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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog

NARRATIVE NONFICTION

Research peripheral topics of your subject matter to add details in writing narrative nonfiction.

by Christine Kohler

In journalism school at the University of Hawaii we learned about Thomas Wolfe and his concept of “New Journalism.” Wolf believed that engaging nonfiction should contain elements of a novel, such as eyewitness and primary source accounts, real people as characters, dialogue, and descriptive details. Today we would call this narrative nonfiction.

Some people use the term creative nonfiction. However, as I discussed in my last blog article about misclassification, creative nonfiction should not be confused with fiction. Considered the godfather of creative nonfiction, author Lee Gutkind said, “Creative doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear — and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader — the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: ’You can’t make this stuff up!’”

There are even some who believe that creative nonfiction is a separate genre. I do not. There are other quirky and erroneous beliefs about creative nonfiction. Because of the confusion in terms and misclassification (see my article “Classify Your Book Correctly”), I prefer to use the term narrative nonfiction instead of creative nonfiction or new journalism.

Narrative nonfiction tells the story in the sense that it may set a scene, or develop a character with details, and add lively quotes. But these all come from primary and secondary sources in research. They do not come from the writer’s imagination. Author Darcy Pattison said, “Nonfiction writers use scenes, sensory details, and work for a traditional story arc with a problem that is resolved in a climax.” An excellent example of a nonfiction picture book with a full story arc is THEY’RE OFF! THE STORY OF PONY EXPRESS (Simon & Schuster) by Cheryl Harness.

Author Ginger Wadsworth said, at the SCBWI 2014 conference in LA, that narrative nonfiction requires four elements:
1. documentable subject matter as opposed to invented in the writer’s mind;

2. exhaustive research, with verifiable sources, to provide unique perspectives on the subject;

3. creating the scene to give the reader context around events and people;

4. a story arc using fine, literary prose.

It comes to what I harp on all the time. Writers must do deep research. In research you can search facts outside of the main topic to add setting and character and plot details to your nonfiction topic to make it narrative.

For example, in writing a Civil War story I traveled to Vicksburg and read 1865 newspapers at the courthouse research library. (Get prior written permission before embarking on these research trips.) The national weather bureau suspended service during the war between the states, so instead I read harbor reports. Civil War museums also displayed period dress and uniforms. My husband called a realtor and we were able to visit the Balfour House. Downtown I found a pharmacy with historic objects on display. The drugstore had been in operation in Vicksburg for so long that the owner’s father, a retired pharmacist, talked to me about folk medicine during the 1800s.

These are just some ways in which researching the time period can give you detailed factual information to breathe life into facts to make nonfiction narrative engaging and entertaining.

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On a personal note, I want to close out this year by thanking all of you who faithfully follow my READ LIKE A WRITER blog. Since I’ve been writing blog articles for six and a half years now, is there any topic I have not written about that you would like for me to cover? (Once I got a request to write about what changed in this business in the 35+ years since I began publishing, and I wrote an article about that.)

Wishing you all happy holidays, and a hopeful writing journey for 2019.  Read More 

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CLASSIFY YOUR BOOK CORRECTLY

by Christine Kohler

I was preparing a presentation for an international SCBWI conference in LA in 2014 on “Real World Facts: The Foundation for Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Fiction, and Fiction” when I became aware of the problem of mis-classification. Classification between nonfiction and fiction should be a concern of not just librarians.

When I taught writing for ICL for nearly a decade I used to be generous, calling a hybrid of nonfiction being forced into a story arc “fictionalized nonfiction.” However, I became alarmed when this classification confusion crept into professional children’s publishing under the guise of “creative nonfiction” or “narrative nonfiction.” It was especially troubling when authors made up dialogue and internal monologue and classified their works as nonfiction, under the guise of narrative nonfiction.

For an example of classification confusion, look at AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE (Scholastic) by Pam Munoz Ryan. Is this book nonfiction or historical fiction? Pam and her publisher Scholastic give a disclaimer in the front of this picture book, “Based on a true story.” In the author’s note, Pam admits that to make this a more compelling story she “fictionalized” it. Then she elaborates what is fact and what is fiction. I love Pam Munoz Ryan’s writing and admire her dedication to research, but in my opinion, AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE should be classified as fiction, not “a fictionalized true story.” Even if the author and publisher were trying to say this picture book is fiction based on facts, it gets hazy as to what classification it is in the way they danced around that the story is fiction.

THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills) by Alexis O’Neill is historical fiction written in first person. Alexis said she included back matter because readers will often accept historical fiction as fact and she wanted to help readers separate fact from fiction. Alexis said, “The more they are aware of the difference, the more they will keep their antenna up when they read other works of historical fiction. I hope they might begin to ask, ‘How could this be verified? Is there proof that this person really said or did that? Is the source of that information reliable?’”

When School Library Journal reviewed THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS, it placed the picture book in the nonfiction section. In an interview, Alexis called this misclassification embarrassing and said, “If a writer makes up even one teeny, tiny thing that can’t be verified-- a piece of dialogue, a neighbor’s name, an emotional reaction--the piece becomes fiction. Nonfiction means that everything is verifiable. But librarians struggle with this, especially if the book has biographical information in it. They want to place the book where readers are most likely to search for it.”

Compare these two picture books VOICES OF PEARL HARBOR (Pelican) by Sherry Garland and REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR (National Geo) by Thomas Allen. Why is Tom’s book classified nonfiction and Sherry’s fiction when both are in first person? Sherry used different invented characters to represent Every native Hawaiian, Every US citizen, and Every Japanese mother and wife. Tom begins in first person as the narrator of his own story and memories of that day as if in a memoir to create a framing to the factual information about the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. Notice that Tom put all dialogue in direct quotes in his book.

What are some no-nos in narrative nonfiction? Made-up quotes. People who never existed or interacted with the biography subject.

Even in FINDING MANANA: A MEMOIR OF A CUBAN EXODUS (Penquin), author Marta Ojito, a journalist, writes in her author’s note, “I won’t put dialogue that cannot be verified as exact.” This is not true for all memoirs. I admire Ojito for holding herself to a higher standard.

What does this mean for us as authors? I believe we should hold ourselves to higher standards. We should figure out in the course of our writing whether a piece is fiction or nonfiction. Do not be wishy-washy in using terms such as fictionalized nonfiction or creative nonfiction. Pitch it according to the correct classification--nonfiction or fiction. Even in author notes, jacket flap copy, blurbs, and publicity, the author should make the classification clear, and if it’s not, correct it.

Once the book is released to the world, though, it is out of our hands. It’s like I wrote in my October 2018 blog post about how books take on a life of their own after publication. Once your baby grows up and leaves the nest, you no longer have control over it. If someone misclassifies it after being published, an author has to swallow it like a bad review. *Sing “Let it go. Let it go.”* Take solace in that you, the author, did the best you could to make the classification clear.

Until next time, Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian and U,S. readers! Stay tuned, everyone, for my next blog article about creative and narrative nonfiction.  Read More 

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