Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Using Fair Assumptions in Nonfiction

Nonfiction is the truth, facts, and nothing but the facts. Right?  So, is there ever room for conjecture if it is based on those very facts? This question inevitably comes up during a writing workshop, and it is hard to explain, but yes, you can make certain assumptions if the facts support it.

I first heard the term "fair assumptions" during a talk given by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and Elizabeth Partridge.  The example given involved a scene in which a gas lamp hissed. "How do you know the gas lamp hissed?" a student asked. Elizabeth explained that the details of that scene were taken from a photograph that showed a gas lamp hanging in the background. Elizabeth had used that kind of gas lamp and she'd heard it hiss. She made a fair assumption that all gas lamps hiss therefore the lamp in the photo hissed and the people in the photo would have heard it, even though nowhere in any written historic document had anyone mentioned the noise the gas lamp made. 

Last week I mentioned Erik Larson's book Isaac's Storm, and he, too, makes a few fair assumptions which he notes in the back matter. Some are based on photographs. With a magnifying glass Larson picked out specific items like a hat, clothing, etc,strewn in the debris that Isaac would probably have seen although he never wrote about them in any letter or journal.

Another refers to his description of Isaac's family going to either the Murdoch's bath house or  the Pagoda bath house on Sunday.  Larson admits that he found no documentation proving this, but asserts that the close proximity, and the "communal character of the time -- and the absence of television -- it is all but certain that the Clines did so."

Another example is Larson's assumption that venomous snakes competed with people for space in trees to escape the flood and bit people who then may have fallen and drowned. No one knows if this really happened in Galveston, but the phenomenon has been reported elsewhere. Snakes most certainly would have crawled to higher ground, but would they have bitten their competitors? I know I would out of fear and survival instincts. 

The most understandable assumption involves dreams.  As Larson says, "I base this observation on human nature. What survivor of a tragedy has never dreamed that the outcome had been different."

Would you make the same assumptions?  Every writer is different. 

Before you include a fair assumption in your own text ask yourself: Does it change the story? Does it change the reader's perception of the event? If so, don't do it. 

This tool should also be used judiciously.  In Larson's 300 page book, which includes 15 pages of notes, I found only 7 instances where he had to explain his use of fair assumption.  

And like Larson, explain your reasoning in the back matter. Don't let your reader assume you made anything up.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How to Infuse Sensory Details into Your Nonfiction - A Lesson from ISAAC'S STORM

I just finished the book Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson, about the hurricane that destroyed Galveston in 1900.  The prose was powerful, thrilling and as unrelenting as the storm Larson wrote about. The story documents with near microscopic detail the events surrounding the storm, and the one man who stood in the center of it -- meteorologist Isaac Cline.

Larson's exacting narrative and his notes in the back of the book are mandatory reading for anyone interested in writing nonfiction. In his notes he discusses how he "filled in the blanks" of the history of a  place that was literally wiped off the face of the earth. Larson says:

"I approached the problem the way a paleontologist approaches a collection of bones. Even with so little to go on, he manages to stretch over those bones a vision of how the creature looked and behaved. I have been absolutely Calvinist about the bones of this story -- dates, times, temperatures, wind speeds, identities, relationships, and so forth. Elsewhere, I used detective work and deduction to try to convey a vivid sense of what Isaac Cline saw, heard, smelled and experienced in his journey toward and through the great hurricane of 1900."

Larson goes on to explain that he "mined the library's holdings for anything that might provide a fragment of my dinosaur's skin....I used details from these photographs to decorate the scenes in Isaac's Storm." Maps guided him through the city to trace Isaac's steps, and photographs let him see exactly what Isaac would have seen. From the map, Larson knew that he would have walked past a lumber mill, a bulk coffee roaster, and several livery stables. "Each must have perfumed the day."

His own observations provided details about "... dragonflies on Galveston Island, the behavior of seagulls in the north wind, and the colors of wave crests during a tropical storm."

Larson's research involved massive amounts of data and facts, but he never lost sight of the need to infuse his stories with the sights, sounds, and smells that would put his reader in the eye of the storm.

Next week:  Using Fair Assumptions in Nonfiction

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What Makes a Great Conference?

You know you've attended a good conference when you come home with a folder full of useful handouts and a notebook blue with writing tips you can't wait to employ.  But when you come home from a conference as a presenter and you are equally excited to explore the websites that were recommended and play with the new-to-you writing tools you jotted down, then you know it was a great conference. That's how I felt coming home from  Nonfiction 4 New Folks (NF 4 NF)  this past weekend.

