Books, Craft, Dialog, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Publishing Industry, Research, Technique

Narrative Nonfiction or “Faction” – What is it?

I had a question yesterday from a writing colleague, whom I met at last year’s annual conference for ASJA (American Society for Journalists and Authors — if you’re not a member, I encourage you to look into joining. My ASJA network alone is worth the cost of dues).

Anyway, this friend is about to embark on a book proposal about a lesser-known historical figure. There isn’t a lot written about him, and she’s having difficulty locating much reference to this figure in her research. There are no heirs to his estate that she could contact for further elucidating material, though she has  contacted some well-known archives whose staffs should be familiar with him.

Now, this author is an experienced, skilled, detailed nonfiction writer. This story she’s considering writing has plenty of Important and Exciting Plot Points. It’s mundane details of the subject’s day-to-day life that she doesn’t know about–other than the time period in which the story takes place.

Bottom line, she’s overwhelmed with the thought that, although what she’s already learned has been exciting and she’s sure there’s a salable book in it, she may not be able to find enough actual reference material to be able to fill in the gaps in her knowledge about this figure. But she really wants to treat this as nonfiction.

Her question was blunt: Do I make it up?

She’s an ethical writer and is well aware that nonfiction means FACT-based, not made up, so she was not being serious. What is serious is her desire to write a historically accurate account of this fascinating figure. She’s wondering if perhaps she should do most of it as nonfiction, but write a fictionalized version of the story to fill in the missing parts.

What my friend is struggling with is something historical writers have always come up against: How to remain true to historical fact while still painting a complete word picture of a specific time, place and subject, even when there is simply no extant material to verify the smaller details. Enter “creative” or narrative nonfiction.

This type of writing has been with us for some years now, and allows such complete storytelling to take place. Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of the format, which of course has been decried by many purists as simple fraud. Essentially, narrative nonfiction uses fictional techniques to make a story come alive. Sometimes this must include the author’s conjecture on what happened in a given situation, because the people who actually experienced the situation are either no longer with us to bear witness, or simply don’t want to talk about the traumatic situation.

Book cover, The Perfect Storm

Sebastian Junger opened that door with his book The Perfect Storm, when he gave us his idea of what it must have been like as Capt. Billy and his crew went down with the Andrea Gail. No one who was there lived to tell about it, so he HAD to make it up. But it was a very small part of the story, and he made very clear in his notes that it was only his conjecture. And readers accepted it. The publisher took a chance with this maverick move, and it paid off — not just for them and for Junger, but it opened up a whole new world of possibilities that had heretofore gone unrealized for writers of historical nonfiction.

So now it’s acceptable in this format, if you have enough fact-based stuff, to fill in a few details based on conjecture and logic, as long as the vast majority — like 99% or more — of your story is provably accurate. And you must also explain in an Author’s Note that you have done so. Otherwise you MUST list the book as fiction.

I did this in my book, “Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955.” Because so many of the story’s subjects had either perished in the flood or were no longer with us when I was writing the book 50 years later, I needed to be able to take some license if I were to write it in a readable, engaging style.

Book cover, The Perfect Storm

And so I simply let my readers know that if dialogue appeared in quotation marks, it actually came out of the subject’s mouth that way, witnessed by someone verifiable; and if the dialogue appeared in italics without quote marks, it was something I conjectured might have been said. I was clear in my note that I only took license with relatively minor passages, and based my conjecture on what would seem reasonable to most folks to have happened in the given situation.

And you know what? People LIKE this. They’ve actually said things to me about this particular practice, all positive remarks. Now, no one has ever said anything to me about other techniques I use. But they have said things like, “I really like the format. Your book reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down!”

When I ask specifically what they liked, they note three things:

  1. The dialogue sounds like real people talking, not stilted, perfect prose. I use sentence fragments and contractions, because people are lazy and want to get their ideas out quickly.
  2. That I did try to imagine what dialogue might have taken place when I didn’t know for sure. As long as they’re aware of which is which, no one feels duped.
  3. I use tactics of good fiction writing: varying story pace, jumping back and forth between characters and scenes to set up easy-to-follow chronological order, giving enough background info to interest readers in characters and make them care what happens to them, and ending each chapter on a cliff-hanger that makes them want to keep reading to find out what happens.

