell me that they became turned on to a topic after reading one of my books. That’s the best kind of news.
What do you find most difficult about writing non-fiction?
Sometimes having to stick to the facts is a challenge. Occasionally, I find myself wanting to insert a personal opinion where one really doesn’t belong or to add facts that I’m not completely certain about. The other thing that is difficult is finding the right tone for true stories that have an element of drama and excitement to them. I have to guard against being overly dramatic or adding emotions and feelings that aren’t really evident in the research material.
What do you enjoy most about writing fiction?
With fiction, I am not bound to a true story or restricted to certain facts. There's more freedom to dream, to unleash characters and plots that come purely from my imagination.
What do you find most difficult about writing fiction?
Making choices. Because the story is open-ended, many plot options are open. I start with a story outline, but as I write the first draft, new ideas surface. Sometimes they're really good, but including them means that the nature of the story changes. That means that I might have to go back and rewrite sections that came earlier. I have to remind myself that writing is an open process, and that I have to allow for moments of change.
Where do you find stories for your non-fiction books?
Many of the true stories in my books first appeared as items in newspapers, in magazines, on television or on radio, and that’s how I first heard about them. Others were located in books, on the Internet or were passed on to me by other people. From there, it was a matter of digging deeper and doing more research to verify the facts and to make sure I understood all of the details. At times, this meant making trips to the library and local bookstore, or making phone calls to check facts with experts who knew the answers. Sometimes, I interviewed the subject, too, either by phone or by e-mail.
How do you know the facts in your books are correct?
I try to have at least 3 independent and reliable sources for each event or main detail. By cross-referencing the facts that way, the chances of being accurate are much greater. Of course, accuracy also depends on the types of sources being used. First-hand accounts (biographies, interviews, diaries, journals etc.) are often more accurate than second-hand accounts. I look at the credentials of the person I am using a source, too. Experts on a subject carry more weight than someone who isn’t an authority.
Publishers do their part to make sure the information in a book is accurate as well. For each of my books, the publisher hired a fact-checker to double check the information. If the fact-checker found a conflicting fact, I was told. Then it was my job as the author to review the research materials again to find out exactly which version was correct.
What is the most difficult step in writing a story?
For me, the beginning of a story is the most challenging part to write. It has to include basic things about the setting, names of characters, and the problem they are facing. As well, the beginning has to be interesting enough that the reader is going to want to keep reading the entire story. Trying to get all of this down in a few opening lines or paragraphs is the biggest challenge for me. Sometimes I write two or three beginnings then choose the best of the bunch later on rather than becoming bogged down trying to write the perfect one right at the start.
Is writing hard work?
I write every day, and some days the writing is easy. The words seem to spill on to the page effortlessly. Other days, it’s tedious stuff. The words just don’t seem to want to behave, and I’m lucky if I write even one paragraph. I don’t get upset. I just keep plugging on, knowing that day by day I’m making progress. I tell myself that if I average even a page a day then I’ll have 365 pages in a year. That’s more than a book.
How frustrating is it to mess up?
Very frustrating, but I tell myself it’s okay, too. One nice thing about writing is that you can keep playing around with words until you are happy with them. It’s a bit like being a sculptor. A sculptor plays with clay, shaping and forming it until he/she is happy. If something doesn’t look right, the sculptor can mush up the clay, and start over. We only see the final product – the sculpture that turned out perfectly. We aren’t aware of all the false starts, and messed up figures. It’s the same thing with writing. It’s okay to play around with words, to scratch out paragraphs, to start over. The reader is only going to see the final product, and that’s the most perfect version I can produce. No one is going to see the messed up stuff.
What has influenced your writing the most?
Without a doubt, I’d say it was all the reading that I’ve done. I was one of those kids whose head was always in a book or magazine. I read everything – mysteries, true adventures, biographies, superhero stuff. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about becoming a writer. I was just having fun reading. But the beauty of it was that my unconscious brain was noticing and storing all kinds of useful things about words, rhythms, pacing, plot and so on. By reading so much, I was developing myself as a writer even without trying.
Do you have tips to offer kids who want to become writers?
Just two really, and they are pretty simple and likely no surprise. .
Tip #1: Read as much as you can
Read lots, I say. Read all kinds of things. Read just for the fun of it, not necessarily for any particular purpose. Without even trying, your brain will notice and store all kinds of useful things. All this pays off in a big way when you write.
Tip #2: Play with words as much as you can
One nice thing about writing is that you can keep playing around with words and stories until you are happy with them. If something doesn’t look or sound right, tinker around with the words, trade them in for new ones, shuffle paragraphs, or start fresh all over again. Just play until you are happy with the end product, but play often. It’s likely no big surprise that the more you write, the better you become at it.