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My narrative nonfiction writing process

Narrative Nonfiction Process graphic

A fellow author, who is about to embark on her own first narrative nonfiction book, recently asked me about the storytelling process I used for my book, Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955. “You nailed it!” she wrote, and wondered how she could have confidence of doing the same.

Devastation on the Delaware cover, 3rd editionOf course I was flattered by the compliment, but I must admit, it was my first foray into narrative nonfiction, too, and I was none too confident myself before I began. But I know I’m a decent writer, and I knew I had a whopper of a good story to tell. In my mind, it was mine to screw up, and I’d have had to work pretty hard to do that. So I was surprisingly uncowed by the challenge.

As I tell people now, if I’d known how the project was going to eat my life for the next three years, I’d never even have started…so I’m glad I didn’t know, since that book changed my life in so many ways, all of them good. And one of them was coming to understand that the way I chose to approach the writing was spot on. In the ten years since the book came out, I’ve had exactly one person take issue with the way I chose to write it (you can find his comments in an Amazon review). And given that the book has sold in excess of 6,500 copies, that’s a ratio I can live with.

So, in the interest of believing that there are other writers out there who may be struggling with how to get started on their own narrative nonfiction projects, I’m sharing here my reply to my friend’s inquiry. Not that my way is the One Right Way (I don’t believe there is such a thing for any given effort), but I hope that perhaps knowing how I approached a narrative nonfiction book that has become a success will help you plan for your own successful new book. You may find some fresh ideas or—dare I hope?—nuggets of wisdom, or maybe just a different way of thinking about something that can help you move forward.

My writing process for “Devastation on the Delaware”

The Perfect Storm book coverThere was no big process, really. I had recently read Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm. I loved how they were done, and figured, why reinvent the wheel? If it works, copy it! So I did.

I knew I needed to write it in narrative nonfiction style to keep it from becoming boring, so I knew that I’d have to find certain people — real ones — who lived through the flood and had good stories to tell, but whose experience would also represent the larger experience of the folks in their respective geographic regions, and that I’d have to write them like characters in a novel. Hence the degree of background about each one, and pre-event lead-up. Yes, it took time and space, but it was necessary. And I was always mindful of not allowing that material to become an info dump and slow down the pacing of the narrative.isaacsStorm

As far as piecing them together to form a cohesive narrative, that part was unexpectedly easy and done for me — I simply chose people who were located at various points along the river, which was easy because I interviewed more than 100 of them. So that was Stage 1.

Then, once I had introduced them all and created their backstories, came Stage 2: I decided that the river’s natural history was such an integral part of understanding how the event unfolded, that I gave it its own chapter, the earliest one in the book after the introduction. I did the same with the cultural flavor and the meteorological and technological status of the mid-1950s, because these were also critical factors in how the response to the event unfolded. Then I proceeded to weave more of all of this in with the current situations/scenarios in which the “characters” now found themselves immediately prior to the flood.

Stage 3, though the longest haul, was actually the easiest. I just took the actual flooding event chronologically, which meant I started geographically with the northernmost point of coverage in the book, which was Port Jervis, NY/Matamoras, PA, and then followed the flood crest south along the river through Trenton, NJ. This was the perfect, literal “channel” through which to revisit the characters, who would in turn all be touched by the flood in one way or another.

I was careful at all times to keep it real and detailed enough to evoke the visceral emotions — terror, fear, confusion, excitement, etc. — without overwhelming the reader with too much information. That was critical to keep the pacing tight. My goal was to create the anti-boring historical textbook: I wanted it to read like a page-turning thriller. So one device I employed doggedly was ending each chapter on a note of impending action or doom earlier in the book, and with cliffhangers during the action part.

Probably the slowest section of the read was Part III – The Aftermath. Necessarily, the reader now sags along with the actual flood victims from post-adrenaline surge, and it was a challenge to get through all the post-flood politics, the blaming, the new anti-building in the flood plain zoning, the whole Tocks Island debacle, etc. without losing the audience. Once again, I turned to the emotional core of the story. I delved into the details of carefully chosen people whose personal experiences mirrored the larger zeitgeist of what others were going through. Again, very thoroughly considered, details carefully winnowed down to the essential, telling, emotional pith.

Damming the Delaware book coverAnd then the windup of the whole story: Again, I was blessed with the gift of Dick Albert (rest his soul)  having written his Damming the Delaware book, which I could essentially summarize in a few short paragraphs and simply tell those who wanted more detail to read the book for themselves. I was hyper aware of not getting derailed (which would have been SO easy!) by these other stories, which were really large enough to deserve their own books. I was disciplined about only mentioning them enough to provide necessary context for the end of the flood event. I had to keep in the front of my mind that I was ONLY telling the story of the flood itself. I provided lots of detail in the setup so that, during the action segment, I could just blow through it like an adventure sequence, and then at the end, I could wrap it up fairly quickly without losing my reader.

As far as my interview process in capturing the individual stories, I began with a very detailed list of questions of my own creation. I did have one question I asked every single interviewee, which was, “What’s the one thing you remember most about the flood?” (Incidentally, to a person, the answer was identical: “The smell.”) The rest I came up with by knowing where each interviewee was located at the time of the flood and how they could contribute to the telling of the story both insofar as how it affected their part of the river, plus how their personal situations were affected.

I also made use of any specialized knowledge they brought to the situation. For example: One guy was a bridge cop down in Bristol. One lady was a columnist for the New Hope Gazette. One lady’s late husband had been a captain up at the Tobyhanna Army Depot, which was so involved in search, rescue and recovery. I really went to town on the questions for these folks, because they had so much info others could not have had. I wasn’t afraid for my interviews to go past an hour, and quickly learned that when people were asked about this event, they weren’t afraid to keep talking for HOURS on the subject.