If you’re interested in learning how to write using the narrative nonfiction format, I highly recommend Junger’s book and mine. I can also recommend three others that just happen to also be weather-related, because that’s what I read, as excellent examples of this type of format:

As to whether you should or shouldn’t engage in narrative nonfiction writing, I really do think it’s a matter of how much you’re comfortable fictionalizing. If you’re a purist, don’t even try — it’s not worth the internal struggle you’ll continue to have with yourself. But if you’re open to new approaches, here’s an online link that should help you learn more:

The Reading Experience – Forget Fiction (July 26, 2010)

And here are some books on the subject, both by Peter Rubie.

The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events

Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction

I hope you learn something that will pique your interest in tackling this flexible approach to historical nonfiction.

Books, Craft, General Writing, Inspiration, Plot, Technique

How Do You Develop Your Plot?

I just read a most interesting post over at The Creative Penn blog about mind-mapping your novel scene by scene. I encourage you to visit this well-written and idea-filled blog, regardless your writing experience. None of us has ever been at it long enough that we can’t learn something of value from someone else.

The Creative Penn blog logo

You really need to check out this awesome writing blog.

For those of you not familiar with mind-mapping, it’s a cool idea. Not entirely sure where it originated, but I’m guessing it was a business thing. At any rate, mind maps are visual or graphic representations of concepts associated in one’s mind with a particular project or idea. By presenting ideas in a radial, graphical, non-linear manner, mind maps encourage a brainstorming approach to planning and organizational tasks. Here’s a more comprehensive definition from Wikipedia.

I suppose I’ve done “mind mapping” for my current novel, Lonely Cottage Road, though it was more linear than lateral. This format sprang not from a desire to prioritize scenes, but because I was struggling with development of timelines that all fit together logically and rationally. I’m writing a historical drama in which my fictional characters and their lives intertwine with actual historical events, and there are a few parts where the two meld — kind of starting with reality, then making up stuff to advance the plotline. I’ve read novels like this and I love it when I can barely tell the difference between what actually happened and what might have but who knows?

This linear map I made was actually a spontaneous thing. I wrote in v-e-r-y small letters with a purple pen on a long, narrow strip of left-over drawing paper that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away even though it was too odd-shaped to do much with, because it cost $8 a sheet. So the timeline runs in two layers on both sides of the sheet. It was not just a good exercise in scene clarification, it was a sensual pleasure because that paper was so soft and thick, it was just awesome to write on. Anyone who knows about me and my paper and pen obsession will understand this.

And here’s something I learned that may be helpful to other writers: Purple ink is NOT permanent. Though the pigments are beautiful, they are fugitive and will fade over time, even when not exposed to light. Trust me on this. Thank God I looked at them when I did, because over a few years, they’d already faded so badly that I had to go over them again so I wouldn’t lose all that info…this time in black ink!

So, have you ever done this kind of graphical interpretation of your plotline, or any other elements of your story? Has it worked for you? why or why not?

Share!

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Inspiration, Motivation, Promotion, Publishing Industry, Research

Birth of a Novel

As a published author, I often am asked the same or similar questions, and many of those were recently rounded up in an interview I did with Sandra Carey Cody at her blog, “Birth of a Novel.” Thought it made sense to share it with you here.

Novel

Speaking of which, are you working on a novel? What’s it about? Struggling with anything? Share here, or over on our discussion forum. We’d love to talk with you about it.

Benefits of writing, Books, General Writing, Inspiration, Motivation

Author As Stress Manager?

Here’s something I think most of us heavy readers already knew: Reading reduces stress.

Woman reading to relax
Image courtesy Marie Claire UK

That’s right! Marie Claire UK reports that a University of Sussex study has shown stress levels decrease in people up to 68% while they read. Check out the article for more details, but I didn’t need a study to prove that to me. Just like petting a companion animal has been shown clinically to reduce stress — Duh!

Both of these activities are quiet and somewhat meditative. They take you into something of a Zen place (unless you’re reading something really disturbing or perhaps petting an animal who’s in pain).

But it’s nice to know that when we sit down to write something, we’re usually producing something that’s not only enjoyable, it’s therapeutic.

Now if we could just find a way to get the insurance companies to compensate us for being part of people’s stress reduction plan…

Craft, General Writing, Inspiration, Motivation

Everyone Needs Some Inspiration

Just got done viewing the first episode of Ken Burns’ “The National Parks – America’s Best Idea” for the second time. Apparently, I forgot to delete it from my TiVo schedule, and now it’s in re-runs. I’m glad.

John Muir
John Muir, from the Library of Congress collection

This time, instead of being preoccupied with the lush cinematography and engaging storyline, I paid more attention to the voice-over itself, as a communication device. And even in the first introductory minutes of this piece, I was reminded of what an incredible storyteller Burns is.

