Behind the Scenes: “Straight to the (Primary) Source” by Kirsten Larson

Each manuscript I’ve tackled has brought new lessons in the research process, so it’s always helpful when I get to learn from someone else’s experience. In this guest post, Kirsten Larson shares some “Behind the Scenes” learning from the research process for her debut picture book, WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE. 

Straight to the (Primary) Source Version 2

When I dive into a new nonfiction project, I typically start with secondary sources. My first reads are normally books. I want to see the big picture, the historical background and context, before I really zero in on all the lovely sensory detail and interiority primary sources provide. Plus I’ve always found secondary sources with excellent bibliographies to be helpful in pointing the way toward primary sources.

But then there was the case of Lilian Todd, the main character in WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane (illustrated by Tracy Subisak). Lilian and her story turned my process upside down!

Version 2The Spark of Discovery

First, a little background. I read about Lilian in early 2014 in the book, ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER by Andrea Beatty, illustrated by David Roberts, where she appeared in an image. Immediately I got that jolt that came with the possibility: could this be a picture book project?

As always, I went to my library’s online catalog to search for an adult biography — and found nothing. I tried online bookstores, looking for out-of-print titles. Nope. Even a search in the Worldcat library database turned up zilch. All I could find at first was a Wikipedia entry and a few mentions of Lilian on a website called EarlyAviators.com. I’d have to go straight to (primary) source. Yikes!

A Happy Accident

This stumbling block made me a better researcher. In ROSIE REVERE, Lilian’s name was spelled Lillian (with two ls). I used that spelling as I combed through the Library of Congress’s newspaper archive. There were a few articles about Lillian Todd, but not enough. I got creative and broadened my search terms to “Todd” and “aeroplane.” When I did, I discovered articles about the work of Emma Todd, E. L. Todd, Lily Todd, Laura Todd, and even Mrs. Todd (though she never married) – all the same person.

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Photo courtesy Library of Congress

If I had started with an authoritative biography, would I have thought to search more broadly? Perhaps not. It was a good lesson. (Side note: I decided to spell Lilian’s name with one l based on voter registration records and her death certificate).

Unfiltered Voice

It also was a singular experience for me to encounter Lilian’s voice and thoughts unfiltered through a biographer. I came in with no preconceived notions and was able to draw my own conclusions from her words. Now, even if I start with a secondary source, I try to make sure the author doesn’t influence my thinking about the subject.

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Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Placing Primary Sources in Context

Even elbow-deep in primary source research, I needed to be able to see Lilian in context. But what’s a writer to do with few secondary sources about the subject? I had to do a lot of parallel research. I read books about the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and other early aviators from Langley to Santos Dumont and Graham Bell. I read a biography of Lilian’s benefactor, Olivia Sage (and the book did have a chapter about Lilian!) I read articles and journals by and about the Aeronautic Society, which Lilian joined. Talking to experts in the time period, even if they didn’t know about Lilian’s work, helped too.

Would I start with primary sources again, given the choice? Probably not. I felt like it was a hard way to do things. Yet, I’ll be forever grateful for the lessons I learned going straight to the primary source.

Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), CECILIA PAYNE: MAKING OF A STAR (SCIENTIST), illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter/Instagram @KirstenWLarson.


3 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Straight to the (Primary) Source” by Kirsten Larson

  1. Fascinating to see the path you took through your research for this book. I had never thought about varying the spelling (and more) of a name. But it makes sense for someone who is more lost in the woods of history. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Creatively spelled names and alternative names make it really tough sometimes to identify valid sources. Good for you for persisting and thinking outside the box!

    Liked by 2 people

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