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