Part of his secret is that he’s so confident in his own abilities, he’s not averse to turning the spotlight on the talents of others within his works, and letting their ideas shine through. And what a gift that is for all of us who view his work.

In this instance, there were several adeptly chosen quotes spoken over the top of said breathtaking scenery footage that revealed the particular genius of the National Park idea. One in particular, though, struck a chord in my writer’s soul.

The lengthy excerpt from John Muir’s writings used to set the tone for Burns’ entire series is, itself, breathtaking. I won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say that Muir’s writings here reveal the source of his singularity of focus and clarity of vision for what the Parks could become as the federal system was being formed.

Anyone who’s ever worked even on the periphery of government or any other mammoth bureaucracy can appreciate what kind of power it takes to move such organizations even a little in a cohesive direction. To understand the influence of Muir’s words (and, of course, his actions) on this immense, circuitous and unprecedented governmental undertaking is to truly embrace the power of the pen.

I strongly encourage you to view this series twice: Once for the initial awe-inspiring story, and then again to see example after example of the power of words and ideas to move nations. Then I encourage you to ask yourself: What have I written lately in service to the ideals I embrace?

We are all creative beings. We all have ideas worth exploring. But they can’t be explored until they’re expressed. Who have you inspired today?

Craft, General Writing, Motivation, Writing process

Writer’s Block: Um…no.

This legacy blog post first appeared on August 28, 2009:

Writer's block

I’ve long believed that “writer’s block” is a fallacy; nothing more than yet another excuse not to write. And today I found one of most lucid arguments for this point of view over at Publietariat.

So I’m sharing it here with you, because it’s one of those things I believe can derail a promising young writing career.

So, read and enjoy, and let me know what you think!

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Research, Writing process

Researching Historical Nonfiction, Part III: Finding Sources and Archival Photos

This is another legacy blog post from April, 2009:

Researching in a library

As promised, here are some tips on starting out with historical research:
Local Media Sources – It seems a no-brainer that you’d start your research with media outlets that exist today, especially if they were around during the event you’ve decided to chronicle in your book. That’s certainly what I believed. I looked forward, too, to talking with other professional writers and journalists at our regional newspapers and other outlets.

Sadly, I discovered that certain of our regional newspapers — the Easton Express-Times being the most egregious — were unwilling to let me use their photos, even though I offered payment for that right. The EE-T re-publishes their own photo essay on the flood of ‘55 every 25 years on the anniversary, and somehow felt that allowing me to use those shots would lessen their sales, I guess.

Stupid, because that original booklet, published about a week after the flood, was what started my whole interest in the subject. I would have GLADLY included a page in my book promoting their booklet as a great addition to anyone’s flood collection, because obviously I couldn’t include all those photos in my book. Not only was this very short-sighted and promotionally retarded on their part, but I also think it was a real evasion of their responsibilities as a keeper of important historical public records.

On a more positive note, several other papers, such as the Pocono Observer-Record, was fantastic and very helpful. More than one staffer there went out of their way to help me make this the best book it could be. I’m grateful for their interest, help and dedication to their craft.

Regional Sources – Running into that roadblock, I had to depend on other sources for the images I’d use in my book. So, I got creative. I put out a call for people along the river to let me know they had private photos. It was a huge task, with many related efforts:

  • I put out several press releases to newspapers from Trenton to Port Jervis on both sides of the river.
  • I posted requests on some websites including those for historical societies and any private historical groups located in those areas (Craigslist would be a good one.)
  • I wrote to some historical societies in the affected regions with my requests, and that was productive. Many referrals to members and then those members referred me to friends and acquaintances they knew had photos and old newspapers, etc.
  • I also put up posters in as many communities as I could get to in the affected areas.
  • One element I will add next time I’m doing this kind of research is a website about the project. I’ll make sure it has lots of relevant keywords and phrases that people might search on for that subject. Then I’ll post my requests on there.
  • I’ll also blog regularly there on the progress of my project. This creates activity on your site and that excites the search engine crawlers to pay attention to you and rank you much higher than a static site.

A nice by-product of this kind of blog is that it makes people aware of what you’re doing and creates automatic customers of your regular blog visitors when your book comes out. They will have followed you from the beginning and have a sense of personal investment in the success of your project.

This is called “platform building,” and any publisher you talk with will want to know what kind of promotional platform you have before they commit to your project.

