CHAMPAIGN — The secret of Doug Peterson's success: putting "story" in "history."
On Tuesday, eighth-grade U.S. history students at Judah Christian School met with the prolific Champaign author who explained how a love of history and writing led to a career. Peterson is the author of "The Disappearing Man," about a man who escaped slavery in the American South by mailing himself to the North. He also recently published a novel about the Berlin Wall, called "The Puzzle People," and is working on another about a different escape from slavery.
He explained his writing and researching process to the students, telling them how he wanted to be a writer his entire life, save for a stint in junior high.
"My advice is, don't think you're too cool for something you love," Peterson told students, regardless of whether it's writing, music or another interest.
His books, he explained, start with an idea.
Peterson has developed ideas from visiting museums and reading books, and looks for stories that will have inspiration, adventure, romance, faith and a metaphor for something larger. In this way, he said, he tries to write books that will appeal to both men and women.
He then develops an outline for where he thinks the story will go. This often changes when he's actually writing a draft, because "the novel will take on a life of its own," he said.
He then starts researching the idea, checking all his historical facts. He said he uses reputable sites on the Internet to do so, and then writes a first draft.
After that's done, he visits the places where his books are set. After visiting a watchtower in Germany, he rewrote four or five chapters that take place there, he said.
He reads his manuscripts more than 100 times, he estimates, as he and others edit the book.
Promoting his books is also a challenge after publication, he said, and he had to write a screenplay for "The Disappearing Man" in three and a half days. His publisher expects to make the book into a movie, he said.
He told students that his life — which started with him writing for newspapers, then magazines, then children's books and books for young adults — reads something like one of his book outlines. He said he's happy to be writing historical fiction.
Students asked about the 400-page manuscript he brought to show students, and tested out the replica box he brought, to show the space in which his main character was transported from slavery to freedom.
Peterson said he has done some educational writing for the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, and he likes to talk to students about how he researches and writes using history.
"I do have that educational spirit, and I love history," he said.
He has spoken to a variety of groups all over the country about "The Disappearing Man." He uses a replica of the box Brown mailed himself north with and says he's having a 12-by-4-foot Styrofoam replica of the Berlin Wall made to accompany his newest book.
Zielke said he thinks his students learned from Peterson.
"I think they saw the amount of work it takes to write a novel," Zielke said. "It is great for them to see someone from their hometown who has been successful in writing (and) to hear from the author of the book."