17 Secrets of Audiobook Narrators

Once associated with dusty library cassette tapes, audiobooks are more popular than ever. New technology has made it easy to listen to large audio files on the go, and the resulting surge in listeners has helped the format slough off some of the stigma of decades past. Contrary to the old idea that audiobooks are “cheating,” scientists say that listening to your literature stimulates the brain just as much as reading it does.

The recent boom in audiobooks means that the voiceover artists who bring them to life are especially busy. Mental Floss spoke with a few industry professionals to learn about what it takes to excel at the job—including their diligent voice-care regimens, the one thing they always look for during research, and the spoilers they sometimes get from authors.

1. THEY'RE PROBABLY FORMER STAGE ACTORS.

Several of the audiobook narrators we spoke to started out at the theater, not in a recording booth. “I had never owned an audiobook, listened to an audiobook, or thought about it as a job,” says January LaVoy, a voiceover artist who's narrated books by James Patterson, John Grisham, and Libba Bray. She initially made connections in the audiobook world through her work as a theater actress, but after getting more involved in the audiobook industry, she found that narration has some advantages over acting on stage. She says jokingly, "Doing an audiobook is like being in a play where finally everyone says their lines right."

2. THE AUDIOBOOK INDUSTRY HAS ITS OWN OSCARS.

Each year, the Audio Publishers Association hosts the Audie Awards to honor the best in the industry. In addition to recognizing outstanding audiobooks across genres, there are Audies for best narration by the author, best narration performed by multiple voiceover artists, and best individual female and male narrators of the year.

3. THEY MIGHT GET ONLY ONE NIGHT TO PREPARE.

Sometimes audiobook narrators are given a few weeks to study the material and plan out their performance, but that's a best-case scenario. "The publishing world is fast, so we have to be ready to respond and make room in our schedule for what comes up," says Tavia Gilbert, who has recorded over 500 audiobooks. "It’s never predictable." If a last-minute assignment comes in, narrators may have to cram all their research into a single, caffeine-filled night.

This usually means giving the book a quick scan rather than an in-depth read. "I’m not looking for shortcuts, but I don’t like to get bogged down in too much detail on the first read because then it’s not fresh when I come to it in the studio," says Simon Vance, winner of 14 Audie awards. "I like to enjoy my reading in the studio as much as you would the first time you pick up a book."

4. THEY LOOK FOR CERTAIN WORDS ...

No matter the time crunch, reading the book through at least once beforehand is essential. While skimming the text, narrators are searching for specific terms. One example is something LaVoy calls "active attributions"— "Like 'she said loudly,' or 'he screamed,' or 'she whispered,'" LaVoy explains. "If I don’t know he whispered it until after I say the line then I’ve wasted time. So if I can mark them so my eye sees them coming up, I don’t have to go back and say the line again." Accents, hard-to-pronounce words, and character names are other things narrators look for.

5. ... AND PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS.

Gilbert also keeps an eye out for any description she can use to build characters when doing her first read. “I’m looking for whatever each character says about themselves or other characters, including their physical description, which affects how somebody sounds," she says. "An elderly woman with a severely hunched back and hands that flutter like a bird will sound very different than an elderly woman who was a prima ballerina in her youth and still keeps her hair pulled back in a perfect bun."

6. SOME OF THEM RECORD FROM HOME.

Audiobook narration is traditionally done in a studio, but for narrators who have proven themselves in the industry, recording from home is an option. "Publishers used to be a little wary about using home narrators because you had to be a good self-director," Vance says. He's been narrating audiobooks for 25 years, and these days he records all of his audio from home.

But Gilbert, who splits her work between home and recording studios in New York, says working from home isn't necessarily easier. "There’s a lot more on the narrators' shoulders when we work from home. We’re self-engineering, self-directing, and delivering our files to the publishers, so we’re responsible for everything at home that we are in the recording studio plus these additional tasks," she says. But if narrators know what they're doing, the work pays off: Gilbert won the Audie Award for Best Female Narrator last year for a performance she self-directed at home.

7. THEY GET INSIDE KNOWLEDGE FROM AUTHORS.

When audiobook narrators have a question about the text, they get to live out every reader’s dream and contact the author directly. The correspondence can be brief, like an email asking how to pronounce the name of a mythical country, or much more involved. When preparing to narrate the audiobook for Jerusalem, Vance flew to England to meet with author Alan Moore. “I spent an afternoon walking around his city in Northampton, which is where the book was set, talking to him about all the places and picking up the accents and so on,” he says.

