Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
“The Case of the Missing Story”
by Steve Sheinkin
Photo © Erica Miller
I was describing my research and note-taking process during a recent school visit, when a boy raised his hand and said, “Sounds like you do homework for a living.”
That got a good laugh—at my expense. Though I didn’t mind, I didn’t want to leave students with such a dreary impression of the life of a nonfiction writer. So in visits ever since, I tell students that what I do is a kind of detective work. Yes, I concede, a nerdy kind of detective work.
I start with a mystery—people I don’t know enough about to describe, a story I don’t know enough about to write. From there, I search for clues. The journey begins with books and usually in libraries. For Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Roaring Brook, 2012), for instance, I dug into surveys on the subject, such as Richard Rhodes’s classic The Making of the Atomic Bomb (S & S, 1986). Rhodes’s exhaustive study had far more information than I could possibly use, but it also contained clues, in the form of characters briefly mentioned, or story lines only alluded to.
A small sampling of the “witnesses” called in the case.
This is exactly what happened when I reached page 455, where Rhodes mentions an obscure side story starring Norwegian commandoes sent behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s bomb project. This was the first I’d heard of the mission, and I had to know more. Following the author’s information to the source notes, I saw that Rhodes’s main source (his star witness, you might say) was Knut Haukelid, one of the Norwegian commandoes, who’d written a memoir called Skis Against the Atom (W. Kimber, 1954). Searching online, I found used copies of the book for sale and the location of libraries that owned it. Reading Haukelid’s gripping account, I realized he was a key to solving the case, or rather, my way into a global thriller that would be informative, and hopefully, a page-turner.
Clues in the text reveal fascinating new pieces of history.
It’s not always that simple. My next book will tell a little-known World War II civil rights story, set at the segregated naval base Port Chicago, in California. The main characters, young African-American sailors who risked everything to challenge injustice in the military, are no longer alive. The key witness is a Berkeley professor named Robert Allen, who, decades ago, tracked down and interviewed many of these men.
This bulletin board helped me figure out how to structure the Port Chicago story.
When I flew to Oakland to interview Allen, I got the kind of lucky break all detectives need. Dr. Allen drove me around the Bay Area showing me sites that played a role in the story, and generously offered me access to his priceless collection of oral histories. Only with this material could I begin to piece that mystery together.
Each book presents a new challenge, a different kind of mystery to solve. And the best part is that I get to pick which cases to work on. Can’t say that about homework!
– An original article by Steve Sheinkin
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Steve Sheinkin. All images courtesy of Steve Sheinkin.
More online resources about Steve Sheinkin:
Hear Steve Sheinkin share the pronunciation and story of his name. Listen now
Hear Steve Sheinkin share the backstory for and read an excerpt from Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. Listen now
See all online resources for Steve Sheinkin.