Monday, February 3, 2020

Weaving Primary Sources into a Narrative

By Carla Killough McClafferty

Nonfiction books are based on primary sources. As a nonfiction author, I’ve found that gathering research material is the easy part. The hard part comes when you must take thousands of facts and use them to write text in a way that is accurate and interesting.

Your research will reveal many more facts than you can use in your text. That is a good thing because you need to curate the information you gather. It is necessary to make choices about what you will include and what you will leave out of your text. I don’t make up facts, but I use the facts creatively.

Primary source material comes in many forms--anything from a document to a piece of art. The information gathered from those sources can be used in countless ways. Since there are endless types of facts and ways they can be used, I feel the best way to teach how to weave primary sources into a narrative is to give you a concrete example.

The example I’ve chosen is from my book Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Using an example from my own work will allow me to show you three different things. First I’ll show you what the primary source says. Next, I’ll tell you why I used these facts. And finally I’ll show you how I used the source material in the text of the book.

As my example, I’m using the first paragraph of the first chapter of my book. This chapter is about William Lee, one of George Washington’s enslaved men. Lee is well known as Washington’s valet who was with him throughout the Revolutionary War.

The primary source for this first example is a ledger from Mount Vernon from 1768 (I have abbreviated this passage here to show you only the pertinent information). Transcription from the ledger:

“By Sundry Slaves bot [bought] at yr [your] Sale . . .
Mulatto Will  £61..15..0
Ditto [Mulatto] Frank  50..[0]..[0]”

This primary source documents several facts in very few words:
1.    Washington bought William Lee.
2.    Lee was described as a “mulatto”.
3.    Washington paid 61 pounds, 15 shillings for William Lee.
4.    Washington also bought William’s brother Frank Lee at the same time and paid 50 pounds for him. 

Why did I want to use this particular information in the first paragraph of my book? I wanted to immerse a contemporary reader immediately into the world of slavery as it affected William Lee.
How did I use these facts in the text of the book? Below is the first paragraph that includes these facts along with additional facts taken from other primary sources.

Chapter One
William Lee

“William Lee, a sixteen-year-old African American boy, was for sale. It was 1768, and Mrs. Mary Smith Ball Lee wanted to sell him after the death of her husband, Colonel John Lee. In an estate sale of sorts, a thirty-six-year-old Virginia planter named George Washington bought William Lee (sometimes called Will or Billy). The price was £61, 15 shillings. That was about the same amount of money it would take to buy four good horses. Washington also bought Lee’s younger brother, Frank Lee, for £50.”

I believe this first paragraph works because I’ve woven a handful of facts together in a way that not only conveys a lot of information, but it accomplishes several different things I believe are important including:

1.    A powerful, attention grabbing, no-nonsense statement that a teenager, William Lee, was for sale.
2.    It includes the idea that enslaved people were bought and sold, as any other property could be.
3.    It introduces George Washington and gives his age as well as the age of William Lee. 
4.    It includes the monetary amount paid for William Lee--which I compared to something specific. Since American’s don’t know how much money an English pound was worth in the 18th century, I had to explain it in a way my reader could understand. My hope is that readers will be surprised to grasp that the “price” of one teenager was the same as four good horses.
5.    It also demonstrates that Washington paid less for Frank Lee because he was younger than William. 

This first paragraph is rich with facts, but pulls the reader into this fascinating true story. (By the way, in the second paragraph I explain the term “mulatto” which Washington used to describe the Lee brothers in the primary source.)

Facts gleaned from great primary sources can be woven into the fabric of a nonfiction book in a way that creates a seamless story.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
 
Carla Killough McClafferty writes books about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. She believes history is about the experiences of people, not a list of dry, dusty facts. Through her use of primary source research, she makes her subjects come to life for her readers. She is an award-winning author of nonfiction books and public speaker for students, teachers, and community events. Visit her website at www.carlamcclafferty.com and friend her on Facebook at CarlaKilloughMcClafferty and Twitter @ckmcclafferty.





ABOUT THE PRIZE

Carla will do a 30-minute Skype visit with the winner.

Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.



278 comments:

  1. Carla, Thanks so much for this! I live in the DC area and I was so sad to miss it when you came to the area to promote your book. I love primary sources, so it's so great to see how you use them in your writing.

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  2. Thank you a wonderful explanation of how you work your sources into your writing. It is a clear example of what needs to happen!

