Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How to Research Nonfiction: Step 2

Last week I wrote about the kind of research I do when I get an idea. I have to answer two key questions: Is it kid-friendly, and is it a new idea or new slant on an old subject?  Henry Ford's plastic soybean car fits the bill, so I move to question number three: Will there be enough information about the subject to make the project viable?

I have run into dead ends before. Getting my hopes up about some arcane topic only to discover that the little tidbit that tantalized me initially was all there was. No historical records existed.  I suppose I could have made it my life's work to scrape together the few remnants that remained and built on it so that I became the expert, but my heart, and my attention span, was just not that into it. I'll leave that to some grad student looking for a dissertation topic.

But my gut feeling is that there is more to my plastic car story than what I have uncovered so far. After all, Henry Ford is one of the most famous innovators of the 20th century. So, my first task is to read as many biographies as I can about the man. Doing research for a nonfiction book is like creating backstories for fictional characters. You need to find out what makes them tick. Where did they come from? What and who influenced them?  There are a lot of biographies about Ford, so I select the ones written by reputable researchers; ones with lots of end notes and a big bibliographies that will direct me to other sources.  I start to build my own working bibliography.

Your real characters need to be grounded in a time and place. You need to know about the world they lived in. For this project that means reading about the Roarin' Twenties, the Great Depression, and about life in Michigan.

I also read up on ancillary topics, too, like soybeans (Did you know there are more than 300 kinds?), and about the Ford company (FYI: The ill-fated Edsel was named after Ford's son, who was named after Ford's best friend, who was a food chemist at the plant.)

My working bibliography grows exponentially, and I know that there is more than enough information out there to make my Henry Ford story a go. And that's a good thing, because my editor already approved it. :)

Next Week: Step 3 -  Looking for those Primary Documents

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How to Research a Nonfiction Story - Step One

Back in June while signing books at a conference, two educators suggested that I write about Henry Ford. My initial thought was, "Why? Aren't there a million books about Henry Ford?" Besides, this was an Agriculture in the Classroom conference. Ford wasn't a farmer.

But I was wrong. They told me that Ford owned so much farm land in Michigan that he could probably walk to Chicago without stepping off his property.  Huh! So, as I sat there trying to look busy and welcoming at my little table, I took the first step in researching what would turn out to be my next book project. I googled Henry Ford and farming.

Twenty years ago when I first started writing nonfiction, my first step was to scour my bookshelves for any information that could enlighten me about an idea I had, and to hurry to the library to check out a stack of books on the subject. Today, I don't have to get up out of my seat. I use my smart phone. (And I wonder why I'm heavier now??)

Ford's soybean plastic car - 1941
My phone told me that Henry did indeed own lots of farm land, he built the Fordson tractor, he was big into soybeans, and even created a soybean plastic car!!!  Hold the phone! That was it. That nugget of information became the center of my research snowball. I could even imagine the illustrations. That one phrase - soybean plastic car - told me that I had a kid-friendly topic. What kid, especially a boy, wouldn't be fascinated by that?

A cursory search through Amazon told me that there were no children's books on this subject. Now I knew that I had a kid-friendly, new slant on an old subject. With these two boxes checked off my mental list of must-haves, I knew I could move forward with more research. If someone else had written about Ford's car, I would have found a copy and figured out if  and how I could make my story different enough to warrant an editor giving me a contract for it. Now, all I have to do is see if there is enough information available to make it a viable story. It is possible that nobody wrote about the car because the story just isn't there. To determine that will require me to dig deeper.

Next week: How to Research NF: Step Two

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Nobel Prize-Winning Nonfiction

Last week the Nobel Prize committee awarded Svetlana Alexievich, nonfiction writer and journalist from Belarus, the prize in literature for her “polyphonic writing.” I’m not familiar with her work, but for more than 30 years Alexievich has been recording the experiences of ordinary people who have suffered through the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and many other atrocities. They don’t sound like fun reads, but I’ve interloaned the only book of hers in our library system: Voices from Chernobyl.                                                                                          

I was surprised to read that Alexievich is the first NF writer to win the medal since 1953 when Winston Churchill won for his history books. Why so few nonfiction books? The New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevitch wrote, “Of course, there is a lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to exclude nonfiction from the classification of literature – to suggest that somehow it lacks artistry, or imagination, or invention, by comparison to fiction. The mentality is akin to the prejudice that long held photography at bay in the visual-art world.” (Hey, Phil. That still exists, too.) Apparently, Alexievich’s books capture the same immediacy, intimacy and emotion as a photo of a dead child on a beach.

Relying on her journalistic skills, she interviews ordinary people to build what one interviewer called, “a tapestry of voices.” A friend of hers said in an interview, “You can call her work nonfiction but it’s more fascinating to read than fiction. Before putting anything to paper she talks to people. Mostly she writes about human tragedy. She lets it go through her and writes with surgical precision about what’s going on within human nature…. Her images are deep and striking. When I read her book Voices from Chernobyl I was struck by her use of metaphor.”

Why are people still surprised by engaging, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking nonfiction? The general public still seems clueless to the power of well written true stories. Maybe it’s because writers (in Russia anyway) call this genre “collective novel”, “novel-evidence” and “epic chorus.” I’d be turned off too.

I like what the author says about how she came to write nonfiction: “I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me. I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world – as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full.” 

Now that makes me want to read what this woman has to say, and hear the voices that she has gathered together. But this style is not unique. Many writers pull together multiple points of view as if they are puzzle pieces, which, when dovetailed and seamless paint a vivid picture of reality. Thankfully, many of them write for children.

Here are just a few titles that come to mind:

          Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson.

          We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson

          Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (and her other nonfiction titles)

          We Were There, Too by Phillip Hoose

Feel free to add to the list. Let’s let our “epic chorus” be heard.

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.