Sunday, January 1, 2012

Pre-Writing - Thinking about Coal

So, I chose this topic for a couple of reasons:
  1. It's a key energy source in an uncertain energy future.  
  2. It's a hot-button political issue, exploited by both Democrats and Republicans because of its strong links to the "rust-belt" swing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
  3. It is plentiful in the United States.
  4. It has played an important part in American history.
  5. It is local - I'm from Ohio, a reasonably big coal state, or close to one (West Virginia).  I'm currently living in Illinois, which is a big coal state.
  6. It has a complex and interesting scientific history, as a "fossil fuel."  It relates to geology and paleontology.
  7. It has complex ties to unions and worker rights, because of the abuse of coal miners.  
  8. It causes Black Lung disease, an interesting workplace disability.
  9. It is a significant cause of air pollution, and a major cause of the Clean Air Act.
  10. It is big business, with several huge corporations exploiting it for large profits.  
  11. It helped cause and fuel the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and around the world.
  12. Barack Obama called the United States the "Saudi Arabia of Coal."
  13. Several mine disasters have happened recently, and they never fail to get covered, even though the coverage doesn't seem to lead to any serious changes.  These accidents keep happening.  
This is before I've done any serious research.  I'm not sure exactly what I want to say about coal, or what "angle" I want to pursue.  Let's call this need for an angle a sense of "tension."  I'm looking for the conflict buried in this story - the thing that makes it a story, that makes it interesting to readers.  Conflict - or tension, since that makes it clear that we're dealing with a topic here - is the "stickiness" (from Murray?  I forget), the oomph, the guts, the gumption, the money, the gold, the payoff, the rub (Shakespeare) in the topic - is what makes the product worth reading/viewing/seeing/clicking through. I want people to enjoy and appreciate the final product, so I need this overarching sense of TENSION.

So, what questions do I need to ask?

Based on what I've written above, and what I'm thinking right now, here are some things that I want to pursue, at least for the moment (these questions help me begin and shape the research, but they do not confine or restrict me if something interesting pops up - it's a good thing if I change direction in the research because the thinking that I do in the midst of the research is often the most specific and text-based I can possibly produced - it often represents my best thinking about the topic, and needs to be respected as a voice that is more informed than the voice that speaks right now - why would I let the me of today, who knows very little about coal, give orders to the me of tomorrow or next week, who is in the middle of doing research about coal and knows a lot more?):

  • Why do we keep using coal to generate electricity when it is so dirty, dangerous to mine, and expensive to transport?
  • Why do people keep talking about "clean coal," when no one has been able to come up with a way to burn (what amounts to) compressed, hardened dirt?
  • Why is coal so common in the midwest?
  • Where are the largest coal mines, and who are the largest coal-mining companies?  
  • What is the extent of coal-burning electrical power plants in the United States?
  • Are there alternative technologies out there that might provide adequate energy if coal were abandoned?
  • How did coal mines and coal miners contribute to the formation of the large labor unions in the United States, such as the AFL-CIO?  What influence did they have on other unions and on the gains made in worker rights in the Progressive era and New Deal?
  • What role did coal play in the settlement of the Appalachians and the midwest?
  • What events - especially related to coal and coal burning - contributed to the passage of the Clean Air Act?
I already know a bit about American history, and I've read a little and watched a few movies about these periods and these issues, such as Harlan County.  I'm not a total newbie about this, so in some sense this is false.  But knowing more about American history helps me learn more, and I chose a topic that I already know about so that the research will make more sense to me.  It's easier to do more research about something that I know a little about - that helps me know where to begin and where to dig deeper.  

I think there are a few key questions that I need to keep in mind for developing the product:
  • What might make coal interesting to people who don't necessarily know a lot about American history, and don't care about the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio?
  • What is important about coal today?
  • What biases do I have about coal, and how can I try to remain balanced and open about these biases?
  • How can I limit the scope of my research?  What kinds of materials can I ignore or exclude?  What kinds of materials should I focus on?
While I am looking for the "tension" of the subject, it might help to open my research as wide as possible.  With a broad topic like this, that could be daunting.  The final product that I envision for this is some kind of YA narrative nonfiction book.  (Ouch - an audacious goal, but darnit, it's reachable.)  So, it's not unreasonable to include music, video, movies, google images, TV commercials, poetry, and any other sources that might offer some kind of insight or interest.  While I might not be able to use an old movie about coal as a source, it might help me understand things about the coal industry that might otherwise be difficult or take more work to understand.  

I'm going to think about this some more, and begin the initial research soon.  I think I'm going to start with some images.  I already have a few music CD's from the library that I'm going to listen to in more depth today.  
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