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  3. Thank you for the wonderful example of how weaving primary information into a narrative can create an arresting hook – it broke my heart.

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  4. Thanks for your concrete examples. It's really helped. This was on my mind last night as I was adding information into a notebook. The more I thought about it, the more I thought how many endless possibilities could be written about one person! (I haven't found my perfect "thread" yet, but I know there are at least 5 golden ones and endless ways to weave in other details etc.)

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  5. Thank you, Carla, for showing us how you used a primary source to craft engaging narrative nonfiction.

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  6. I really love how you used this example to lead us through primary source material to audience-specific (and accessible) language. It seems particularly tough to take information from a different time/era and make it immediate to children now, but you made it look easier (or at least not impossible!). Thank you!

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  7. Very helpful! I probably would have enjoyed history classes much more if your books had been available when I went to school. Your first paragraph breathes life into the skeletal facts of the primary document.Thanks for demonstrating how you worked that bit of magic.

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  8. Thanks for showing how you wove a primary source into your book in an engaging way!

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  9. Thank you for sharing a concrete example, Carla.

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  10. This was a great post, especially since you showed an example from your work. Thanks for sharing your process on how to use primary sources to create engaging storytelling that draws the reader in while also providing so many interesting facts!

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  11. Thanks for providing such a wonderful, concrete example, Carla.

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  12. The most striking thing is that the Father of Our Country purchased slaves. And you put this hard truth in the first sentence! Great topic for a book -- will look for it. Good for you.

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  13. Carla, I appreciate you sharing a concrete example of how to weave in these primary resources while making telling an engaging story. Thank you! Be Inspired, Nicki Jacobsmeyer

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  14. Carla, Thank you for showing how you wove facts around this primary source. It is very informative.
    Gail Hartman

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  15. Carla, this is a very concrete example of how to weave facts together AND make it interesting to kids. Love this line, "I don't make up facts, but I use the facts creatively." So important. TY.

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  16. What a wow opening. I would read it and so would kids. Research is the key. Thanks for sharing.

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  17. Thanks for sharing specific examples. I appreciate the context you share with readers to understand cost of human VS horse. The sad truth.

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  18. Wow. I love how your incorporated those facts into that first paragrap . Now, I've got to know more... I've got to read this book.

    Thank you for sharing today.

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  19. Starting paragraph is most often the difficult thing to do. This post gave a clear idea where to start from. Simple, clear and precise start.

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  20. Thanks for explaining how you used the primary source so exactly. That I love research. I learned a lot from your article. Thank you!

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  21. I like the example of "four good horses." Great show of facts to creatively express more facts!

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  22. Great comparison using the horses. I'm always appalled these events happened in such a recent time period. Thank you!

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  23. The matter-of-fact presentation of uncomfortable truths definitely hooks the reader's attention. Thank you for your post!

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  24. It takes great skill to turn such scanty facts into narrative.

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  25. Love examples, and yes, that was certainly an excellent use of primary source facts to grab my attention!

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  26. Thanks for sharing how you took a few facts and turned them into a captivating introduction. I especially liked the context of the horses to help readers grasp the value assigned. I was wondering in terms of today's dollars as I read it, but I realize now that using a contemporary example keeps the reader in that time period. Very useful example.

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  27. Use the facts creatively. Great way to think about it!

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  28. Wow! Thank you for sharing this with us.

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  29. I find it pretty amazing that dates and dollar amounts and names can be in a paragraph and not be boring and ho-hum. Good job!

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  30. Your example of how to use a primary source in a narrative is so helpful!

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  31. An excellent example, thank you! It's so difficult to cut out interesting facts, but as you pointed out, the facts must move the story forward. So interesting that George would buy two teenagers--a side to him I knew nothing about.

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  32. Thanks for sharing your thinking about why you used these facts.

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  33. Thanks for a specific example on how you work. I found that very helpful!

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  34. Thank you for the concrete example of using primary sources. Showing that the price paid for Will would have also bought four good horses was brilliant! It put the dollar value into context for the time period and beautifully illustrated the inhuman situation.

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  35. Such an attention-grabber of an opening--I can't wait to read the book! And such a powerful example of primary sources that can be woven into the text.

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    1. Thank you! That is what I want to hear--that you want to know more.