If narrators make a good case, they may even be able to pry a few spoilers out of the authors they work with. Vance does this when narrating a series that hasn’t been fully published yet. “I will often ask writers if there’s anything I need to know about these characters that’s not revealed in the first book," he says. "You have to be aware of the threads. Like if a character's actually related to somebody but you don’t find out until book three, you don’t want them to sound too different.”

8. IT MIGHT TAKE THEM A MONTH TO RECORD ONE BOOK.

The average audiobook runs about 12 hours, but the process of making them takes a lot longer. For pros like Gilbert, the ratio of finished audio to recording time is tight—maybe 1 hour of final audiobook for every hour and 15 minutes spent in the booth. Narrators just starting should expect to invest more in the process; all that time stumbling over words and going back to repeat lines can add up to two to three hours of recording time just to get one hour of useable audio.

If narrators follow a typical eight-hour-day, five-day-week work schedule, an average assignment can take about four days. But for much longer works that creep past the 1000-page mark, the recording process can last a month.

9. THEY TRY NOT TO TAKE BREAKS.

Since breaks add time to the workday, some narrators aim to minimize them. LaVoy tries to go for as long as possible when recording, only pausing after 90 minutes of straight narration. “I think it’s good for the book because you want it to feel like one breath,” she says.

10. IT PAYS WELL.

Even for newcomers, narrating audiobooks is a lucrative line of work. According to Business Insider, voiceover artists just starting out can expect to earn $100 for each hour of finished audio. For industry veterans, those figures can reach up to $500 for a completed hour. All told, book projects can net narrators thousands of dollars.

11. NOT EVERY AUTHOR WHO WANTS TO NARRATE GETS TO.

As the medium gains popularity, more authors are opting to personally provide the voice work for their audiobooks. Some authors, like Neil Gaiman, can successfully hop between the worlds of writing and narration, but it isn't for everyone. “They don’t realize how hard it is,” Michelle Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, told Audible Range. “It’s surprisingly difficult to do things like stay still for the microphone, or to even wear the right clothes." ("Noisy" fabrics like polyester and nylon can bring unwanted sound into the recording booth.)

Some authors interested in narrating never get the chance to prove themselves—publishers often have to be blunt and tell would-be author narrators that their voice just isn't good enough for the job.

12. LIP BALM IS ESSENTIAL.

If you’ve ever talked non-stop for hours on end, you know that your mouth can undergo some serious wear and tear. LaVoy had to find this out the hard way: “For the very first book I recorded, my lips were chapped and bloody by the end of the day.” Now she says lip balm is the one thing she won’t walk into the recording booth without.

13. GOOD WRITING MAKES THEIR JOB EASIER.

The difficulty of a narrator’s job often depends on the quality of the work they're reading. Gilbert, who is a writer herself, is grateful whenever she’s assigned a book that practically reads itself. “I prefer to narrate anything that is beautifully written. I don’t care what the genre is—if it’s well-crafted and there is deep heart and truth, I am delighted to have that book.”

When a book isn’t so masterfully crafted, the opposite can be true. Vance says, “Sometimes it feels like you’re dragging your feet through mud to bring the story to life and there are other times where it feel you’re dancing on water and you're singing the words."

14. BACKGROUND NOISE CAN DERAIL A SESSION.

Even when a narrator’s voice is in excellent shape and the words are flowing off the page, a little background noise is all it takes to disrupt a take. This is especially challenging for home narrators, who often lack the fancy sound-proofed booths found in big studios. Gilbert says, "I adore my 6-year-old neighbor upstairs, and affectionately refer to her in conversation with her mom as Miss Fancy Feet, because that little girl is full of energy—and lots of noise—when she gets home from school."

Construction, doorbells, leaf blowers, and slamming doors can all delay her work, but Gilbert tries to make the best of it. "Noise is like weather—wait a few minutes and it’ll pass. In the meantime, balance the checkbook, fold a load of laundry, send emails, clean off your desk ... there’s always something to do to keep productive."

