I have just entered my favorite stage of writing biographies for children – the artwork! For those who are wondering how these books come about, here is a general idea:
1. First stage – research. Tons of books and articles. I study not only the person’s life, but the time period. I also start reading his or her writings. I do a timeline and take lots of notes on index cards and organize them chronologically. As I study, I find names of experts and often contact them to see if they would like to help me. My main question at this time is, Why am I writing about this person? What impact did he or she make on church history?
2. Second stage – writing. This is actually a tough stage, as I have to condense everything I have read and express it in words that children can understand. My first draft is simple. I concentrate on choosing the main points I want to convey, keeping in mind the answer to my previous question. I also decide what illustrations would be needed and send the ideas to the illustrator. I also contact my map illustrator and tell him what map I need.
3. Third stage – photos. As I choose the photos, I develop and refine the text. I have finally found ways to get photos without paying a fortune. Agencies charge a lot of money for photos of paintings even if the paintings themselves are not under copyright. I found other avenues to get the same photos for free or at a low cost, from individual photographers who don’t expect monetary rewards or from government agencies who ask for minimal fees. This knowledge has not come easily, but through much trial and error.
It is a painstaking, but interesting stage. I usually end up learning a lot more about the subject as I find photos, so it’s a good time to write my “Did You Know?” section, published at the end of each book. I also get to know lots of interesting people. I made many wonderful friends this way. And it’s encouraging to find so many people willing to help. For my book on John Owen, for example, after trying unsuccessfully to find an affordable picture of William Laud, I contacted the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who graciously allowed me to use an image from the official collection. In the process, I read some of his poetry and love it!
4. Fourth stage – review. I re-read the whole manuscript over and over. I get my kids together and read it to them so many times that they probably memorize it. Each time we find better ways to say things. They are wonderful critics and I could not do without their help. I have four children at home now, Jonathan (16), Kevin (14), Raphy (12) and Reny (10). They all bring different suggestions and perspectives.
5. Fifth stage – finding reviewers. By this time, I have contacted quite a few experts and I ask some of them if they would like to write a review. I send them the manuscript and wait for their replies.
6. Sixth stage – artwork! By this time (sometimes sooner) the illustrator starts to send me his work. This is one of the most exciting stages, as we work together on each image. It took me a while to find an illustrator who is just excited as I am about the project and who likes to work with others. I found that it’s easy to find extreme attitudes with illustrators. If they are mainly artists, they might not be used to receiving suggestions and making modifications to their work. If they are mainly illustrators, they are sometimes used to being told exactly what to do, which is stressful for me, especially if I don’t communicate things just right. I have finally found a good match, thank God!
In this stage, the artist normally sends me a sketch for each illustration and I approve them. Sometimes we talk about clothing, architecture, and objects fitting for the specific time period. If there are questions, I look for paintings from that time. Recently, we wondered what a young man would wear when playing sports in the XVII century, and I found that he wore pretty much regular clothes.
I love this stage because I like to see my character, whom by now I have come to love, through another person’s eyes.
7. Seventh stage – write acknowledgments and send everything to the publisher and pray that he doesn’t go crazy over the flood of photos and illustrations which accompany the text. I usually number them all and place the reference within the text. So far, they have put up with me…
8. Eighth stage – I get the final product back for me to check. It’s hardly possible to catch every possible mistake, but RHB has done a remarkable job in this respect (besides the high quality format they have produced).
9. Ninth stage – advertising. My least favorite stage. I wish I didn’t have to think about this, but I also want the book to sell so the publisher will be more likely to allow me to publish more. After I pay the illustrator, the map designer, and some photographers, I really don’t make any money from this. In fact, with all the copies I give out for free, I probably end up in the red, but I have never meant for this to be a source of financial support.
10. At this point, I ask RHB what the next title should be. I suggest one or two. I get their answer, and the process starts again…
These points sound easy on paper, but I am sure you can recognize the frustrations, the excitement, the discouragement, the comfort, the questions, and the discoveries between the lines.