October 10


Putting the W in Research by Sally M. Walker

My mother let my sister and me go on our first solo adventure when we were eight and ten years old. We traipsed to a large park a mile and a half from our house. We’d read that Revolutionary War soldiers—Hessians—were buried somewhere in the park. So, we knew Who we were looking for, but didn’t know exactly Where they were. Finding them was our mission. We dug with tablespoons. Disappointingly, our shallow holes didn’t unearth any bones, but it was a good adventure.

Who and Where are Ws for adventurers. In my career as a nonfiction author, I’ve had many adventures. Since certain people may frown on such a light-hearted word, I will substitute “research” instead.

But make no mistake, I regard all of my research as an adventure.

People want to learn about things that interest them. They eagerly explore an intriguing trail. That’s an adventure.

When my daughter was in junior high school, she read a novel about Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife.  Her many questions about Henry and his wives soon exhausted my knowledge.  She borrowed and read all of the books about Henry’s wives from the youth services room of our public library.  Still not satisfied, she asked for my library card and visited the adult stacks.  Two adult biographies later, she was content.  By then she had read more than fifteen hundred pages.   She didn’t have to do this research; she wanted to. It was an adventure in which she met new and fascinating people.

Good research starts with five Ws: What? Where? When? Who? Why?  It’s as simple, and as complex, as that. These five words provide the initial foundation for all my research.

Here’s a stream-of-consciousness glimpse of how they steered my research adventures for Sinking the Sultana: A Civil War Story of Imprisonment, Greed, and a Doomed Journey Home (Candlewick, 2017).


            What? I don’t believe it.  A boat disaster worse than the Titanic?  Surely not!  Let me check this out.  Hmmm…The Sultana. Never heard of it.  But that picture of her looks as if there are too many people on board. And look at those two sidewheel paddles. What’s that about?

Where? The Sultana traveled up and down the Mississippi River.  One of my eyebrows raised.  I live in northern Illinois, not too far from the Mississippi River.  Time to visit the river. And take a ride on a paddleboat.  Wow! It’s way smaller than the Sultana and it has only one paddle wheel in the back.  Gee, it’s noisy.  The Sultana’s churning sidewheels must have been deafening. I cover my ears when the boat’s steam whistle blares.

When? The Sultana steamed up and down the Mississippi River in April 1865. The Civil War had just ended.  This is good: I love learning about Civil War history!  Oh my gosh…this 1865 newspaper article states that the Sultana was the first steamboat to carry the news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to the people who lived along the Mississippi River! And this article, dated a year earlier, mentions that her captain liked to race his boat against other steamers. This is pretty cool stuff! I have to go Memphis, Tennessee, and see where the Sultana was docked.

Who? Now this is disturbing.  The Sultana was built to hold a maximum capacity of 376 people. Yet more than 2,000 Union soldiers who had been prisoners of war were loaded onto her decks!  Whoa, some of these soldiers were recently released from Andersonville Prison, where more than 12,912 men died. Some of them look like skeletons! But I guess they’re lucky to be alive.

            Why?  Why were so many guys on the boat? It seems that some men accepted bribes to load extra men onto the Sultana. Why did the boilers explode? Hmmm…I’m going to have to dig deeper for this. But this makes me think again of What?, my first W. What happened to the people who were flung overboard into the cold, flooded Mississippi River several miles north of Memphis? Now I definitely have to get to Memphis. Soon: the river is at flood stages right now and will be for the next few days. I have to see it.

Within a day, I was on my way to Memphis. The car was full of gas and I was full of questions. Without fail, anytime I get one question answered, more pop into my head. Answering these follow up questions requires more adventures—um—research.

The real research secret is to think outside the box. Try something new. Ask unexpected questions. Here are a few tips that will start a young adventurer’s juices flowing:

  1. Brainstorm. Spend time with young people and brainstorm on the places where they can go to find information. Libraries, zoos, museums, universities, businesses, or other places relevant to the topic.
  2. Write questions. Each student should write 5 to 10 questions that she or he would like answered. These questions act as a research road map and help the student focus.
  3. Choose a variety of sources. Books, diaries, newspapers, magazines, even nonfiction videos. Observe living and extinct life forms in a garden, zoo, or museum.  Try to arrange an interview with scientists, historians, or other experts on the topic. Make it a game. How many different sources can a student find?
  4. Have fun! Look for facts that make you raise your eyebrows in surprise. If the information delights the research adventurer, it will grab the reader’s attention too.


Sally M. Walker is the author of Sibert Medal winner Secrets of a Civil War Submarine as well as many other nonfiction books, including Sinking the Sultana: A Civil War Story of Imprisonment, Greed, and a Doomed Journey Home; Boundaries: How the Mason-Dixon Line Settled a Family Feud and Divided a Nationand Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. Sally M. Walker lives in Illinois.