Sometimes, expensive insulation still isn’t enough to keep outside sounds from leaking in. LaVoy, who primarily works in studios, says, “If somebody’s doing construction on an office three floors above you, you have to send somebody up there to find out what’s going on, because you can only soundproof so much."

15. IT’S PHYSICALLY DRAINING.

Reading books all day may sound like a dream job to some people, but it’s physically demanding work. Vance says the one thing people underestimate most about the job is the amount of stamina it requires. “It’s not just about having a good voice,” he says. “If you think you want to do audiobooks, go to your bedroom and pick a book off the shelf. Sit down and read to yourself out loud for an hour. Take a break for a few minutes, then come back and do it again for an hour, and again for an hour. Do that five days in a row. If you enjoyed it, then you can take the next step, but if you found it exhausting and you couldn’t maintain the same tone throughout, then maybe you should think about doing something else.”

16. THEY AVOID GOING OUT—AND EATING CHEESE—BEFORE RECORDING.

To maintain a strong voice, audiobook narrators need to avoid picking up certain habits. Smoking, drinking, and eating foods that cause phlegm build-up (like dairy) are all quick ways to sabotage a recording session. Even just going out to a social event prior to a gig is enough to strain the vocal cords.

“Something my close friends and family have learned to cope with is that I can’t go to bars or restaurants the night before I’m going to record a book, which is a lot of nights,” LaVoy says. “Whether you realize it or not, the ambient sound in a restaurant means that you’re talking a little louder the whole night. The microphone is like a microscope: It hears everything. So if my voice is tired I’m not going to have the elasticity I need.”

Vance also tries to avoid having too much fun on a work night. At the same time, he acknowledges that taking perfect care of his voice is easier said than done: "There are things you should definitely not do, which is go out late at night, smoke cigars, drink too much, go screaming at football games, but we all make those mistakes."

17. YOU NEED TO LOVE READING TO LOVE THE JOB.

All the audiobook narrators we spoke to share something in common: They’re enthusiastic readers. Being a successful narrator requires an actor’s instinct and physical endurance, but what the job really boils down to is to be able to read for hours without getting bored. “If you don’t love reading it’s absolutely torture,” LaVoy says.

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11 Secrets of Romance Writers
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Some readers may snicker at book covers featuring aerobicized men and titles like The Firefighter’s Woman or The Bull Rider’s Christmas Baby. But if it weren’t for the steamy, escapist fantasy of romance novels, a healthy portion of the publishing industry would cease to exist: According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romantic fiction brings in $1.08 billion annually and accounts for 13 percent of all fiction sales in the marketplace.

What keeps readers coming back for more? We asked some of the genre’s top authors for insight into the “secret baby" trope, why pen names are necessary, and the one rule of romance that can never, ever be violated.

1. THEY WEAR PERIOD CLOTHING.

Novelist Shelley Adina (A Lady of Resources, A Lady of Integrity) writes historical, Amish, and steampunk-themed fiction, just a few of the many sub-categories that appeal to niche audiences. To better understand her characters, Adina dresses in period outfits to gather what she calls “tactile details.”

“I like to feel how a heroine would feel in the clothes,” she says. “I’ve been laced into a proper corset and you realize what kind of dance steps you can do, or why a lady’s back never touches a chair—a tight corset won't allow it."

2. THE REASON THEY USE PEN NAMES ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK.

Covers of two romance novels by Shelley Adina
Shelley Adina

The authors of romance novels don't use pen names out of embarrassment. Adina (a.k.a. Adina Senft) says that pseudonyms—many authors have more than one—help readers compartmentalize writers who generate multiple series. “People who read Amish fiction may not read steampunk,” she says. Another, bigger reason: Bookstore software can use “kill orders” on authors who don’t sell a certain number of titles. If they fall below parity, retailers will automatically stop ordering more copies from that author. “If that happens,” she says, “you have to reinvent yourself with a new name.”

3. THEY’LL DIGITALLY REVISE THEIR WORK AFTER PUBLISHING IT.

The analog publishing model has traditionally been one of permanence: Once a book is in print and in readers' hands, there's no going back. But romance novel readers are a very particular clientele with certain expectations about how they’d like their protagonists to behave—and the self-published digital distribution model that's popular within the genre allows for a little customization. Author Heather C. Leigh (the Famous series) found that out when her first books featured a heroine who was a little too acerbic. “My first three books sold well, but there were critiques that my female lead was too sarcastic,” she says. “I understood and took it out. I don’t mind making work better based on feedback.”