Put on almost single-handedly by author Pat Miller (with help from husband/transporter/food-fetcher John, and "welfare wench" Aileen Kirkham) the conference is a nurturing place for writers trying to hone their true stories to publishable perfection.

This year I talked about research and the importance of seeking out details that inform the reader about the setting, the characters, and the context in which the story takes place.  Writing for magazines was also a focus of mine, and how you can reuse your research to craft one or more articles to maximize your efforts and income.

Unlike other conferences where speakers rarely get to sit in on other workshops, I got a chance to listen to three excellent presenters -- Karen Blumenthal award-winning author of Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different; Melissa Stewart, a prolific science writer; and Nancy Sanders author of Yes You Can Learn How to Write Children's Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career (among many others).

When I got home I couldn't wait to edit backwards as Nancy suggested. (It's a little tricky at first until you get the hang of it.) And I'm going to look at nonfiction books differently now that Melissa shared her scheme for categorizing NF based on structure and style which makes tons of sense to a writer.  And I can't wait to read Karen's book about Steve Jobs and her upcoming book about Hillary Clinton now that I know some of the stories about how she did the research.

There are dozens of writers conferences every year, and it's difficult to choose the right one. Do you go for the big ones where you'll miss more workshops than you take in, or go small and intimate? Travel cross country or stay local?

Here are my suggestions:

1. Choose a conference based on your abilities.  Be honest with yourself. Are you just starting out? Then skip the conferences that cater to a broad spectrum of writers.  You will see and hear a lot about editors and agents, but it won't help you hone your craft which you need to do before you think about getting an editor or agent. Look for a "Nuts and Bolts" conference that focuses on how to write. However, if you have a manuscript that has been revised and critiqued to the point where there is nothing more you can do, then find a conference with plenty of editors and/or agents attending. That will give you the permission to submit to them even if they typically have a closed door policy.

2. Choose a conference based on the type of writing you are interested in. If you write fiction, you have dozens of conferences to choose from, but nonfiction writers are not so lucky. NF 4 NF in Texas is perfect for a beginner. 21st Century Nonfiction Conference  in NY City is good for writers ready to submit and published authors.  Workshops put on by the Highlights Foundation cater to both.

3. Do you want to make friends? If you wish to remain anonymous, then a giant conference is right for you. It is easy to get lost in the crowd.(It may sound negative, but it's the truth) But if you want to build a writing community that you can bounce ideas off of, commiserate with, or form a critique group, then go small.  NF 4 NF had only 32 attendees, and Pat purposely shuffled critique groups so that everyone got a chance to meet. Many "Neffers" have kept in touch. This can happen at a larger conference, but it takes a lot of courage to network if you aren't used to it.

4. Check out the presenters.  Google the speakers, review their websites, and read their books. Do you like their work?  Do they write the kinds of books that you aspire to write?  Then that's a good indication that you will learn from them.

5. Check out webinars. If a conference seems too intimidating, cost prohibitive, or conflicts with your work schedule there are many online courses you can sign up for.  Look for ones that specify children's nonfiction.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hot off the Press! Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation

Ok, so PR is not my forte. Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation was released yesterday to no fanfare at all, because I wasn't paying attention. Sorry TJ.  But in my defense, the book had an amazing early reveal back in June at the Ag in the Classroom National Conference, so it's felt like it's already been on the market even though technically it wasn't supposed to be. But back to the book --

Although TJ was the obvious sequel to Farmer George, the two stories are quite different. While George labored at Mount Vernon, TJ's agricultural interests took him to France and Italy. While George's efforts concerned the average farmer on a small scale- composting, plowing, and harvesting - TJ advocated for farming on a much broader platform.  He was concerned with America's reputation, its ability to take part in a global economy, and of course remain ever independent. Sounds serious. But the way he went about protecting and promoting all things American will, I think, endear him to readers.

Stacy Innerst's warm, earthy gouache illustrations mixed with scanned papers and textiles provide just the right quirkiness to go with TJ's amazing antics.

Check out Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation through an independent bookstore near you!!

"It is no small feat to choose but a few facts about such a well-documented life; the choices made and the method of telling are both exemplary. KIRKUS REVIEW

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What Floats Your Boat? NONFICTION WRITING!!

