Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why Narrative Nonfiction is Hotter Than Ever

Ken Wright (moderator) – Writer's House NY

Tanya Lee Stone

Deborah Heiligman

Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Elizabeth Partridge

Susan: Extreme athletic research. Research to the edges of the subject. Contradict stereotypes that live in the middle. Libraries – uses division one university libraries . Has 6 library cards. Secrete database access – alum. Has friends with passwords. Reads bibliographies of books and papers for resources.

Visit the places you write about. It feeds the senses and emotions. Once the facts repeat themselves there is nothing new to learn – it's time to write.

Deborah: was terrified to write about Charles Darwin: “Who was I to write about him?” One fact was very interesting to her – that Darwin's wife Emma was terrified that Charles would go to hell and they would be separated. It became a focal point for her research.

JUST go to primary sources. Deborah read Darwin's autobiography. She also read letters (volumes) from Emma's family, beginning with Emma's birth. Got passionately attached to Charles and Emma.

Writing about living people: don't discount information because it doesn't fit your angle. Not a linear process. Listen, ask for different people's perspectives on an event.

Checking that the stories you get from people are true is very important. Take a journalistic approach.

Editor will want a cover letter, one chapter and an outline. They need to love it.

Your book will be different by the time you write it.

A primary interview with a live person is very valuable. One author looked up and called many people with the surname to get an interview. When you interview people, get them to sign a release. Record audio as you state the date, person's name and read them the release on tape. A signed copy is given to author, interviewee and publisher. Sometimes the interviewee needs to be reassured that the story will still be theirs after they share it. They are not 'giving it away'.

Don't let form dictate content: let content dictate form. Leave yourself open, trust. You never know what you'll find. Often it will end up a very different story than you were signed up to write. Susan signed up to write a book on WWII. Went back to researching WWI / Germany / kids in Germany. Deadline loomed, the book was meant to be about American history but this did not eventuate. Asked to change her contract.

Ask yourself: what is important about this story that I need to tell? Always stick to 'what do I need to tell?'

Have multiple layers in a nonfiction book.

Don't do a 3 paragraph data dump. Have emotion in as many paragraphs as you can. Resonance. What emotion drives the scene?

Q: What's hard about writing about famous dead people?

A: They still have family. If you portray the person in a negative light you may offend. Must be respectful, but keep to your truth about it.

Susan talked to and argued with the person she was researching whilst washing dishes. Spent a weekend with the KKK. It breathed the story to life.

Elizabeth: Photographs of celebrities are much more expensive. Make sure in your contract you have a photo budget. It's 'easier with dead people'.

When you have a strong point of view about a subject, how do you find a balance?

Nonfiction novels are using a lot of techniques from fiction. Can't invent dialogue... although this has been done. Don't go there.

Source notes – keep track of where you get everything.

There's no such thing as a perfect book. Small details may be missing, but they don't alter the state of the book.

Hit the deadline. Be reliable.

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