4. COVER MODELS OFTEN LOSE THEIR HEADS.

The covers of two romance novels by Heather C. Leigh
Heather C. Leigh

Despite seeing hundreds of new titles published every month, the romance genre still manages to find new ways to visualize their shirtless male protagonists. In many cases, though, the beefcake winds up getting decapitated. “A lot of times, the man will be turned away or cut off at the forehead,” says author Eliza Night (The Conquered Bride series). “Readers want to imagine his looks in their own mind.” Grooming is also a necessity. “I had a cover with chest hair once. My readers did not like it.”

5. THEY HAVE BONUS SCENES.

Self-published authors (who make up about two-thirds of the total romance e-book revenue on Amazon) spend much of their time marketing their work. To help maintain interest from their existing readership, some send out email newsletters with updates on new titles and include exclusive passages that can enhance the experience of a previous book. “My first book was about an actor who had to do a love scene with a woman he hated,” Leigh says. “It was never going to be in the book because that was from his girlfriend’s point of view, but I got a chance to write it as a bonus.”

6. THEY WANT READERS TO BECOME WRITERS.

While resources for aspiring writers of all genres are plentiful, the romance field makes an exceptional attempt to recruit new talent. Industry interest group RWA doubles as a conduit between established writers and novices, hosting conferences and panels on the best ways to break in. “We don’t live in a competitive hierarchy,” Adina says. “There are so many readers with so many diverse tastes. It’s a big community where we support one another.”

7. THEY GET HELP FROM THE AMISH.

An Amish woman walking in a field
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While the Amish sub-genre has received media attention for its peculiarity, Adina doesn't believe it's so unusual: She says readers are attracted to a pastoral environment “without having to leave their wired-up house.” For accuracy’s sake, the author has enlisted an Amish reader to vet her titles for details. The popularity of the books “mystifies them,” she says. “They don’t understand the interest. They just hope the books might be able to point people to God.”  

8. THE “SECRET BABY” TROPE IS A READER FAVORITE.

Readers like resourceful women and skilled, wealthy love interests—and they especially like it when the former keeps their baby a secret from the latter. “The trope is that the hero and heroine have an affair, she gets pregnant, never tells him, and he comes back around five, 10, or 20 years later and finds out,” Adina says. “Reunion stories are popular. It’s the appeal of a responsible man.”

9. THEY’RE HISTORY GEEKS.

The cover of a romance novel by Eliza Knight
Eliza Knight

Knight cringes at the idea romance authors do little more than transcribe their own lurid fantasies. A self-described “history geek,” she travels frequently for research into Scottish history. “Most of us who write history nerd out on it,” she says. While once writing about a zeppelin-riding heroine, Adina jumped into one that offered rides over Silicon Valley to see how it would feel. She also got her motorcycle license for the same reason. “We’re serious about it,” Adina says. “We’re not sitting around in housecoats with barking Pomeranians.”

10. THEY’D APPRECIATE NOT BEING ASKED ABOUT THEIR SEX LIFE.

Many romance authors have at least one story to tell about people in their private life finding out they write for the genre and subsequently losing any sense of boundaries. “Strangers have asked me, ‘Do you test out scenes before you write them?’” Leigh says. “It’s like they lose a filter. It’s not real life. J.K. Rowling isn’t a wizard.”

11. THERE’S ONE RULE THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN.

While writing instructors invariably have all kinds of techniques for nourishing a story, the romance genre spells it out in an unequivocal manner. According to the RWA, nothing can be considered a “romance novel” without a central love story (naturally) and what authors have come to refer to as the Happily Ever After ending, or HEA. “Romance is a courtship story,” Adina says. “Readers expect the bond will be created at the end of the book. If not, it’s Nicholas Sparks or Romeo and Juliet. It would be like having a mystery where the detective doesn’t solve the case.”

This story originally appeared in 2016.

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15 Secrets of Fireworks Designers
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The Fourth of July just wouldn't be the same without the colorful peonies, waterfalls, and comets that burst across the night sky above wowed crowds. But designing fireworks and their choreographed displays is a labor-intensive, dangerous job that requires the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer. Mental Floss talked to two experts in the field to learn how fireworks designers plan their shows, the history and the chemistry behind their displays, and why you don't necessarily want more bang for your buck.