With any historic nonfiction project, don’t overlook any group where older folks congregate: civic organizations (Kiwanis, Lions, Knights of Columbus, etc.), church groups, senior centers, book clubs and reading groups in retirement villages, etc. Call them and send a request letter to be published on their website and in their newsletter.

Not only will you find many people to interview in these places, you’ll also find they’re enthusiastic about what you’re doing. They’ll be excited that someone cares about something they personally remember, and will lead you to all kinds of other interview subjects and people with archival letters, diaries, photos, etc.

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Research, Writing process

Researching Historical Nonfiction, Part II: Finding old maps

This post originally appeared on my legacy blog on April 11, 2009:

1838 Philadelphia map

Revisiting Amanda G.’s discussion forum post, she asked:
 How do I get maps of old towns that no longer exist?

That could probably be a little tricky. Depending on how old the towns were at the time they disappeared, there are a number of places you might look for maps. Here are a few ideas:

Historical societies are often the best place to start. Find the “keepers of the collections” and you’ve likely identified the people who not only know best what the collections include, but also about other resources you can consult, like other people and their personal archives. The trick is to really let them know you value and respect their vast knowledge.
Municipal or county clerks or recorders of deeds — depends on the town. They have official records of any properties that ever existed in their area of authority.

Public Libraries – They usually have a local history collection, and I have made some of my most interesting and surprising primary source finds in these. Make sure you as for the reference librarian, not just a page or front desk worker. You want someone who knows that collection up and down.

University and college libraries – They often have collections donated by alumni and other individuals in their immediate communities. East Stroudsburg University has lots of info on the flood of ‘55. The public library there has an awesome local history collection, and I’m thinking this would be your best bet.

Government Agencies – If you’re researching an area now encompassed by a national park, recreation area or other official preservation designation, the National Park Service will be a primary resource for you. They always have vast historical archives, usually have designated park historians (who are almost always obsessive about their subject). They’ll likely have lots of maps, photos and other visuals available. They’ll also want to stock your book in their visitor center gift shop when it comes out!

Secondary sources – Though this isn’t always the case, often if you’re looking for a map to an old place that no longer exists, you’re not the only one looking. It’s likely others before you have wondered the same thing, and sometimes were persistent enough to find what they were looking for. This helps you, because they’ve already done the work. So don’t pooh-pooh secondary sources as legitimate places to do some research. No use reinventing the wheel if it’s not necessary – remember, work smart, and you won’t have to work so hard. Think of other people who may have need of the same map you’re seeking, and try them first, before launching off on your own search. Lots of people need or want locator maps for now-extinct municipalities: land surveyors, real estate developers, fossil fuel energy companies, metal detectorists. See if maybe they haven’t already done the work for you!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources for research, but it’s a good starting point. Good luck to everyone taking on such a project. It’s a worthwhile effort, but a challenging one.

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Research, Writing process

Advice to a would-be author: Researching Historical Nonfiction

This post from my legacy blog was initially posted April 11, 2009.

Archival research for historical items

Montgomery County, PA, writer Amanda Greenfield posted to my discussion board with several questions about how to go about researching a historical nonfiction book she’s working on about the Delaware Water Gap. It’s a huge subject area, and an ambitious project.

I wish her all the luck in finding a focus for her work that will allow her to cover what she’s most interested in, while making sure she can also delve deeply enough to add the detail her readers will want. It’s always a balancing act for any writer. In my experience, knowing what to leave out is at least as important as knowing what to put in.

Amanda asked where I got all the historic photos I used in “Devastation on the Delaware,” the documentary I wrote about the flood of 1955. She said, “I have been making phone call after phone call to only be on a wild goose chase.”

Unfortunately — and this is especially true for a first-time author who’s never done this kind of project before — finding sources for images and other archival material can prove more than daunting. And since — as a responsible historian — a writer needs to start with the research, such an issue can bring your project to an abrupt halt.

It helps to have a guide, a place to start. I’ve often thought about this since I completed that book, which was my first effort in writing contemporary history (the kind where there are still people alive who lived through the event you’re chronicling).

I wish I’d had such a guide myself, but I didn’t. I figured other writers could benefit from having one, so I’m actually formulating a workshop right now, titled “Researching Historical Nonfiction.” I’ll be teaching this course live in some of our local community schools, but I will also eventually be offering it as an online course. If you’d like to be put on the notification list when I’m actually ready to teach it, let me know: courses@thewordforge.com. Put “Historical Research course” in the subject line.
Meanwhile, my next entry will include a few observations and pointers to help you with your own historical research projects.