10 TIPS FOR TURNING NONFICTION INTO A NOVEL
January 31, 2017
by Dandi Daley Mackall
I grew up on my parents’ amazing true war stories—how Mom joined the Army as a nurse when WWII broke out and Dad signed up to report to the Army the day after he got his medical degree. Even as a kid, I could tell their stories—about meeting in boot camp, marrying after a whirlwind romance, then being shipped overseas to different countries and nothing but their letters to keep their marriage alive. Lt. Mom cared for amputees, German POWs, and concentration camp survivors, while Lt. Dad moved into Germany with a British unit and set up battalion aid tent hospitals. On top of that, they left me an Army trunk full of more than 600 of their letters, tied in bootstrings, untouched since 1945. So armed with factual material and a myriad of resources, this book should have been the easiest I’ve ever written.
I’d always worked at making my characters real. Instead, now I had to turn real people into realistic characters. I needed to transform nonfiction plots into a narrative arc that would compel readers and keep them reading until the end. Unfortunately, life seldom delivers itself in such a package.
Here are a few things I learned the hard way. Might come in handy if you find yourself swimming through an ocean of nonfiction in search of a novel.
Tip #1 -- Resolve that you are choosing to craft a story, rather than document your family’s history.
Tip #2 -- Free yourself by first documenting your family’s history. My first draft was intended for family only (including cousins). That way, I could theoretically do what I wanted with subsequent drafts.
Tip #3 -- Make that first draft a free-flowing doozy! Mine ran about 900 pages.
Tip #4 -- Family stories are generally anecdotal, short and sweet (or not so sweet)—more like short stories than a novel. Decide on one major theme.
Tip #5 -- To help you find the novel’s narrative arc, ask (yourself) a major dramatic question before you start that next draft. “Will they/he/she or won’t they ______________?” You have to be able to answer Yes or No—and don’t answer it until the climax. Mine was: “Will their love, their marriage, survive the war?” Keep that question in front of you as you write.
Tip #6 -- Characters need arcs too. Will Helen come to realize that she needs other people? Will Frank discover that he…?
Tip #7 -- Keeping asking yourself: Whose story is this? Then, after you’ve worked so hard to capture your relative’s voice and heart, let it go. The first time my editor read my early draft, she smiled, said nice things. Then she handed it back: “Now rewrite this, starring young Helen and young Frank, instead of Mom and Dad.”
Tip #8 -- I wanted to put in all of my eleven favorite aunts and uncles who served in WWII. But it was too many for readers to care about. Combining or cutting characters may be the hardest job. Do it!
Tip #9 -- Craft your climax early on, even though it may change. You’ll need something to aim at. Every chapter and every scene should build to this moment. If it doesn’t, bye-bye scene.
Tip #10 -- Sculpt. Once you have that monstrous, ridiculous, oversized draft, like a rough block of clay or marble, sculpt and carve until you’ve found your novel. Then polish, polish, polish.
Dandi Daley Mackall is the author of 500 books for all ages.
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Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Mackall (My Boyfriends’ Dogs) provides a fictionalized account of her parents’ World War II marriage in this well-researched page-turner. Nurse Helen Eberhart had no intention of getting married, but when she enlists in the Army to care for the wounded in 1944, she meets lieutenant and doctor Frank Daley and her plans soon change. After a quick wedding in Chicago, the two are sent to different areas of Europe for what turns out to be the final year of the war. While they manage to arrange an occasional rendezvous, most of the time they are unaware of each other’s locations and maintain their relationship through letters, writing two or three times a day and waiting eagerly for the unpredictable mail to come through. The “Story Behind the Story” and discussion guide included in the back of the book offer a fascinating look at where real life ends and fiction begins. While one might expect a story written in homage and remembrance of one’s parents to be overly sentimental and idealized, Mackall has admirably resisted that urge. Instead, she has crafted memorable, complex characters who courageously face the tragedy of war and the difficulties of cultivating a bond while separated. While the real people behind the characters pack additional punch, Mackall’s heartbreaking narrative and precise prose alone will stay with readers long after the final page. (Mar.)