1. THE ROOTS OF THEIR PROFESSION GO BACK OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

Humans have been adding bright, noisy explosions to their celebrations by setting fire to chemicals since at least 9th-century China. The very first fireworks were little more than quick orange bursts emanating from bamboo rods packed with charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate and tossed into bonfires. Slowly, these contraptions progressed into flares cannon-fired into the sky by “firemasters” in medieval England. By 1830s Italy, the use of metal salts such as strontium, barium, copper, and sodium added vivid reds, greens, and blues to firework displays—a precursor of the brilliant hues we see today.

2. THEY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ARTISTS.

“Fireworks are our paint or our clay, and our canvas is the night sky—or a building, or a bridge, or a waterway,” says fifth-generation fireworks designer Phil Grucci, CEO and creative director of the Bellport, New York-based Fireworks by Grucci. The company has created fireworks displays for seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations, Olympic games in Beijing and Los Angeles, and commemorations such as the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, among other events. “Working with space, understanding color and the dynamics within the fireworks, what moves very quickly, what sounds very loud, what sounds very soft, what is subtle and elegant”—all of it takes an artist's touch, Grucci says.

Pyrotechnic designers “can visualize exactly how various fireworks devices will burst in the sky,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. That means they know "how high [fireworks] will reach their apex and burst, how wide they will spread, and how long the effect will ‘hang,' or linger. They can then choose other fireworks to burst above, below, or on each side of an effect to create the image they wish to see across the sky."

Of course, "painting" with fireworks is a little trickier than using acrylics or oils, since the medium is explosive. "The difference [compared to painting] is that we’ve got something that’s dynamic, that moves, it’s constantly moving and it’s very temporary," Grucci explains.

3. THEY START WITH A PAPER SKETCH.

A red and green firework bursting in the night sky
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Old pros like Grucci may know from experience how certain fireworks will look together against a backdrop. But he still sketches out each segment of every show he designs with colored markers on paper. From there, he works with his team to set the show to music, then choreographs it using software called Visual Show Director. Next, his programmers create a script in SolidWorks and/or AutoCAD. “In the past,” Grucci explains, “we scripted it all on a piece of paper, and the pyrotechnicians installed the hardware from that same piece of paper." Now, he says, they can be "taking advantage of the computer age, to visualize [a show] to see whether the product works as you’ve designed it.” Finally, Grucci’s team generates the computer file that will electronically ignite the fireworks at showtime—much safer than the days when a human had to ignite the fuse.

But Heckman says that although the technology is useful, it's made fireworks performances a little more homogenous. "Before electrical firing, computer choreography and a reliance on imported product [mostly from China], I think fireworks companies' unique style was much more prevalent," she says. "Technology has somewhat leveled that out." A few companies do still have distinctive styles, she notes—even if those differences are usually only apparent to true fireworks aficionados.

4. SOME THINGS ARE STILL DONE BY HAND.

A fireworks cartridge contains a series of pellets called stars, which are cubes, spheres, or cylinders about an-inch-and-a-half long filled with explosive materials and color-producing chemicals and metals [PDF]. A star’s colors are formulated via computer, then pressed into a pellet shape by machine. But when it comes to arranging the stars in the casings that will be fired into the night sky, it's usually human hands doing the arranging. The pattern laid out inside the casing determines the pattern of the explosion—a heart-shaped firework blooms from stars arranged in a heart shape—and according to Grucci, automating the task to account for the enormous variety of available patterns would be too expensive. The task can be labor-intensive, since a single shell can contain hundreds of stars.

5. THE VENUE DETERMINES HOW THEIR SHOW WILL UNFOLD.

Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018
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It's as true in fireworks as it is in real estate: It's all about location. That’s partly for reasons of safety—Heckman says that every show has to follow industry standards for “tables of distance,” which “mandate the size of the largest shell that can be fired safely from a standpoint of fallout distance to spectators, and also public highways, occupied buildings, and public roads.” She says there's a complex regulatory scheme that dictates the type of products that can be used per type of venue, as well as when shows can begin and end.

