Friday, March 6, 2015

Writing Nonfiction Using Fiction Techniques

People understand that it takes creativity to write fiction.  But many don’t understand that it also takes creativity to write nonfiction.   As a nonfiction author I write true stories-but they are still stories.  When teaching students or teachers how to write nonfiction, I explain it like this: 

I don’t create the facts,
I use the facts creatively. 

Nonfiction is based on facts found in primary source documents.  How an author uses those facts is what makes the difference between text that reads like a novel or a textbook.  The creative part of writing nonfiction is finding a way to keep the reader turning pages to see what happens next-and at the same time telling the story accurately.  To accomplish this goal, I use fiction techniques such as dialogue, sensory details, foreshadowing, pacing and all the rest. 

Let’s look at just one fiction technique I use in nonfiction books:  dialogue.  In my books, the dialogue comes from direct quotes from documented primary sources.  Teachers, students and readers can go to source notes in the back matter to see exactly where the quote was found. 

I’m often asked, how do I know
when to use a direct quote,
and when not to? 
I use a direct quote to accomplish one of three things:

1. To show characterization
2. To increase tension
3. To have greater impact

Below are a few examples from my books that demonstration how I used quotes as dialogue.  


To show characterization:

In one chapter of Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment (Carolrhoda) I’m making the point about how football has become part of the American culture.  In this example, I quote Kevin Turner because it shows characterization of a passionate football player.   

“Kevin Turner, a former NFL player, still remembers the excitement of his high school football days. He recalls, “When I woke up on game day. I couldn’t wait until it was time for the kickoff. Wearing my jersey to school on game day was a big part of the experience. At game time, when I ran out on the field and heard the announcer call my name in the starting lineup, it was a rush, like nothing else. It was like having Christmas sixteen times a year. My parents were proud of me. Nearly everyone in our small town was cheering in the stands and spontaneously reacting to what happened on the fields. It was magical.”

To increase tension:

In this scene from Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium (FSG), I am showing this famous scientist at a difficult moment in her life.  At the same time Curie was planning to build the Radium Institute, the shed where she and her late husband, Pierre, discovered radium was going to be torn down.   I quoted Marie Curie’s own words about how she felt about visiting the shed for the last time.   

“I made my last pilgrimage there, alas, alone.  On the blackboard there was still the writing of him who had been the soul of the place; the humble refuge for his research was all impregnated with his memory.  The cruel reality seemed some bad dream; I almost expected to see the tall figure appear, and to hear the sound of the familiar voice.”


To have greater impact:

Varian Fry, an American journalist, volunteered to go to Marseilles, France, in 1940 to rescue refugees from the Nazis.  This scene from In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry (FSG), is about the moment he arrives in the city.  Fry wrote about this moment, so I chose to quote the entire segment exactly as he wrote it because his own words had greater impact than if I had paraphrased what happened.   

“’Aha, an American,’ he said in a gravel-rough voice.
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm.
“Marseilles is like your New York City at rush hour, eh?”  he said, smiling. 
I smiled back.  “Quite a mob,” I said. 
“Refugees.  Pouring down from the north,” he said.  “We would like to pour them back.  But the Boches [Germans] have occupied Paris.  So the refugees all run to Marseille to hide, or maybe sneak across the border.  But they won’t escape.  Sooner of later we arrest all the illegal ones.”  He smiled again. 
“Too bad for them,” I said.
“Too bad for them; too bad for us!”  He gave me my passport.  Enjoy your stay in our country,” he said.  “But why you visit us at this unsettled time, I don’t know.”
His eyes narrowed, and I thought he looked at me suspiciously.  But as I went out through the gate, I decided it was my imagination.  He knew nothing of the lists in my pockets, nor did he know I had come to smuggle out of France the people whose names were on those lists.”

All three at once:

Many times, one quote like the example below accomplishes all three goals of characterization, tension and greater impact at the same time.  The following section from The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon (Carolrhoda) shows Washington in the days leading up to the historic crossing of the Delaware.  
“The Continental Army was in real trouble. At the beginning of the war, most soldiers had enlisted for short periods of time. Now that things were going badly, they left as soon as their enlistment commitment expired. At the beginning of December 1776, about half of Washington’s men went home.  He knew that the enlistment for many more would expire at the end of the month. General Washington had to do something fast to raise the moral of his men, or he would soon have no army to lead. David Ackerson, one of his commanders, recalled seeing General Washington at this time saying, “he was standing near a small camp-fire, evidently lost in thought and making no effort to keep warm . . . His mouth was his strong feature, the lips being always tightly compressed. That day they were compressed so tightly as to be painful to look at.”

When writing nonfiction, when you use quotes and how you use them makes all the difference. 

Carla Killough McClafferty


Sherrie Lorance said...

Thank you, Carla, for this excellent post. Your examples are interesting and instructive -- like your books!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Thank you, Sherrie.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Helpful explanations, Carla! Welcome aboard!

Amy O'Quinn said...

This is an awesome post and wonderful advice for a first time non-fiction author like me. Being a homeschool mom as well, I detest dry-as-dust, hard-to-choke-down non-fiction books! Ah, but when I discover gems (like your books) to provide interest as well as information...well, that's a whole 'nother story. Living books are SO much nicer to read! I plan to try and implement your suggestions as I write! Fingers crossed. Thanks for sharing! :)

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Thanks JoAnn for the welcome. And thank you Amy for your kind words. I wish you every success as you write nonfiction that is filled with fascinating details.

Carmela Martino said...

Love these examples, Carla. Thanks so much for sharing them with us.

Bobbi Miller said...

What an excellent, excellent discussion! I love the examples. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

What a saver of a post, Carla, to share with my students who write nonfiction!
Thank you for sharing your smarts.

Damon Dean said...

Wonderful post, Carla. Great insights into the role of dialogue in NF. Timely as I begin my NF Archaeology course tomorrow, and I'm getting up the nerve to do a biography. Thanks!

Ramona said...

Thank you for sharing your tips and examples on how to use dialogue in your writing.

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

I appreciate your kind comments. I hope the blog will be of help.