The Poetry of Research by Louise Borden

I often tell students that there is more to research than looking up topics on the Web. When I’m working on a nonfiction project, I gather photographs, interviews, primary sources, books, articles, films, and sometimes embark on faraway travels in order to build a wide and deep foundation of reference materials. After I’ve immersed myself in the facts and the chronology of the story that I wish to tell, I then spend a lot of time circling the best structure of the book, envisioning an early design (this will usually change), finding the most essential details, and always, carrying the emotional heart of my original hope for the book with me during the years (2. . . 4. . . maybe 6!) that will unfold before the book is finally published and sent out in the world of readers.

On occasion, I write fragments of poems as part of my research process. They are like sketches in a notebook. Because many of my books come from settings, or events, or people who inspire me, I constantly draw from a well of visual images. Since I’m passionate about my subject, I have the writer’s confidence that I can share this emotional layer with my young readers so that they will care as much about the subject as I do. I often write in my research notebooks about my progress, about what I’m questioning, about what I need to learn, and about what I want to shine a light on in my text. “Where is the heart of the manuscript?” I continually ask myself. With some books, I’ve written these “research poems” to frame the images that I’m seeing on my travels and to keep me on track. These poems of observation are part of that invisible foundation of my later finished text.

For the past three years I’ve been working on a dramatic and true World War II story about one French family’s amazing courage, and the risks that they took in order to supply intelligence information to the Allies in London. In September of 2012, I went to Paris and to the coast of Brittany for two weeks to look at towns, harbors, and addresses, and to meet with people who could answer some of my research questions.

While sitting on a train for three hours to and from Paris, I wrote the following poems on my trusty iPad ( a first for me as usually I write poems with pen and paper). Two Americans who have lived in Brittany for many years have been terrific encouragers and helped with my research so I was writing the lines for these good friends. I love maps and directions, so the words South and North seemed to belong in the titles. Perhaps you’ll be able to glimpse the emotion that “a sense of place” can add to the research of a nonfiction book.


To Vannes across the quilt of your France:

sheep in the fields,

mistletoe such a garland of trees,

birds crossing the endless sky

And everywhere

the soft hand of Septembre has colored the land.

In the distance

I watch the ebb of the afternoon light

as it rims the pewter sky.

And the horizon is wide,
Blurring past
Blurring past
and calls to me of ancient villages

and a history of their world.

I count the low shapes of farm and house,

and beyond them
a tall forest deepens with autumn’s green.

I measure the marvel
Of time
and friendships.

And because nothing is the same,

the view keeps changing
like the course of a French river:
a palette of yellow and brown and gray.
Edged with orange,
such a sheltering roof.

I see a muted wash of color.

then far from my window.

Hear the soft wheels
always rolling south.

The voice is of our train rushing into tomorrow,

the track is that steady line from Paris to the sea.

You are each here in your separate Sunday moments

that reach across ocean miles,
across Paris streets,

new days and those past . . .

Handing me the chart of Breton names.

I hurry into the evening hours,

As we glide to a stop in Rennes.
And then we move forward,
And I can almost touch the buildings
Whirring by.

Earth turns in her beautiful magic
beneath a galaxy of stars
And the moon.

And we are here in today
for only a short minute.
I hear the time
Singing by.

And so I say your names,
I say your names,
and carry with me
your generosity
and your kindnesses.

And ahead of us all
is the unfolding story:

The pages of lives
Or books. . .

The wise knowing
of Breton and American reunions . . .

And always,

the sea.

And the return poem. . .

Speeding North

From Vannes to Paris:

The light is higher today
with a mid day goodbye
and the sky
is that brilliant Breton blue,
that blue of Septembre,
billowed white with an artist’s clouds.

You know that blue,
the one that sings of a clear French day,
that turns your eyes a thousand times

glimmers its azure mirror
in the still waters of an ancient moat

and that in its very blueness
shadows a jetty or quay
across the distant harbor.

And beneath this early blue afternoon
the wheels of the train

spin and hum with knowing,
with the very power of destination.

And they carry me away from the sea,
away from the sea,
the blue blue sea
whose winding corniche
I drove along yesterday
(Was it just yesterday?)
in such a sunshine of happiness.

One by one
the miles part us,
landscape and heart

And today,
that perfect frame of cloud and sky
is all that keeps pace with me
of what I left behind:

The Iles de Glenan,
such tiny lines

sketching the horizon,
the islands I’ve circled on maps at my desk
and only imagined
to be real . . .

The small red boat
tilted dry on the sand
in wait of the next tide . . .

The softness of sand
on an empty plage
with pools of water
tucked among the rocks . . .

And scattered near Trévignon,
the luminous stones
I gathered to carry home.

In Rennes
our train slows to a stop,
just as my hero’s did all those years ago
while another one thunders past
like an arrow to its mark,
headed south to the sea
with other travelers,
each with his own history and story
or with her own singular life.

That southbound train . . .
rushing on to the Golfe.
If only in this moment,
If only,

I could change direction

For one final vista in the sun and the wind,
for one more smooth stone,
with an unspoken goodbye.

And yet
And yet

miles ahead to the north
at the end of that iron river of track

the dazzling city lies waiting
in its energy and in its elegance.
That city,
that proud Paris . . .
that in its beauty and its grace
so gives of itself
to the world

And calls to me across its centuries
of streets and squares
and history’s making.

Calls for its own parting

For its one last view.

It is all,
the both of it,
City or Ocean,
so very marvelous,


The sand and the sky,
the odd Breton names
and sudden stone crosses.


My quick notes of research,

observations of the heart.


The rivers’ mists
or the sea in the sun.

And then the other side of longing:
the famous city in early morning,
Or late,
under an almost full moon . . .

The bridges
and the currents of the Seine.

The slow look of lovers
and the hurried steps of travelers on their way.

It IS all so very marvelous

this city that holds the world of words and architecture,
innovation and antiquity

Deep in its offering hand.

So once again,
I watch from the train window,

I Pad and notebooks beside me,


and see the golden light of Septembre
sweep the land.

The scene blurs past,
the yellowed fields of France

And the doorways
of lives never met.

And I listen to the turning wheels
that carry me away from Vannes
and Riec,
Nevez and Mane’ch,
and the bays
and the tides
and the colors of the sea,
the sea that moves the changing swirl called Ocean,
carrying me on a ticketed course
toward unwritten chapters
with stones in my pocket
and Breton sand in my shoes.


Louise Borden is the author of more than twenty books for children, whose awards include the prestigious Christopher Medal. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Washington, D.C. metro area, and can be visited at and on Twitter as @LouiseBorden.