Behind the Scenes: “Working with Experts to Verify Information in Back Matter” by Debra Shumaker


One of the challenges with nonfiction, whether a full manuscript or elements within an otherwise fictional story, is vetting. Sounds easy, right? Well, sometimes that little fact check turns into its very own rabbit hole and swallows up a huge chunk of time. I’ve been there! Here, Debra Shumaker shares her experience with one little tidbit from the back matter in FREAKY, FUNKY FISH: ODD FACTS ABOUT FASCINATING FISH. If you read my previous post, you know I LOVE this book! Thank you, Debra for sharing the nitty gritty process with us. 

And thanks to Debra, too, for a GIVEAWAY! Just leave a comment after the post for a chance to win a copy of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH. 

DebraShumaker5157_YankaPhotogrpahy
Yanka Photography

Working with Experts to Verify Information in Back Matter by Debra Shumaker

Picture book sold and contract signed! As the author, my job is done, right? Wrong. As most writers know, revisions still happen after the contract is signed. Sometimes a lot of them.

I was very fortunate, though, when I sold my debut—FREAKY, FUNKY FISH: ODD FACTS ABOUT FASCINATING FISH to Running Press Kids—my editor, Allison Cohen, didn’t ask for edits on the text. It was a 175-word rhyming picture book so I was relieved that I didn’t have to change anything for publication and risk messing up the meter or rhyme.

However, she did have some questions and clarification on the 1400-word back matter. Most were easy to clarify. One seemingly simple question from her, though, cascaded into a lot more questions and digging. And it all had to do with slime. . .

In the manuscript she acquired, one line in my text read, “One fish squeezes out some slime.” The corresponding back matter stated:

Fish that slime: To avoid being handled or eaten, an Atlantic hagfish can squeeze out enough slime in one minute to fill a bucket. Hagfish are freaky in other ways—their slit-like mouth has suckers on it so it can attach itself to dead animals on the ocean floor. They use their teeth to cut a hole in the prey’s side and then eat the dead animal inside out.”

Allison’s question? “How big of a bucket are we talking about here?” Valid question and one I hadn’t considered!

Slime Climb Spread
illustrations © Claire Powell

So I went back to my source for that fact, which was a children’s World Book Encyclopedia published in 2009. It simply stated, “Hagfish are some of the slimiest of all animals. An Atlantic hagfish can make enough slime in one minute to fill a bucket!” Alas, it was an encyclopedia and it didn’t list its sources of information.

After a few more Internet searches, I found a 2012 article from the Smithsonian website which stated that hagfish, when bothered, secreted stringy proteins from glands lining their bodies. The proteins mixed with seawater and expanded into a transparent, sticky substance, and “according to hagfish mythology, they can fill a 5-gallon bucket with the stuff in mere minutes.” Aha! A specific bucket size listed! But. . . I wasn’t comfortable with “mythology” and it was the first I read about proteins mixing with seawater. I knew I still needed to dig deeper.

91e6KGt4HjLTime to move onto Google Scholar. I found one article titled, “Composition, morphology and mechanics of hagfish slime.” As a non-scientist, it wasn’t exactly easy reading. I noticed the lead researcher was quoted in several other lay articles I had read online. Clearly, he was a hagfish slime expert and could tell me how big of a bucket one can fill with slime. . . at least that was my hope.

I reread the articles, took notes, and reached out to him via email. I shared with him my original wording and a second attempt on the “Fish that slime” back matter paragraph. He clarified and corrected some information. I rewrote it. He corrected some more. And I rewrote again. The challenge was explaining his in-depth, PhD-level knowledge to a level an elementary school child could understand. It took about three or four rewrites of four sentences to get the wording that both of us were comfortable with. Thankfully, when I sent them to Allison, she agreed they worked!

Backmatter pg 2 spreadThe final result?

Fish that slime: Hagfish have more than 100 slime glands lining their tubular body. When they are attacked, they will squeeze out a tiny amount—less than a quarter teaspoon—of slime. In less than half a second, that tiny amount mixes with seawater and expands by 10,000 times (about 4 cups worth)! This slimy mixture clogs the gills of the attacker so the hagfish can make its escape. Though the slime looks gooey and sticky, it is actually very soft.”

You might notice we kept the focus on the slimy aspect of the hagfish and not all the other cool information I initially wrote. While interesting, it had nothing to do with the line from the main text. But if I’m ever on Jeopardy with a column on hagfish, I think I could do a decent job with it! 🙂

I am grateful to all of the researchers, scientists, historians, etc. who are willing to vet information for us writers. Most love the idea of getting children excited about their area of expertise and want kids to have accurate information. Our books are better because of them! Special thanks to Douglas S. Fudge, PhD at Chapman University, and Adela Roa-Varón at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum for reviewing the facts in FREAKY, FUNKY FISH.

Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH. (Contiguous US only, please)

Bio:

Debra Kempf Shumaker loves weird and fascinating facts. When she isn’t reading or writing, she enjoys hiking, gardening, and watching Jeopardy. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, three sons, and two cats—who miss the days the youngest son had an acquarium full of fish. She is the author of FREAKY, FUNKY FISH (May 4, 2021), TELL SOMEONE (October 1, 2021), and PECULIAR PRIMATES (October 11, 2022). Visit her online at her www.debrashumaker.com, on Twitter at @ShumakerDebra, and on Instagram at @debrakshumaker.


49 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Working with Experts to Verify Information in Back Matter” by Debra Shumaker

  1. My fourth graders raise Atlantic salmon from February through June. This book would be a wonderful addition to our library as we learn about fish. Debra would definitely be my “phone a friend” on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” for any hagfish question.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed the discussion about backmatter and how one simple question led to much more research. I admire your determination to get the facts straight and make them understandable for your readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love backmatter in books and understand the importance of getting it right. Loved your own example of doing moree research into fish slime. Writing backmatter can be as difficult as writing the book. Enjoyed the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing your fact-finding foray. Nailing down those slimy facts can be hard sometimes. But it’s really important because down the line, someone will quote a fact from your back matter and cite your book. And we want to be right, yah?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love researching facts for nonfiction books and most of the time I get a little carried away with it. Well, most of the time I get more than a little carried away with it and don’t know when to stop. Your advice is wonderful. Finding experts is the answer. Google Scholar will now be my first visit in order to find the best sources. Thank you for sharing your researching journey, Debra!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Google Scholar is indeed helpful. I’ve used it for so many science-related books I’ve written. But some of the articles are really high level so I typically end up emailing the lead researcher to clarify. 99% of the time they are SO happy to help!

      Liked by 1 person

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