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