Writers at Work — “What We Do for Love:” Part 2

Hi everyone,

Continuing today with Writers at Work, I’ll provide the second response to the topic of what writers and illustrators do to prepare for their work. Sandy Asher and I are grateful to Debbie Dadey for getting us off to such a great start last Tuesday!

Topic 14: What We Do for Love: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Risk All to Get it Right
Response 2 — David
April 14, 2015

Debbie, I loved reading about how you prepared to write your stories. Such adventures you’ve had in pursuit of the truth and the firsthand experiences that breathe real life and meaning into your work. Leaping from a plane! Swimming with sharks! Young people who read your descriptions are learning valuable lessons about what goes into writing before one word is put on paper.

So now it’s my turn. I, too, have gone to some lengths to prepare for my subject – flying to England, boating up the Amazon — but today I’m going to take a slightly different track. I’d like to talk about books that spring from the adventure itself. That is, instead of having a book idea and setting out to learn about the subject, sometimes a writer has an adventure and realizes that there’s a book to be written because of it.

Here’s my example. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked America taking thousands of lives in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, a cave was discovered near Springfield, Missouri by a road construction crew. Not long afterward I was invited into the cave.

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with caves. I was carried into my first cave on my father’s shoulders at age four and explored one on my own as a boy of twelve. From that one I brought home a skull from an extinct form of black bear. I wrote a book about caves in 1970 (THE WORLD OF AMERICAN CAVES) and another in 2001 (CAVES, MYSTERIES BENEATH OUR FEET). After spending a day going through the newly discovered cavern, I posed in the welcome sunlight with my three companions. Smiling for the camera, covered from head to foot in sticky red clay, what was running through my mind wasn’t that I was filthy and needed a bath. I was thinking that I was going to write a book about this cave.

It didn’t take long to learn that no one involved with the discovery of the cave knew the whole story. Everyone had a piece of the puzzle but no one had the whole picture. I began interviewing people who had a role in discovering, saving, or exploring the cave: the road construction crew foreman, the guy who set off the dynamite blast that uncovered the cave, the geologist who led the exploration team, the paleontologist who discovered valuable ancient fossils inside, the engineer who rerouted the road to one side to save the cave, the cartographer who mapped the cave, the speleologist who repaired and cleaned damaged formations . . . . Eventually I put the story together.

Now I could almost imagine that quiet day when the blast tore a hole in the earth and ripped off part of the ceiling in the cave below. Almost. I had everything but the sound it must have made! What did that blast sound like? I called the guy who set off the blast and asked if he had any blasting to do, and he did. I met him at a quarry, walked along the limestone bluff where he was working, looked down into the holes that would soon be packed with explosives, and then, from a safe distance, I heard and recorded the sound of dynamite blasting rocks into powder and small chunks. It sounded like – ready? – a waterfall! Like water pouring over a cliff onto rocks below. Who knew? I did! Now.

So I had my story and the sound of discovery. Back into the cave where I spent hours walking, slipping, crouching, and crawling through red clay that sometimes came over shoe tops. Marveling over tracks left by peccaries thousands of years ago that were still moist. Sitting beside wallows scooped out by enormous short-faced bears that became extinct more than ten millennia ago. Gazing in awe at claw marks left by American lions, saber tooth cats, and the bears. Holding a fossil peccary’s foot bone that had been crunched off in an attack.

Then I wrote the 48-page book. Piece of cake.

8 comments on “Writers at Work — “What We Do for Love:” Part 2

  1. David: This piece helps me see the adventure and mystery of cave exploration. I am somewhat on the other end of the spectrum, and would find it hard to go very far into a cave. Perhaps your piece will help me reconsider.

  2. Haha. I’ll keep that in mind. Long ago I worked in a big old church that occasionally got bats inside. On one occasion I brandished a badminton racquet in defense of bats as I safeguarded one of the older staff members from the lunchroom to her office. She would have been hysterical if a bat flew near her. Come to think of it, good fodder for a poem… Thanks!

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