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  36. Carla, I agree with Sherri Jones Rivers' comment. And, I'm amazed that so much detail was seamlessly and creatively presented so quickly. Thank you for this great example.

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  37. Really helpful example Carla - thank you!

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  38. I love your quote-"History is about the experiences of people, not dry, dusty fact."
    Melanie Vickers

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  39. Nice to have this concrete example! Thanks!!

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  40. Carla,
    I really appreciate how you provided a specific example of a primary source and how you wove the facts into your story. I also like that you acknowledge that you can't use all the facts you find, but have to curate the ones that will help tell your story. Thanks for the great post!

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  41. Thank you for the specific information, this is useful.

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  42. What I love about writing nonfiction is I always find something during my research that I can use for another project! I like how you explained that it's important to compare information to something that's more relatable to readers and help them understand the information you have presented. So if I mention the size or weight of something, I like to compare it to something a child would understand. Good post! Thank you

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  43. Great example for weaving in primary sources in an interesting way.

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  44. I love the idea of "weaving" primary sources into a narrative. Lovely!

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  45. Wonderful example, Carla. When reading your post, I realized I do use facts in my fiction. My latest MG involved many true facts as it was set in contemporary time in a real setting. Like you, I did tons of research and wove my facts into my storyline. I just never thought about the process. You explained it beautifully.

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  46. Your example is enlightening, Carla. Thank you!

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  47. Thank you for providing such a clear example of how to make something heavy in facts interesting to read.

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  48. Thank you for sharing your example of weaving fact into narrative. I appreciate seeing it parsed out like that - and now have a better idea of what I need to work on in my own writing.

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  49. Loved the examples of your own work! Thank you!

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  50. Your example made weaving the facts into the text very clear. thanks for your post.

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  51. Carla, excellent post. I like the example you used to show how you weave primary sources into your manuscript.

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  52. Thanks for sharing these specific details!

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  53. Thanks for the great example of how to get a collection of facts into one concise paragraph.

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  54. Thanks for a great example-- and especially for the explanation of the process.

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  55. This was a really good example of creatively distilling source information. Non fiction is not a "just the facts" exercise. Thanks!

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  56. thank you for this concrete example. You've clearly shown how to weave facts together in a way that is true and interesting for children. I am most impressed by how much information you conveyed in that beginning concise paragraph. You made every word count.

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  57. Thank you Carla for a concrete example of how you wove the hard facts from a primary source into a very engaging first paragraph.

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  58. Thank you for your clear, concise information!

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  60. Thank you for presenting such a clear example. I love your reasons for including each piece of information in the paragraph, as well as how you prioritize grabbing the reader with the first sentence. All that from "just a ledger entry"!

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  61. Great post. I loved that the primary source had so little information, yet you were able to weave it into a gripping initial paragraph. Thanks!

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  62. I love the process of uncovering bits and pieces of history. Thank you for your clear example--showing the source and breaking it down illustrated your approach well!

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  63. Very helpful example! Thank you for this!

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  64. I do find it hard to take just a little piece of all that research, so many interesting facts!

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  65. Thank you for your very clear examples. I love how you compared the cost to something relatable for kids these days.

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  66. Your example is perfect to show how to incorporate facts into telling a story.

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  67. I really appreciate seeing exactly how you wove such minimal info from your primary source into a narrative. Brava!

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  68. That paragraph is striking, as you say, due to its specificity, something that could not have been achieved as effectively without primary sources. A great lesson in presenting information with a purpose. Thank you!

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  69. I really appreciated that you used a specific example to illustrate your point. It makes it so much easier to understand what you are saying.

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  70. A very informative post. I loved seeing exactly how you used your facts in your own writing!

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  71. Carla, thank you for sharing how you weave the dry facts into an interesting narrative.

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  72. I loved the post so much I bought the book "Buried Lives" for my 11 year old!

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  73. Hopefully this will work per everyone's help... What a great lesson into expanding few words into an informative and exciting first chapter..the who, what, where and whens have been covered...love this lesson. Thank you. Yayyyyyyy (firefox it is!)

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  74. Thank you Carla for giving a fine example of weaving primary source material into an accurate narrative.

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  75. Thanks for this interesting example. That must have been so exciting to get your hands on that ancient ledger and find this gem.

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  76. Thank you, Carla. It really helps to have the examples showing how you wove the facts into an interesting narrative.

