Let’s start with a true story:
The summer Candy turned ten, she gobbled up a biography series about famous Americans. Ben Franklin. Clara Barton. Daniel Boone. The books brought these people from history to life for her. She felt like she truly knew them.
Later, she learned that many of the scenes in these books had been made up. Which parts? Who knows? The author hadn’t bothered to say. Candy felt deceived. Cheated. Biographies, she decided, could not be trusted, and she steered clear of them for years.
That was decades ago, yet the line between nonfiction and fiction, between what is real and what is made up, seems blurrier than ever. And many of us seem suddenly confused about whether or not we’re crossing that line. At virtually every conference, (“Seriously,” Candy says, “every one”) the conversation turns to the question, “What is nonfiction?” Or as one writer asked a panel of editors, “Can I still call my work nonfiction if I’ve added scenes that never happened, or dialogue that was never spoken?”
It’s a good question, and one we’d like to consider at the start of our month-long exploration of the craft of nonfiction. Is what we’re writing based on supposition or personal bias rather than fact? Are we presenting our readers with honest scenes and characters that spring directly from the research material? Is background research – the context – reliable and complete? Our trustworthiness depends upon our truthfulness.
So, can we still call our work nonfiction if we’ve added scenes that never happened, or dialogue that was never spoken? What if we’ve conflated time, or created a composite character, or added sounds, smells, textures to scenes for which we have no documentation? Is that nonfiction?
Our answer is a resounding NO. It is unacceptable to pass fiction off as fact. Not even a little bit. Not even for the sake of art. Not in the name of emotional truth, or a better story. No, no, no, not ever. (Phew, we feel better!) Every word spoken, every emotion displayed, every thought, every detail must be true. Even the weather. Even the color of the rug. It is our job to verify everything, check and double-check. All the details must be accurate. They must have a source. And if we make up even a teensy bit we must call our work “fiction.”
To do otherwise is to deceive our readers. After all, when we say to kids, “this is nonfiction,” we’re promising that the way a person or event is presented is – to the best of our knowledge – truly how it happened. And I think we all agree that promises, especially to children, should never be broken.
So how do we dig down to the truth? How do we keep our nonfiction promises? Let’s examine some operating principles:
1. You’ve read a great book, interviewed a fascinating person or collected some startling facts online. Now you’re ready to start writing, right?
Sure, put down your initial thoughts, especially to capture your excitement. But never rely on a single source for your story, even for a short picture book. One view is never the whole picture.
2. Just because it appeared in print doesn’t mean it’s right. Both of us have found significant errors even in best-selling books by famous journalists and historians. Read footnotes and track down sources yourself, to make sure they’re legitimate and accurately portrayed.
Sometimes, we find that a mistake is repeated many times because everyone quoted the same inaccurate source. Double check dates and events through local newspapers or archives. (If you don’t have a subscription, you can usually access databases through your local library.)
3. Primary sources are great – to a point. Autobiographies, oral histories, lengthy interviews and letters are amazing resources and often yield the best details, right down to what your main character ate for lunch. But every single person we’ve written a book about has stretched, embellished, or sugar-coated personal stories. It’s human nature.
The nonfiction writer’s job is to cut through the veneer and offer a clear-eyed portrayal. Look for accounts from others who were there or would know the story. Interview experts. Dig into archives. Examine photographs for clues.
4. Consider the source – and the lens the source looked through. Many times, we’ve found that male authors from previous decades are quick to distort or diminish women’s accomplishments, or to call them “crazy” when they weren’t crazy at all. (Poor Mary Lincoln! Poor Carry Nation!) Similarly, people of color and indigenous peoples are frequently misrepresented in works by white authors. Seek out perspectives that aren’t white or male.
5. Go back to the beginning. The older the story, the more likely it has morphed into something different. People’s memories fade and shift, and stories can change completely over time. As best you can, work back to the origins of the story to be sure what you know is right.
6. Admit that some things are unknowable. Sometimes we can’t verify what someone said or did. Sometimes, we just don’t know. So, rather than making something up, say so, either by attributing the information directly to the source in the text or explaining that something isn’t known. And painful as it is, sometimes we conclude that we have to just leave that juicy, fascinating tidbit out.
7. Share your research. Any worthwhile nonfiction should include at least a list of key sources behind the story. Longer form books should have some kind of source notes, whether they list sources for each quote or something more detailed.
True, kids may never look them up. But this is our way of being honest with the reader. After all, we promised to tell a true story!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Karen Blumenthal writes biographies and narrative nonfiction for young people, including Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different and Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. Her books have received several awards, including a Sibert Honor, and have been finalists for the YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award three times. Her next book, Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights, is out Feb. 25 from Roaring Brook Press. When she’s not working, she is a dedicated procrastibaker and a hopeless Dallas sports fan.
Candace Fleming writes picture books, middle grade and YA biographies. Among her nonfiction titles are Giant Squid, Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia. 2020 titles include The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh and Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Orbis Pictus Award, as well as the two-time recipient of the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Nonfiction, the ALA Sibert Honor, and SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award.
ABOUT THE PRIZES
Karen Blumenthal is giving away a selection of nonfiction books for older readers.
Candace Fleming is donating a manuscript review of a nonfiction picture book no longer than five manuscript pages.
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You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.