I did take written notes, but I mostly just recorded the interviews for later playback. I used a microcassette recorder back then, but today I’d just use either a digital recorder or my iPhone’s Audio Notes app. Having those recordings was not only helpful later while writing, to go back to listen to their intonations, pauses, sometimes the way their voices broke when telling a sad story; it is also of value now because I can use the recordings via social media and the book’s website to continue to promote the book, as well as use them as part of a DVD I’m putting together as an adjunct product to sell.

Important note: I anticipated using them this way, so when I asked each interviewee to sign off on usage permissions, I included these uses on the permission sheet. I also made sure to start the recording, remind them of how they agreed for me to use their testimony, and got them agreeing to it on tape, a good legal thing to do.

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Revisiting an interview with author Andrea Campbell

Before many of us were blogging, there were more author newsletters. I was fortunate to be interviewed by the author of one of these, Soup’s On!Andrea Campbell. In this excerpt from her New Year’s 2009 issue, Andrea talks with me about one of my “pet” projects (yes, pun intended), the 2008 genre-pioneering anthology, Almost Perfect: Disabled Pets and the People Who Love Them.

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The following material is ©2009 by Andrea. I’m posting it here because some of you may have missed it.

Andrea: Mary, you are editor of the new book, ALMOST PERFECT: Disabled Pets and the People Who Love Them. Can you tell readers a bit about your background and then how the idea came up?

Mary: Well, I’m a full time freelance writer who makes her living about equally in three different areas: marketing/commercial copywriting, editorial articles for trade magazines, and books. My last book was my first self-published effort, and I decided to do it right, launching a full-fledged publishing company with the intent to provide a forum for other less-well-known writers like myself. So that‚s how I came to be a book publisher. Almost Perfect came about because of a particular experience I had as a pet owner.

My partner, Shelly, and I have four cats, all rescues with special needs: I scraped Weaver off the highway just after he‚d been hit by a car. We got Winkie from an older woman who already had six cats and felt unable to take him after he wandered into her yard with his eye hanging out. Boo Kitty was a feral girl who’d been brought to the SPCA across the river, which wouldn’t keep her because she’d been bitten on the spine and they couldn’t guarantee potential adoptees that she wouldn’t develop rabies or some other such disease. But the critter who inspired the book is Idgie, who came to us through an adoption program at one of the big box pet stores. She was born without eyes and testing positive to feline leukemia.

I’ll let the book tell that whole story, but it was watching Idgie grow up and insist on living a full life despite all the odds against her that made me think other people must have similar stories to tell about how a supposedly “disabled” creature changed their lives through inspiration. So I put out a call for submissions via the Internet at a bunch of writing and pet sites.

Andrea: How did you choose the stories that went into Almost Perfect and how many submissions did you receive?

Mary: I received 42 stories in reply. Chose them first according to quality of writing and storytelling, then culled a second time according to what species were being covered. I didn’t want to have too many of one and not enough of something else. I would like to have had more variety, but of course most people own cats or dogs. I did chose one rat story, which is great.

Andrea: What can you tell us about Word Forge Books?

Mary: It’s a small, independent press that I formed in June, 2005. I have eclectic interests, so we have eight different imprints. Heavy on history, animals, weather and MidAtlantic regional topics. Our tagline is “Bringing You the World Through Words.” A secondary tag is “celebrating what’s wondrous about the world.” That’s my main goal: to inform with nonfiction and give people hopeful fiction, too. I don’t think we need any more nihilist or depressing stories on our shelves. One thing we try to do with appropriate titles is identify an organization that meshes with our subject and do a give-back. For instance, 25¢ from every copy of Almost Perfect sold goes to support Animal Welfare Karpathos on the Greek isles. One of the book’s contributors founded this pet rescue and still volunteers there.

Andrea: Is this book in other formats? and, what is your opinion on e-books or the future of e-books?

Mary: It‚s still just in print, but will very soon be available as a downloadable PDF. I’m working on getting our website ready for that functionality right now. We’re also looking into making it available for the Amazon Kindle and the Sony eReader. I’ll likely also make it available as an audio mp3, if not on CD-ROM.

As for the future of eBooks in general, they’re here to stay, no doubt in my mind. Especially as iPhone-type mobile accessories evolve, mp3s and eBooks will only get more popular. Commuters, moms waiting in the doctor’s office, students between classes˜anyone with time to kill, who‚d rather use it productively. Also great for business people wanting to improve their skill sets, and audiobooks are hugely popular with long-distance drivers and frequent flyers. But unlike many, I don’t believe any kind of eDevice will ever completely overtake traditionally printed books. There’s just a warm, tactile quality to the printed page that you can’t get any other way. And you don’t have to have any batteries!

Andrea: What would you like readers to know about Almost Perfect?

Mary: I’d most like them to come away from it with the idea that the next time they see a disabled animal, they think of the animal’s power to inspire first, instead of the disability. I want readers to think about animals with disabilities in a new way, instead of “Oh, poor Fluffy!” or whatever. I want them to marvel instead of feeling sorry. The book was intended to inspire and celebrate. And that they can order online at almostperfectbook.com or call 610-847-2456.

UPDATE:

Strange to read this and realize it was pre-iPad revolution. The book is now available for Kindle on Amazon.com. And the contributor who ran Animal Welfare Karpathos is now living in the United States, but still supporting that worthwhile organization, the only rescue on that Greek island. You can find Andrea Campbell on LinkedIn, among other places on the Web.

Thanks, Andrea, for a great interview!