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  77. Carla, that was fascinating. I loved your concrete examles of how you "captured' the basic facts, distilled them and wove them into your narrative. Thank you so much for this example.

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  78. Thanks for a great post, Carla. I like how you used a specific example of a primary source with many pertinent facts and how you wove those facts into your first paragraph.

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  79. I always enjoy seeing examples of how authors work in the research. Thank you, Carla!

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  80. Thank you for such a clear and effective example!

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  81. Good information, with a great example from your own work.

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  82. Love how you took a primary source with basic facts and turned it into a compelling narrative.
    Thanks for this fascinating post!
    Susan Latta

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  83. Thank you for sharing your process and showing how you weave the facts into your story.

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  84. Thanks for the great example and now I want to read your book, am requesting it from the library. Thanks, again.

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  85. McClafferty's first paragraph is factual, but horifying.

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  86. I appreciate the way you made your point through a concrete example. It was an extremely useful and helpful post. Thanks

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  87. Finding primary sources is like finding treasure! I remember reading a letter written by the person I was researching- goosebumps hearing their "voice" from so long ago! Thank you for sharing your process, weaving facts into a meaningful moment.

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  88. Great example of using primary sources! Thanks, Carla!

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  89. Thank you for the excellent information on steps to write and create accurate and interesting stories using primary sources, Carla.

    Suzy Leopold

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  90. Thank you so much Carla! I absolutely LOVE research, but have struggled with trying to figure out how I convey the details I discover on the page in a way that is engaging, yet completely true.

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  91. Fascinating to see how you took such a brief piece of primary source text and wove it into the intro for a book.
    I loved hearing how you decided to expand upon certain pieces of information. -Sara Ackerman

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  92. Thanks for the glimpse into your process, Carla. What stood out for me is the fact that we all struggle with what info to include and what to leave out--research is so absorbing!

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  93. I loved seeing the example of the primary source and wondered how cool it would be to look at such a document. Would you mind sharing how you find these types of sources? Thank you!
    -Rebecca Blankinship

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  94. Amazing how much you can get out of a small snippet from a primary source! Thanks for sharing.

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  95. Appreciate you including an example and dissecting it. Very helpful. Thanks!

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  96. I definitely would benefit from seeing more examples of information you've found from primary sources, the facts you learned, and how you incorporated them into your book. Do you give webinars that slow this process down and give step by step instructions for beginners?

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  97. Thank you for such a clear example of how you weave facts into a compelling narrative--and the bonus example of how to handle uncomfortable truths in a book for children.

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  98. Thank you for showing how you incorporated factual information into such compelling text. I appreciated your example and the explanation accompanying it. Superb!

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  99. Many thanks for the direction to make choices about what you will include and leave out. Always good to hear. Also, the steps of showing the primary source and how it was used in the actual text was specific and helpful.

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  100. Thank you for sharing your post about primary sources. I found it intriguing how you took brief entries from a 1700's ledger entry and turned the facts into a compelling book introduction. Primary sources are indeed rich mines! Priscilla

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  101. Thank you for this informative post! It’s very helpful seeing a clear example of utilizing primary sources.

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  102. Great, compelling example. Thanks for sharing. Now to put your example into action!

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  103. It was so helpful to see how you made the facts clear but interesting. Learning about the actual craft of nonfiction writing is the most useful for me. Thank you!

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  104. This is great! I have a NF *draft* I’m being generous calling it a draft because it’s more of a collection of notes, words that relate to the topic, ideas of how to write it in a narrative. Thanks for sharing.

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  105. It always helps to see the process other writers go through. The example and how you went from collecting facts to using them in your book was very helpful.

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  106. So helpful to see the transformation from the tiny bit of information the primary source provided to the vivid experience your re-created. Thank you for sharing!

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  107. Very useful. I'm working on a NF piece now that will include lots of technical facts, this should be very useful in determining how to use those facts to build a more interesting story.

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  108. Such a great example and what a way to grab the reader. Thx for this!

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  109. Thank you for sharing this specific example from one of your books. It's so helpful to see each fact's journey from its source to the page.

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  110. Thank you for your example. So helpful❤️

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  111. Thanks for providing an example. It makes it easier when you break down your process in your own writing.
    -Ashley Congdon

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  112. "It is necessary to make choices about what you will include and what you will leave out of your text."

    Such an important point! My first drafts are always on the longer side, mostly because I can't decide what to leave in or out. Revising for me involves a lot of trimming. Thank you for this insight!

