Saturday, March 26, 2011


And now for those “how-to” tips I promised.

First, remember today’s readers are used to watching stories unfold as they happen. You’ll need to make your readers feel they’re in the middle of the action you’re sharing. I always write a docudrama with the “at the top of the news” approach. So I share firsthand interviews with the people who experienced the action. I also include supporting stories that provide background information: what caused the event and what or who made the outcome happen.

Producing a docudrama happens in four stages:

1. Finding just the right story to tell and deciding what supporting stories to include.
2. Tracking down the people who lived the action and those who can share the supporting stories.
3. Locating “WOW” images to bring the story to life
4. Writing the story and finding just the right way to meld photos and text.

A docudrama book may tell a single real-life story. Mine usually share a number of stories that all have a common theme. For example, in my book ANIMAL HEROES: TRUE RESCUE STORIES (Millbrook/Lerner, 2009). There are nine short stories, each telling the story of one animal that helped people survive a life-threatening situation, like how Winnie the cat saved her family.

My research for docudramas, like POWERFUL MEDICINE: FAULTY HEARTS: True Survival Stories (Lerner, 2011), is on-going. I avidly read newspapers, journals and magazines, and do all sorts of on-line research on various topics that interest me. I keep a file of these story ideas. When a theme emerges for a book, I dig out any stories I’ve already collected and then search for even more.

Next, I become a detective to track down and interview the people whose stories the docudrama will share. In RESCUES! (Millbrook/Lerner, 2006), a book sharing the stories of people who put themselves in harm’s way to help others, I interviewed both the victims and the rescuers to share both sides of each story. For example, the chapter “Nine Miners Trapped!” shared the story of nine miners who were trapped in a coal mine in Pennsylvania. I interviewed one of the miners, Randy Fogle to share what it was like being trapped underground, waiting to be rescued.

I also interviewed civil engineer Sean Isgan whose job was to find the one spot in a huge field where drilling a rescue shaft 240 feet into the ground would reach the trapped miners. The main supporting story for “Nine Miners Trapped!” explained how a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit works and how this technology helped Sean Isgan decide where to drill the rescue shaft.

Finding people you want to interview can be a challenge. I often locate people by finding out where they work and organizations they belong to. When you contact the person, it’s important to explain how the interview will help share valuable information with readers. For example, each of the stories in RESCUES lets children discover how science and technology helped people survive and brave people save the lives of others.

Before I do an interview, I always do my homework so I have an overview of the situation and can ask relevant questions. I sometimes visit a person and talk with them. However, because I interview people around the world, I more often do a phone interview. Either way, it's important to talk to the person. It's the only way to hear their emotions.

I always follow up with a thank you note. And, whenever possible, I share what I’ve written before I submit my book to the publisher so the person can review their story and check the facts.

The people you interview are the first sources to check for photos. For example, when I was writing POWERFUL MEDICINE: SHATTERED BONES: True Survival Stories (Lerner, 2011), Blake "Bilko" Williams supplied photos to help tell his story. While hanging suspended from the handlebars of his motorcycle during a backflip, he lost his grip and fell, landing on his feet. He was so high that it was like jumping off a two-story building. The rest of the story is what happened to his leg and ankle bones and how doctors and the latest technology helped him recover.

Expect that either you or your publisher will need to pay for permission to publish the images included in your docudrama. This cost and the rights to be granted, such as North American Only versus World Rights, are points you’ll want to consider and, discuss at the time you sign a contract for your book. In other words, you can tentatively find what photos are available but don’t commit to including any images until the book is definitely going to be published. Photo stock agencies are another possible source of pictures, although they will generally be more expensive.

Once you have completed your interviews and have at least a general idea of what images will be available to share the action, you’re ready to write. Like any good reporter, you’ll share the four W’s:

What happened?
Who was involved?
Where did it happen?
Why did the event happen? And why was the outcome possible?

I also like to include one more W.
What's happened to the people since the event?

A good example is POWERFUL MEDICINE: LEUKEMIA: True Survival Stories (Lerner, 2011. One of the two docudramas in this book shares Paul Luisi’s struggle to survive leukemia.

Paul tells what it feels like to have leukemia.

Paul’s mother Diane shares what it was like to learn her child had leukemia and how the entire Luisi family rallied around Paul during his chemotherapy. His dad even shaved his head when Paul lost his hair during chemotherapy.

Dr. Judith Marcus, Paul’s doctor, explains why Paul also needed to receive a blood-forming stem cell transplant, how it was determined his brother Nicholas could supply this, and how the stem cell transplant was accomplished.

The book has a happy ending, sharing how Paul’s leukemia is in remission. He’s now a healthy high school student and enjoying playing football. I continue to get emails from Diane Luisi with updates on Paul. One of my favorite parts of writing docudramas is that I continue to hear from some of the amazing people I interview.

Here’s one final tip—allow yourself plenty of time to produce a docudrama. You’re going to talk to interesting people and go behind the scenes of real-life action. While working on SHATTERED BONES, I had the chance to go behind the scenes at the Crusty Demons motorcycle stunt show and interview Bilko Williams about his past injury. While working on FAULTY HEARTS, I had the opportunity to put on scrubs and in the operating room observing open heart surgery. Writing a docudrama is a special experience, but it takes time. So give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the research and the writing process.

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