Mining for Heart: “Put Readers in the Pilot Seat” by Michelle Cusolito

Last week I highlighted FLYING DEEP, Michelle Cusolito’s debut picture book. Today, Michelle tells us how she found the heart of the story while out walking. And, how sitting in Alvin’s pilot seat herself allowed her to make that story come alive for readers. So writers, stay alert to that inner voice, and definitely go for a walk!


photo by Alison Noyce

If I’m being truthful, I have to say that finding the heart of Flying Deep came easily. It’s the only manuscript I’ve ever written for which that was the case. I found the heart before I had done a lick of research.

For those who haven’t read the book, Flying Deep invites readers to imagine themselves as the pilot of deep-sea submersible Alvin on a mission to explore the seafloor two miles below the ocean’s surface. The deep-sea is vastly unknown and is home to untold numbers of animals never before seen by humans.

Here’s how the manuscript came about. In November of 2014, I participated in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month, which is now called Storystorm and happens in January).

One of my idea notes said, “Hydrothermal Vents- Scientists in the Field? NF, Don C, WHOI”

My initial thought was that I’d write a book that featured hydrothermal vents. I thought maybe it could be part of the ‘Scientists in the Field’ series (I later learned there already was one that featured Alvin). NF means I wanted it to be non-fiction (some of my ideas were for fiction). Don C is a former Alvin pilot I thought I could interview and WHOI stands for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. That was the entirety of my ideas at that point. I intended to begin by doing a little research to see what else was already on the market and then dig into the deep research that would be needed to write such a book if it felt viable.

A few weeks later, however, I was out for a walk when the first line popped into my head.

inside Alvin“Imagine you’re the pilot of Alvin, a submersible barely big enough for two.”

I thought, “Whoa! That’s good!” I reached to my back pocket for my notebook. I had forgotten my notebook! I was terrified I’d forget the line, so I started walking in a steady rhythm and reciting the line over and over, first in my head, and then out loud. I might have looked a little crazy to the passing cars, but I didn’t care. I walked a few hundred yards before it dawned on me that I had another tool in my pocket I could use: a smart phone with a “Notes” app. I sat down beside a pond to type that first sentence and more came flooding in. I typed wildly, with one finger, trying to capture everything.

When I looked up thirty minutes later, I had a 500 word draft. A terrible, inaccurate and wonderful first draft. There were so many gaps and errors in my knowledge (Alvin fits 3 people, for example). BUT by putting the kid reader in the pilot seat for a typical dive day, I had found the heart and structure of my story. All I needed to do was complete enough research to write it.

(Note: I had a basic working knowledge of Alvin dives because I know Don, the former pilot. He used to visit my classroom).

There’s no toilet in Alvin.

My research followed a pretty typical path (books, films, websites, etc.) but the best details came from primary sources. I interviewed Don and a current Alvin pilot named Bruce. I also climbed inside Alvin (on dry dock). I wanted readers to feel like they were in the pilot seat, so I needed the sensory details to make that happen. For example, through those interviews, I learned the specific language used by all pilots to communicate with Atlantis II during a dive. I heard the sound of oxygen bleeding into the sphere and the carbon dioxide scrubbers working. I sat in the pilot’s seat and looked out the view ports. My hope is that these details enable readers to imagine themselves in the pilot’s seat and perhaps inspire one of them to become an Alvin pilot one day. That would make me so happy.

Flying+Deep+coverMichelle Cusolito has been exploring natural places since she was a child growing up on a farm in Southeastern, Massachusetts. She has lived in the Philippines, where she first observed colorful fish in their native environment, and in Ireland, where she and her family hiked “The Burren,” an otherworldly landscape made of limestone. She has trekked to places such as Machu Picchu in Peru and the Sahara Desert in Morocco. She hopes readers will be inspired to explore their worlds. Visit her at or follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.

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