Local couple finds new interest in writing books about science

They'll write, illustrate books for reference publisher Facts on File

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Bobbi McCutcheon, who has written science fiction, now is writing science fact. Husband Scott McCutcheon, who built his own telescope when he was 14 but doesn't work as an astronomer, is helping write a book on space and astronomy pioneers.

The McCutcheons' lives have taken new turns since they received a contract to write and illustrate books for Facts on File, a New York City publisher of reference books.

They co-authored "Marine Science Handbook," which was published this summer.

The McCutcheons also hold a contract to work on a Facts on File book about famous space explorers and astronomers, due out next year. And Bobbi has been hired to produce illustrations for a number of the publishers' books.

"It provides a great opportunity to share our excitement with these topics with young people," Scott said.

Bobbi, 41, wrote and provided most of the illustrations for the marine book. She previously self-published a science fiction novel. Scott, 42, an analyst and computer programmer for the state Department of Health and Social Services, has a physics degree. He edited the marine handbook.

"All of the books that we publish are reference books," said Facts on File publicist Laurie Katz. "The bread and butter of our market is to the schools."

Bobbi said her literary agent suggested the McCutcheons try technical writing. They submitted a proposal to write the marine handbook, which is part of a series by Facts on File, and it was accepted. The McCutcheons' editor was not available for comment.

The series' books include short definitions of scientific terms, very brief biographies of major figures in the field, a chronology of important discoveries, photos and illustrations and some charts and tables. As a reference book for children in grades six to nine, the emphasis is on brevity.

"It's a primer," Bobbi agreed.

"I was the technical editor and also contributed ideas on how to pick the ideas," Scott said. "How are you going to get a very exciting topic like marine science to middle school-age young people? With the short attention spans kids have these days, you have to really grab them."

The publishers told the McCutcheons how many entries to include and how many pages the book would have. That's one difference from writing fiction, Bobbi learned.

"That's where the writer's craft really gets honed here - presenting ideas in a concise manner. That's fundamental to a handbook that's somewhat of a dictionary."

The McCutcheons began work in 2001 and finished 12 to 14 months later. The hardback 272-page book, which retails for $35, was published this June.

Bobbi said she tried to choose the most common topics to be defined in the glossary. Sometimes she asked her three sons what they wanted to know about. Scott said they also looked for topics, such as global warming, that are relevant today.

"You try to summarize," Bobbi said. "You try to pick out the most important thing about the fish or the man."

Bobbi researched at the University of Alaska Southeast library and on the Internet. Because she's not a marine scientist, she triple-checked her information, she said. Scott also verified the information.

"I've tried to help her career as much as possible," he said, "but it's also very enjoyable. I have a very deep curiosity about the world around us, so that comes instinctively."

"I don't think there was ever a question I asked Scott that he didn't know the answer to or where to get it," Bobbi said.

Bobbi also provided most of the illustrations in the book and has been hired to provide computer-generated art for Facts on File books about scientific pioneers. She taught herself from scratch how to use the computer graphics software. She has no background in art.

"It's just instinctual," Bobbi said.

"It's talent," Scott said with a laugh.

Scott is selecting the entries for the book on space and astronomy pioneers.

"He had it all in his head," Bobbi said.

Technical writing is an unexpected career shift for Bobbi. She has worked as a cocktail waitress, and still works at the Hangar on the Wharf one day a week. Her love was fiction writing, but it hasn't paid the bills yet.

"Writing is something I've always not been able to stop," she said.

Her writing of stories and poems fell off after she had children, but picked up in 1996 when she wrote "Father Mars, Mother Earth." She composed the science fiction novel on a computer in her laundry room. It took her three years to refine the book, which she published herself. She's also written two screenplays more recently.

"I'd rather do creative writing. It's more fun," Bobbi said. "But so far I haven't broken into the creative writing business as well as the technical writing."

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