Larry Verstraete is August's Author of the Month. The award-winning author of 13 books of nonfiction, Verstraete turned his eye to the Western Interiror Seaway with his newest title, 'Dinosaurs' of the Deep: Discover Ancient Marine Reptiles. In 19 Questions about Process: An Interview with Larry Verstraete, he shares a few thoughts about his creative process.
Larry Verstraete's books with Turnstone Press:
19 Questions about Process: An Interview with Larry Verstraete
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
I wrote my first book on the fly, more for fun than anything else. Scholastic Canada picked it up relatively quickly, a pleasant surprise, but I wondered if that was just a fluke. It took a second book published two years later to convince me that perhaps it wasn’t just happenchance, and that maybe I actually had some ability. If there is a point where I began to think of myself as a professional writer, it was after the publication of my second book.
Has your writing routine changed from that at the time of your first publication? How?
My first books were written while our kids were still young and I was teaching full time. Finding time to write was a challenge. I started waking up an hour earlier than usual to write, and then tried to squeeze another half-hour out of the day to do research in the evening. When possible, I would devote more time on weekends. Now that I no longer teach and the kids are long gone from the nest, I write for longer stretches, but I keep the same format as before. Early mornings are for writing; periods later in the day are for revision and research.
At the beginning of my writing career, social media was pretty much non-existent. Now it’s a major component of almost every writer’s life. To be productive, I try to restrict my access during my morning writing period. Normally, I don’t even check email until I’ve made some headway, and I save most other exchanges for afternoons or evenings.
What inspires you?
As a kid, I read every book I could. Books – and the authors that created them - were major influencers in my life. In books, I found alternate worlds and great possibilities. When I write, I think of the readers who might be influenced by my words. That inspires me not only to write clearly, accurately and in an interesting fashion, but also to do in such a way that informs readers while at the same time enlarging their view of life’s possibilities.
How do you select the topics you elect to work on?
Writing a book is a long term commitment. Before I tackle a topic, I ask myself a few questions. Is this a subject that I am eager to know more about? Is this a subject that readers will embrace, too? What challenges will I face if I write about it? Is there something new that I can bring to the table—new information, a new approach, a different message?
All of these are important questions, but they pretty much center around the same thing. If the subject doesn’t genuinely intrigue me, if I won’t feel challenged on some level as I write about it, then it’s going to be a hard slog to finish the book.
While many of your books have been nonfiction you also write Young Adult fiction. While both forms have challenges and quirks (not to mention charms), they must be very different creative processes. How do you approach your fiction vs nonfiction projects?
I’m not a pantsy (flying by the seat of my pants) type of writer. In both cases, I work from an outline, but the process is fluid. The outline is a starting point, not the end point, and I add, delete or reroute as necessary.
With non-fiction, I revise on the go, each section as I finish it, then I’ll do a major revision when all of the pieces come together. I usually know the overall theme and message I’d like to deliver at the start. Revision becomes a process of distillation—strengthening the message and making sure that pieces support one another.
With fiction, the process is more holistic. Adding a new character or plot element impacts what came before and what follows. Revisions are broader and more extensive. Voice, mood, and theme grow out of revisions. It not so much a process of distillation, but ensuring that the elements synch together in an organic manner.
You were a classroom teacher for a number of years. How has that influenced your writing?
Teachers who write have a unique skill set, especially if they write for the youth market as I often do. Teachers know young readers, their interests, the curriculum, and many have previous degrees in specialty areas. Most can explain concepts in simple but not dumbed-down terms, and they know how to sequence ideas so they build upon each other.
My teaching experience impacts everything I write. I have a science degree which is a natural fit for certain kinds of topics. When I write, I visualize my readers. They’re no different than the kids and adults I’ve taught. I’m writing for them, and trying to make whatever I write captivating and understandable.
When working on nonfiction, how dependent are you on outlines while drafting your project? Do your outlines evolve as you write? How much, if any, do your outlines change?
Once I have a theme or subject in mind, I test the waters by writing an essential piece. That way, I have a sense of the tone and voice I’d like to use, plus I have a better grasp of the scope of my subject. Once I’ve sculpted the piece, I work on a rough outline. The outline keeps me on target, but it’s only a loose guide. New ideas sometimes surface during research that are must-adds while other items that seemed important at the beginning fall by the wayside later.
You’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively. How does travel figure into your creative process?