But the site is also an integral part of the beauty and impact of the show itself. "We’re very aggressive in looking at structures, and trying to highlight their key features," Grucci says. “Whether it’s a tower, whether it’s a bridge, we will be [scouting from] the very highest point of that. If [a structure] is horizontal, I know that we are going to capitalize on the entire width of it. I could be easy and say, 'put some fireworks to the left and right side of a bridge.' But that’s not good enough. We have to take advantage of the undercarriage of a bridge, the steel cables that hold its towers together, and highlight the entire structure.” Grucci says he'll often calculate the entire surface area of a structure, so he can make sure he's taking advantage of every square inch.

6. THEY MATCH THE FIREWORKS TO THE MUSIC.

Not all fireworks displays have music, but when they do, the score and the effects should complement each other—not clash. A delicate classical piece may call for smaller, quieter fireworks, while a piece like the "1812 Overture" might fit bigger, louder bangs.

"So many of the [effects] we’re working with, they may have a baroque feel to them," Grucci says. "They’re very bold and strong and very in-your-face, but then you have that very elegant feel to some of the fireworks, that you would never put onto the canvas when there’s a rock-n-roll sequence on. When the product is so simple or so elegant, it would not match that tempo or that thematic."

7. THEY HAVE HIGH-TECH TESTING FACILITIES.

An assortment of colorful fireworks bursting in the sky
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Say you want to create a streaking green comet with a silver twinkling tail. “We’ll make that on a small scale, then we’ll test it at one of our two test sites, in upstate New York or in Virginia,” Grucci says. “Our pyrotechnicians are in protective bunkers and we have high-speed video cameras, wind meters, and dB [decibel] meters for noise. We record everything that we’re testing, so that we can look back on that and analyze it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve failed. But we failed at the test site—never on the performance stage.”

8. THEY DON'T REPEAT THEMSELVES.

“My desire is to always make something that’s different,” Grucci says. He tries not to repeat a particular scene more than once in a performance, let alone repeat a whole show—although he notes that it helps that the "canvas" is always changing: “Even though we may use a particular beautiful color scheme with a metallic glitter, putting that on the Washington Monument as opposed to [over] an open baseball field—those are two completely different visuals.” One of his newest innovations turned up in the presidential inauguration in January 2017: a 600-foot by 700-foot display behind the Lincoln Memorial, made up of a series of 800 fireworks shells that burst in sequence into an American flag. “The color red [we used] is from a formula that is probably a few hundred years old," he says. "But delivering these little red dots on the sky at these [different] heights is what [allowed us to create the flag].”

9. LESS CAN BE MORE.

Fireworks at the opening of the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas
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"Sometimes people get caught in the trap of thinking that more is better," Grucci says, but when it comes to the number of fireworks in a performance, it can be exactly the opposite: More shells equals more smoke, which can white-out the night sky. "When you put too much in the sky ... you’re not really allowing the medium to display the beauty of what the product is about," Grucci says. (Plus, the metallic particles in fireworks smoke can pose a health risk for people with asthma or other health problems, which means it's wise to limit smoke where possible.)

10. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Fireworks designers love to borrow from nature for the names of their displays. In addition to peonies and chrysanthemums, which both burst into circles (chrysanthemums have longer tails), there are willows (bursts with trails of gold or silver stars), falling leaves (glowing embers that flicker as they tumble to earth), fish (which leave little squiggles of light), spiders (a hard burst with straight, flat legs), and palms (which bursts up and out in a shape like its namesake tree). But there are also fountains (showers of sparks, sometimes also called gerbs), comets (several long trails of sparks), crossettes (a comet that breaks into other comets, usually creating a cross shape), dragon eggs (a delayed crackle effect), salutes (a loud noise without a display), and strobes (which burst with a blinking effect).

While creating their show, fireworks designers may work with cake (a single fuse that lights several fireworks in a sequence), whistle mixes (a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate that burns noisily), and dark fire, which is used to allow a star to change from one color to another (it gives off no light as it burns, allowing the new color layer to ignite below it). They hope to avoid flowerpots (which burst prematurely) and stars that are blown blind—or fail to ignite at all.

11. DANGER IS (UNFORTUNATELY) THEIR MIDDLE NAME.

Fireworks manufacturing presents an enormous danger. In 2016, Slate reported on a preponderance of deadly fireworks-making accidents in China—with an average of 400 workers in fireworks production plants dying every year between 1986 and 2005. Elsewhere, fewer accidents seem to happen than one might expect from the mixing and storing of combustible chemicals. According to Heckman, in the U.S. at least, that’s because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “stringently regulates the manufacturing process, including personal protective gear, and employers must train their personnel on the hazards and the [kind of gear that’s] required.”

