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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The Year of Teaching

Last year, after several years of being asked to consult with other authors and indie publishers, I finally formalized this part of my marketing business into a consultancy called The Indie Navigator. Since then, I’ve been pretty busy making appearances in that incarnation, helping my fellow writers become authors and indie publishers, and helping those indie publishers become better at the business of publishing.


But I haven’t forgotten the whole reason we’re all doing this: Because we love to write, and want to get our work into the hands of as many readers as possible. So one of the things I made up my mind to do this year is learn more about the technical craft of writing for myself, while I help my fellow authors with marketing, promotion and self-publishing.


To make that happen, I’ve been busy the first part of this New Year scheduling appearances as the Indie Navigator in venues where I can do both of these at once. I’m excited to announce that I’ll have the chance to do just that coming up in March, when I’ll be teaching two seminars at The Write Stuff annual conference, hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group.

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I first spoke at this conference back in 2009, and was so impressed by how professional and well-run it was, I joined the writer’s group that hosted it. I’ve been a proud member ever since. GLVWG (pronounced “GLIV-wig”) is a friendly, very active group, large enough to support many helpful and enjoyable activities and resources for its membership, but not so large you feel lost or insignificant. I strongly recommend joining for anyone in the Lehigh Valley area who may be struggling with living the writing life and needs some support. It’s a truly warm, welcoming organization wholly supportive of its members success, whether that be as a part-time amateur poet or a full-time professional author…and anything in between.

Author Mary Shafer speaks at the Cat Writers Association Conference

On Friday, March 21, I’ll be teaching a four-hour seminar from 1:00-5:00 pm, titled “Indie Publishing Intensive: A Quick-Start Guide to Self-Publishing.” The first half will be the “what-to” part – an expansion of my popular seminar, “Identity Crisis: What Is A Publisher, and Should I Become One?” It’s an overview of the book publishing industry, including a brief history of traditional publishing and how that background has shaped our current world of indie publishing. This helps potential indie publishers understand why things evolved the way they have (when so much of it seems not to make sense otherwise). Then it delves deeply into

  • What it really means to BE a book publisher vs. an author
  • Why it’s important to perform a reality-based “gut check” to determine if you have what it takes to be a long-term book publisher
  • The processes and paperwork you need to complete and for the appropriate agencies who can authorize you as legally recognized book publisher in the United States
  • Moving from manuscript to printed, bound book and ebook
  • Getting your book listed with the major online retailers, onto store shelves and into readers’ hands
  • The all-important promotional component

The second half of the session will be the “how-to” element. This seminar, titled “Switching Hats: Moving From Author to Indie Publisher,” gets to the gist of how to go about all the “what-tos” covered in the first half. It’ll cover all the nitty-gritty that’s possible in a single session, supported by a generous Q&A session during which attendees can ask anything they want about the whole indie publishing process.

I’ll also be offering on-the-spot critiques of first pages during the Page Cuts session on Friday evening. Then on Saturday, I’ll be leading a session titled “Narrative Nonfiction: Finding Freedom in Form and Function.” This session will cover the nuts-and-bolts of researching and writing true-life stories with a blend of journalism using fiction techniques in a format popularized by author Sebastian Junger. It’ll be a fast-moving, info-packed seminar on this increasingly popular writing style, now employed across nearly every genre you can imagine.

I hope you can join me, along with my colleagues Kathryn Craft, Phil Giunta, Scott Nicholson and many more, at this always-wonderufl event, this year headlined by keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan, bestselling suspense novelist!

Keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan enraptures her audiences.Keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan always enraptures her audiences.

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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.