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  113. Thank you for your excellent example of how you used information to pull the reader in. It is always fun to see a writer's process.

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  114. It was only after heavily researching your subject matter that you were able to discern what to write as engaging opening lines. And they really did pique my interest from the get go.

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  115. What a really wonderful post! Loved the example of dealing with difficult and challenging subjects/information. Thank you!

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  116. I am going to pick up this book at the library! Very great explanation of your process, thank you!

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  117. Ah yes, the old writing phrase "kill your darlings " applies as much to the terrific facts that we find and want so badly to include as it does to those wonderful turns of phrase that we are loath to drop from our work!

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  118. I love the insight into your process...thank you so much!

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  119. Thanks for giving us a concrete example of how "to curate the information you gather".

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  120. Wow! Packed with so much information. Thank you.

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  121. Thanks for this, Carla--concrete examples are always super-helpful for me!

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  122. What resonated most with me was the notion of the writer and researcher as a curator. The idea of "curating the information you gather" drives home the point that one must approach this process with a discerning eye. Thanks so much for sharing your process!

    Celia Viramontes

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  123. That's great inspiration on how to take straight information and bring the text to life! I loved the example, thanks.

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  124. I love the way you gave a concrete example, comparing the price of a boy to that of four good horses. I always find it really helpful to have an image to hang information onto, and I know many children do too.

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  125. The example you shared is most powerful! Thank You :)

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  126. The line in this post that most struck me is: "The hard part comes when you must take thousands of facts and use them to write text in a way that is accurate and interesting." It is a skillful author who can weave historical details to create a compelling story by striking a careful balance between including just enough information to interest readers but not so much as to overwhelm the narrative.

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  127. Carefully curated facts based on a mountain of research is why children's nonfiction is so wonderful.

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  128. Thank you for sharing how you conveyed such a depth of meaning through the use of straightforward facts. It's an art, for sure!

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  129. OH wow, I love this so much. Writing that inspiring narrative nonfiction that pulls the reader in is what I'm working toward. This is such a great resource.

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  130. This was such a help! You say your opening paragraph includes a no-nonsense statement, but what a tapestry it is. Thank you for sharing such a specific example and your process.

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  131. It really helped having the concrete example. Thanks for sharing how you worked on that.

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  132. Great post. Always a help to have specific examples. Weaving in PS can be a bit confusing sometimes.

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  133. I read two nonfiction picture books that use direct quotes: Secret of Priest's Grotto (about a Jewish family that hid in a cave from the Nazis; one kept a diary) and Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa. In Priest's Grotto, the quotes are stand-alone text features. In Uncommon Traveler they are interwoven into the story itself.

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  134. This above post is by Allison Ofanansky, I don't know why it posts as "Unknown" because the link shows I am commenting as myself, but here it is again: I read two nonfiction picture books that use direct quotes: Secret of Priest's Grotto (about a Jewish family that hid in a cave from the Nazis; one kept a diary) and Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa. In Priest's Grotto, the quotes are stand-alone text features. In Uncommon Traveler they are interwoven into the story itself.

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  135. Wow! A lot can be done from info taken from a primary source. I never really understand the process but your example illustrators the point beautifully.

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  136. Interesting how you contemporised history so it was undeestandable to a general audience. I wanted to kniw if you used the original document as an illustrative element also accompanying the text? Or just your source material? Thanks for explaining how you expounded it to make more sense to readers today.

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    1. Oh it is Nicky in New Zealand. And I apologise for the aweful spelling! Tiny screen touch keyboard and no way to correct once posted.

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  137. Your structured explanation and example are helpful. Thank you, Carla!

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  138. Thank you Carla. Curation must be one of the more difficult parts of writing nonfiction.

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  139. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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  140. Those ledgers are chilling to read, aren't they? Your post was compelling. Finding primary sources is like uncovering buried treasure! Thanks for the great post.

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  141. This is a fabulous example of taking dry, factual information from a primary source and making it interesting to your reader. I appreciate seeing your research-into-text in action...so helpful!

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  142. Lots of information tucked into a few sentences without reading like an encyclopedia. Primary sources reveal so much.

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  143. Great example of turning dry facts into something that grabs you right away. I especially liked adding the 4 horses--gives children something to relate to. It's interesting, and sad, to see what a life was worth.

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