“We’re mixing powders to create explosive compositions that have to be handled very delicately," Grucci says. The work has to be done in a non-sparking environment (one with special tools and materials that reduce the risk of sparks), and in a room that has plenty of exits. "[You don’t want to be in a] big, giant room filled with fireworks and there’s only one door to get out," Grucci says. Workers in their factory wear conductive shoes, which conduct static electricity through the footwear and into the ground, "because the environment is very dry and you wouldn’t want to walk across the floor and touch something and have an arc spark that goes to a box of open powder and explodes on you.”

Safety is paramount for Grucci, who lost his father, James, in a massive industrial accident in 1983 at the family fireworks plant on Long Island. He says that the secret to safety, from manufacturing through installation, is to “be consistent and never cut a corner.” He says his grandfather always told him, "As soon as you think you know it all, or you want to start cutting corners, [that's] when potentially you’re increasing your odds of getting injured or possibly killed."

12. SOMETIMES THEIR FAVORITE WAY TO WORK IS SMALL.

Yes, it’s a challenge to produce a 30-minute fireworks show off five barges in the middle of Manhattan’s East River—but intimate shows present their own set of hurdles. Grucci mentions a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event held around Lincoln Center’s fountain that he created pyrotechnics for this spring. The flaming bits were a mere 15 feet from the audience and the clothing that was showcased in Lucite boxes. In that kind of scenario, “You can’t afford to have the hard outer casing or the inner paper wrappings” you’d use at an aerial fireworks event over the river, Grucci says. “The last thing you want is debris falling on the audience.” The solution: stationary fireworks comprised of titanium and aluminum particles of a sub-micron size, which burn quickly and don’t sustain heat for more than a few milliseconds—sort of like a sparkler.

13. THEY BREAK RECORDS.

World fireworks records include the largest fireworks display: 810,904 of them, fired off on January 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. And the most shells launched per minute: 479,651 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. And the longest fireworks waterfall (a long, glittering shower of embers): 11,539 feet, 5 inches, at a fireworks festival in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2008. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Gruccis broke the world record for the world’s largest single aerial shell at a show they produced on Al Marjan Island in UAE. Weighing 2397 pounds, it was the culmination of almost 40 years of Grucci family trial and effort. “My father attempted the world record for the largest firework back in 1979 [with] a 42-inch-diameter white magnesium cascading flower that we displayed down in Titusville, Florida," he says. "Guinness gave him the world record, but it didn’t launch to the height or break to the size that he wanted it to. He always wanted to retry that and I had the opportunity this past New Year’s Eve to give my family another crack.”

14. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT (OR PASTEL).

Research is underway on fireworks that are quieter—which could cause less stress to animals, children, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as fireworks that are kinder to the environment by using cleaner, nitrogen-based fuel.

But those aren't the only innovations shaping the future of fireworks. Shapes are changing, too; look for letters and corporate logos. Designers now also have a host of softer and more diverse colors at their disposal. “In the early ‘80s we started developing colors in between ROYGBIV, the basic colors, so now we can produce lemon and tangerine and chartreuse and aqua and every color within the spectrum,” Grucci says. They do so by fiddling with the purity of the metals used and the size of their particles—which also change other parts of their overall effect. Large particles of metals like titanium, iron, and aluminum result in large “splinters” and a glittery effect, Grucci says, while smaller particles lead to fewer splinters and “a very bright light.” He notes that at this point, they can "get pretty much any Pantone color" in a fireworks composition.

15. THEY LOVE TO SEE AMAZEMENT ON THE FACES OF AUDIENCES.

People watch the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks from outside Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

“I think a crowd, in general, appreciates a lot of action—variations in colors and noise; and pattern shells such as smiley faces, hearts, and dice are always pleasers,” Heckman says. According to Grucci, “This is a very serious business. But it’s colorful and it’s beautiful and it has great, great energy. When we go to a performance, we can see an 80-year-old man and a 5-year-old granddaughter watching the show and their expressions are pretty much the same.” In that moment, “They both [become] children.”

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