How do you find the topics you write about?
I write about scientific topics that capture my imagination. Did you ever think about the word imagination? It has the word “image” in it. An image is a picture…something we can see. Sometimes pictures live in our minds. That’s imagination.

What makes you passionate about a topic?
I am passionate about science and nature because I love learning about the world around me. When I wrote the book Mosquito Bite, I discovered that an ordinary event such as being bitten by a mosquito is actually amazing because there is so much happening that we never see. I became passionate about the Mars Exploration Rovers because through them, I was able to imagine myself on Mars.

What do you do to investigate?
I read (books, articles, in print and online). I observe. I experience. I listen to experts and ask questions. I look at pictures, watch video, and take my own photographs. Investigation can involve all the senses—for example, when I was researching ancient bristlecone pines (the oldest trees on Earth), I tasted their pitch.

Once you find your information, how do you shape it?
I usually write notes in a notebook. If I find information online I copy the link to the site onto a reference page with a short description of the important information contained on the site. I use colored post-it notes to mark pages in books. I keep photos in folders on my computer. I use a highlighter to mark facts in my notes that are important and need to be checked. Then I start writing. I include much more information in my early drafts that is eventually cut out of the book, or reformed into a caption, or saved for the glossary, author’s note, or other material in the back called the “back matter.”

Do you work with an editor? How?
Yes, my editors read my manuscript, and make suggestions for revision. Often suggestions are the result of input from a scientist, called an “expert reader.” I never give a first draft to my editor. I always revise my work extensively before sending it to the editor. Sometimes I read my work at a critique group, which is a group of writers—we meet regularly to discuss our work and get feedback.

It would be great if we could learn more about your decision making process. Specifically, since we are going to be looking at key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of ideas, it would help if you could discuss those features specifically in terms of your books.
It is essential to know what I am writing about before I begin writing. In Cars on Mars, I knew the rovers were looking for evidence of past water on Mars. This central idea—“follow the water” was stated by the scientists at the outset of the mission, and became the theme of the book. Details make any story captivating. They bring stories alive, and make them unique. I love finding fascinating details and weaving them into the story. Craft and structure describe how a story is put together. A well-built house requires a sturdy foundation and square corners that fit together. A well-told nonfiction story requires the same. It must be based on well-researched facts—this is the foundation of the book. If the book is not accurate it will fail—just as a house will collapse if the concrete foundation is shoddy. Scenes must fit together like walls and corners in a house. The story must make sense. It must have a logical flow to it so the reader does not get confused. Ideas must be placed appropriately. You would notice if there were pots and pans stored in a bathtub. Same with ideas and details in a story…you would notice if I wrote about the rovers getting stuck in a sand trap before I wrote about the landing. Pacing is important, too. By this I mean how and when important facts are introduced and developed. It would not be helpful to the reader to introduce several ideas, and then only explain one of them at the end of the story. As a writer, I want to create dramatic tension but also must deliver a satisfying ending. It would be disappointing to the reader to leave them asking “what happened?” At the end of the book, the reader should know exactly what happened, because the writer knows and has conveyed it clearly.

How is your point of view revealed in your books?
My point of view is revealed in what I focus on, and what I leave out, although you may not know what I leave out because it isn’t there! Still, what I don’t say is just important as what I include when it comes to point of view. In Cars on Marsmy point of view is from the perspective of a passenger along for the ride. I am telling the rovers’ story of exploration and discovery as I see it from the “back seat.” I am not telling the story from the point of view of the scientists controlling and programming the rovers back on Earth. I do quote scientists to help interpret scientific information, but Cars on Mars is the story of the rovers not the scientists.

We are going to be doing more informative and argumentative writing. Tell us how you introduce ideas and concepts to your readers.
I like to introduce concepts in a way that makes the reader think about what is coming, without giving it all away. In Cars on Mars I chose headings for sections within chapters that gave a hint about what was to come. In this book, I often chose popular sayings or phrases that might be familiar with readers and make them want to find out how that particular phrase relates to the story. The chapter headings are also very important. You will notice that the table of contents in Cars on Mars is written as a set of driving directions. This idea didn’t come to me until a few hours before I sent my final manuscript revision to my editor. It may seem obvious to you that the book should be organized in this way, but I didn’t think of this until after the book was written. I went back into the text to discover what the chapter heading should be based on what the rovers were doing in that chapter. This turned out to be an extremely interesting process for me because I had to re-read my work closely to come up with just the right “directions.”

Tell us how you make claims and write original interpretations and then back them up with evidence.
In my book Bug Shots: The Good, the Bad, or the Bugly, I come to the conclusion that insects can be good or bad, from a human perspective. Mosquitoes, in my opinion, are bad because they spread diseases to people. If I were a fish, then my opinion would be different! Of course fish don’t have opinions or write books, yet their perspective does matter since they are part of the natural world in which mosquitoes can be a source of food. I state that honey bees are good, because they provide us with honey, beeswax, and pollinate many plants. These may not seem like original interpretations because many people would likely come to the same conclusions. That’s where the word “bugly” comes in. It’s not in the dictionary (yet), but I included it in the glossary to mean “having bug-like qualities.” Of course “bugs” are “bugly!” I wanted to show that insects are important life forms. I back this up with examples of specific roles they play in nature, with facts and figures, and images that allow readers to see exactly what I am describing.

Why are author’s notes helpful?
I like writing an author’s note because it allows me to speak directly to the reader and include information that is important but didn’t fit in with the story. In Cars on Mars, I wrote about my personal connection to the mission in “Message from Earth.” In it I describe how I “fell in love” with Mars and what inspired me as I wrote the book. I also got a little philosophical, and was able relate the story to a larger spirit of exploration that exists within each of us.