Travel gives me a chance to step back from daily routines, take a deep breath, and absorb new experiences. Call it clearing the decks, tilling the soil, priming the pump or whatever metaphor you’d like to use, but I find that travel feeds the creative spirit. And you never know when the next great idea will jump out at you, too. On my travels, I’ve tapped into some great leads. A visit to Hot Springs, South Dakota unearthed a story about ancient mammoths caught in a sinkhole that I added to Mysteries of Time. Becoming lost on a mountain hike in Colorado inspired Survivors: True Death-Defying Escapes. And then there was the time when I was in Calgary and dropped by for the monthly meeting of the Calgary Metal Detecting Club—truly an experience—an eclectic group of eager treasure hunters displaying their latest and greatest finds. The information I gathered then became an instrumental part of Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery.
As a non-fiction writer, research must play a significant role in your writing. How do you approach research? Does your methodology change depending on the subject matter?
The starting point is much the same. I do a round of general research to scope out the topic, take a few notes, and bookmark the most fruitful resources. At this stage, I’m just trying to get a grip on the topic to determine the breadth and depth of the subject matter and what, if anything, I can contribute to the existing pool of information. I keep a running list of potential sources and categorize them into groups—good, better, best—depending on how helpful, accurate, and authoritative they are. From there, I rough out an outline and write a few test entries.
Every book requires a slightly different approach to research. For Surviving the Hindenburg, archival footage, blueprints, and journal entries provided the backdrop that I needed to tell the story of Werner Franz, the zeppelin’s cabin boy. 'Dinosaurs' of the Deep required something different. The book was a collaboration with the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre. Research involved visits to Morden, getting hands-on experience at a dig site, and frequent consultations with Victoria Markstrom, CFDC’s field and collection manager, to ensure that I had the latest and most accurate information.
Some of your work, such as 'Dinosaurs' of the Deep are very visual books. How much do potential illustrations and photography figure into your creative process—do you write with visuals in mind?
I am a visual person. As I write, I see the information as I think it will be displayed on the page complete with sidebars, text boxes, charts, illustrations and other visual supplements. If specific visuals are essential to the understanding of the text, I’ll leave notes for the editor or illustrator indicating what kind of visual I have in mind. Usually, the manuscript speaks for itself, however, and I trust design experts to decide what visuals work best.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a first draft while others prefer the editorial stage of fine tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
The fine tuning stage. Much of what I write for non-fiction consists of separate pieces— individual stories, sidebars, explanations. In the draft stage, I write with a rough idea of how the pieces will fit with others. Assembling the draft pieces into a cohesive unit later is a bit like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. It’s the most fun part for me. At this stage I juggle pieces around, test their position in different places, fine tune leads, adjust wording, add new pieces if necessary or delete those that don’t contribute to the theme. The goal is to create a unified package where each piece supports and enhances the others.
What’s your favourite moment in the life of your books? And why?
Starting a new project is exciting. If it’s one I initiate, it means developing a proposal from scratch. While I might have what I think is a whopper of an idea, it’s my job to pitch it to a publisher. Out of a multitude of approaches and possibilities, I have to figure out what I want to say and how I will deliver the message. It’s very much a creative process.
Do you enjoy public readings? What is your favourite format?
I enjoy public readings. Many of mine are for the younger crowd, and that’s always fun because youngsters don’t hold back. They’re inherently curious and they’ll ask questions that adults wouldn’t dream of asking. My favourite format is an interactive one that encourages audience participation. My goal when visiting classrooms or libraries is to leave students as excited about writing, reading, and the subject matter of my books as I am.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I am on a self-imposed time-out. Over the past few years, I’ve published 4 non-fiction books and 1 novel. As exhilarating as that experience was, I need a little respite to recharge my creative batteries before tackling another project. Then again, I’ve tried taking time-outs before— and failed. Sometimes ideas or opportunities pop up that are just too good to pass.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
Not really. I have favourite writing tools like certain types of pens and paper, but no troll dolls, rabbit’s feet, or other such lucky charms.
Do you draft first in longhand, or on a computer/keyboard?
Normally, I write the first few paragraphs in longhand. Often I’ll write two or more versions of the same thing, then choose the one that I feel works best. Once I have a good start, I’ll jump on the keyboard for the rest.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
I write first thing each morning, and strong coffee (any kind) is essential to the start-up process. I have an incredibly sweet tooth, too, and sometimes I use chocolate or candy as an incentive to keep plowing ahead. My wife likes to bake, so the combination is magical. She bakes. I eat. Life is good.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Usually I don’t have music playing, but often I’ll tap into talk radio programs. I don’t really listen to the conversations. I just like the soothing sound of voices in the background. Perhaps that goes back to my teaching days when chatter filled the classroom. Occasionally, if I’m working on a gripping story or a novel, I’ll put on rousing music to get the juices flowing. “We are the Champions” by Queen is one of my favourites. Come to think of it, almost anything by Queen will do.
If you could not be involved in the literary arts, what career might you have?
Besides being a teacher? Architect. There’s something appealing about designing a structure that stands for generations.