I'm participating in WHAT FLOATS YOUR BOAT? along with 4 other award winning authors. It's a chance to invite an author into your classroom and talk about writing, books, and amazing true stories. Check it out HERE!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Book Review: Watch Out For Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community

In her new book, Watch Out For Flying Kids! (Peachtree, 2015), author Cynthia Levinson soars to new heights exploring issues of black and white, rich and poor, and Jews and Arabs in a whole new way. As she did in her previous book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, Cynthia looks at prejudice through the eyes of kids who face it every day. About her new book, Cynthia explains, “I knew I needed to help make the notion understandable and acceptable that not only Jews and Arabs, but also blacks, whites, Muslims, Christians – all kids—can get along. And that circus is an especially enchanting means in which to do so.”

She’s right about that. The kids tumble, juggle and fly above the conflicts that afflict their communities. The two circuses are Circus Harmony of St. Louis, Missouri and the Galilee Circus in Israel. Each has its share of stars. In Circus Harmony, there is inner-city Iking, who was in danger of following in his mother’s footsteps (she died in prison) if not for a loving mentor who introduced him to the youth circus. Iking works alongside Meghan, a transplant from the white suburbs of Wisconsin. Half way around the world we learn about Roey, a Jewish boy with a penchant for juggling, and Hla, a hijab-wearing Arab acrobat, just to name a few.

There are a lot of characters in this story, but Cynthia keeps the reader on track as she first introduces each circus and then shows what happened when Circus Harmony visited Israel in 2007, and the Galilee Circus came to St. Louis in 2008. Young readers will identify with the typical problems of being homesick, yearning for pizza, and not feeling “good enough.” But they will also feel the fear and tension that is part of daily life in Israel when a murder is committed in the village the American performers are staying in.

The honesty in this book is refreshing. The children don’t gloss over their feelings of anxiety, fear, and awkwardness as they try to merge the two groups. At the same time, they reveal a lot of maturity persevering through injuries, lack of equipment, foreign languages, learning to trust each other, etc. And this is piled on top of the common challenges of growing up – changing bodies, trying to fit in, making decisions between sports, cheerleading, circus, etc.   

Throughout the book, sidebars in the margins offer more information about circus acts, Jewish and Arab traditions, as well as the Second Lebanon War that the Israelis kids lived through. Thematic quotes begin each chapter, and at the end Cynthia lets readers know what some of the children are doing now as older teens and adults.

Cynthia does a tremendous job juggling dozens of characters, bouncing back and forth between the two circuses, and moving the story forward chronologically. A less ambitious writer might have settled for a tighter focus on only one circus, but the story would not have allowed the reader to come away with the understanding that, no matter where we live, we are all alike. 

Highly recommended!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nonfiction Ideas Found Down on the Farm

I had the great pleasure of delivering the keynote speech at the National Agriculture in the Classroom conference in Louisville, KY.  Being the only writer among hundreds of teachers and program coordinators, I was in a prime position to reap a bushel full of fresh writing ideas that have instant appeal to a specific market as well as a general audience.

I had never heard of an agricultural literary market until my book, Farmer George Plants a Nation, won a few awards from state Farm Bureaus in 2008. That's when I learned about Ag in the Classroom and the enormous network of people in each state who promote the importance of agriculture to children and the wider community.

To help get the word out about how vital agriculture is to every part of our lives these people need great books. That's where you come in. The catch is that these books need to be accurate. No Ol' McDonald in overalls sitting on a stool milking a single cow.  They want to see modern carousels with cows milked round the clock -- accurate portrayals of modern farms.

Julia Recko of the American Farm Bureau Federation said there was a need for books on poultry. Not my cup of tea. But if you can accurately create a positive story about the workings of a poultry farm, then you've got an audience waiting.  Although the meat industry may be a little difficult to represent - can't have Larry the Lamb narrate his life from pasture to plate --  there are hundreds of other farm products that have fascinating stories behind them.  You just have to look. Ask around. Visit a local farm. Think about cranberry bogs,  aquaculture... Take a popular food and trace it back to the soil. Find a new slant on salad greens.

Some good representative titles include: Weaving a Rainbow by George Ella Lyon, Who Grew My Soup by Tom Darbyshire,  and Extra Cheese Please! by Cris Peterson.

Or go the historical route as I did. Find a true story that highlights an agricultural innovation, the origins of a favorite food, or shows how farming has shaped our culture.

Check out your state's ag in the classroom website and become familiar with the kinds of books they use.  Are there subjects they don't have that you could research?  Look at the lessons they offer  teachers. What kinds of books would go along with those lessons?

When searching for your next nonfiction idea, consider an agricultural story, and you, too, will get to meet the fine people who make up Ag in the Classroom.