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.
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....”
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.
“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.
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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.ReplyDelete
Thank you a wonderful explanation of how you work your sources into your writing. It is a clear example of what needs to happen!ReplyDelete
Thank you for the wonderful example of how weaving primary information into a narrative can create an arresting hook – it broke my heart.ReplyDelete
Thank you! To hit hearts was the goal here.Delete
Using examples = Great teaching!ReplyDelete
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.)ReplyDelete
Thank you! That is it exactly-endless possibilities.Delete
Thank you, Carla, for showing us how you used a primary source to craft engaging narrative nonfiction.ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thanks for showing how you wove a primary source into your book in an engaging way!ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing a concrete example, Carla.ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
Thanks for providing such a wonderful, concrete example, Carla.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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 JacobsmeyerReplyDelete
Carla, Thank you for showing how you wove facts around this primary source. It is very informative.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
What a wow opening. I would read it and so would kids. Research is the key. Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing specific examples. I appreciate the context you share with readers to understand cost of human VS horse. The sad truth.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing today.
Thank you! That is music to my ears...Delete
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.ReplyDelete
Thanks for explaining how you used the primary source so exactly. That I love research. I learned a lot from your article. Thank you!ReplyDelete
I like the example of "four good horses." Great show of facts to creatively express more facts!ReplyDelete
Great comparison using the horses. I'm always appalled these events happened in such a recent time period. Thank you!ReplyDelete
The matter-of-fact presentation of uncomfortable truths definitely hooks the reader's attention. Thank you for your post!ReplyDelete
It takes great skill to turn such scanty facts into narrative.ReplyDelete
Love examples, and yes, that was certainly an excellent use of primary source facts to grab my attention!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Use the facts creatively. Great way to think about it!ReplyDelete
Wow! Thank you for sharing this with us.ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
Your example of how to use a primary source in a narrative is so helpful!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing your thinking about why you used these facts.ReplyDelete
Thanks for a specific example on how you work. I found that very helpful!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thank you! That is what I want to hear--that you want to know more.Delete
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.ReplyDelete
Really helpful example Carla - thank you!ReplyDelete
I love your quote-"History is about the experiences of people, not dry, dusty fact."ReplyDelete
Nice to have this concrete example! Thanks!!ReplyDelete
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!
Thank you for the specific information, this is useful.ReplyDelete
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 youReplyDelete
Great example for weaving in primary sources in an interesting way.ReplyDelete
I love the idea of "weaving" primary sources into a narrative. Lovely!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Your example is enlightening, Carla. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Thank you for providing such a clear example of how to make something heavy in facts interesting to read.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much!ReplyDelete
Loved the examples of your own work! Thank you!ReplyDelete
Your example made weaving the facts into the text very clear. thanks for your post.ReplyDelete
Carla, excellent post. I like the example you used to show how you weave primary sources into your manuscript.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing these specific details!ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing!ReplyDelete
Thanks for the great example of how to get a collection of facts into one concise paragraph.ReplyDelete
Thanks for a great example-- and especially for the explanation of the process.ReplyDelete
This was a really good example of creatively distilling source information. Non fiction is not a "just the facts" exercise. Thanks!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thank you Carla for a concrete example of how you wove the hard facts from a primary source into a very engaging first paragraph.ReplyDelete
Thank you for your clear, concise information!ReplyDelete
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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"!ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
Very helpful example! Thank you for this!ReplyDelete
I do find it hard to take just a little piece of all that research, so many interesting facts!ReplyDelete
Thank you for your very clear examples. I love how you compared the cost to something relatable for kids these days.ReplyDelete
Your example is perfect to show how to incorporate facts into telling a story.ReplyDelete
I really appreciate seeing exactly how you wove such minimal info from your primary source into a narrative. Brava!ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
A very informative post. I loved seeing exactly how you used your facts in your own writing!ReplyDelete
Carla, thank you for sharing how you weave the dry facts into an interesting narrative.ReplyDelete
I loved the post so much I bought the book "Buried Lives" for my 11 year old!ReplyDelete
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!)ReplyDelete
Thank you Carla for giving a fine example of weaving primary source material into an accurate narrative.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this interesting example. That must have been so exciting to get your hands on that ancient ledger and find this gem.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Carla. It really helps to have the examples showing how you wove the facts into an interesting narrative.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
I always enjoy seeing examples of how authors work in the research. Thank you, Carla!ReplyDelete
Thank you for such a clear and effective example!ReplyDelete
Good information, with a great example from your own work.ReplyDelete
Love how you took a primary source with basic facts and turned it into a compelling narrative.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this fascinating post!
Thank you for sharing your process and showing how you weave the facts into your story.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the great example and now I want to read your book, am requesting it from the library. Thanks, again.ReplyDelete
McClafferty's first paragraph is factual, but horifying.ReplyDelete
I appreciate the way you made your point through a concrete example. It was an extremely useful and helpful post. ThanksReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Great example of using primary sources! Thanks, Carla!ReplyDelete
Thank you for the excellent information on steps to write and create accurate and interesting stories using primary sources, Carla.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Fascinating to see how you took such a brief piece of primary source text and wove it into the intro for a book.ReplyDelete
I loved hearing how you decided to expand upon certain pieces of information. -Sara Ackerman
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!ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
Amazing how much you can get out of a small snippet from a primary source! Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
Appreciate you including an example and dissecting it. Very helpful. Thanks!ReplyDelete
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?ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thank you for showing how you incorporated factual information into such compelling text. I appreciated your example and the explanation accompanying it. Superb!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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! PriscillaReplyDelete
Thank you for this informative post! It’s very helpful seeing a clear example of utilizing primary sources.ReplyDelete
Great, compelling example. Thanks for sharing. Now to put your example into action!ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Such a great example and what a way to grab the reader. Thx for this!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thank you for your example. So helpful❤️ReplyDelete
Thanks for providing an example. It makes it easier when you break down your process in your own writing.ReplyDelete
"It is necessary to make choices about what you will include and what you will leave out of your text."ReplyDelete
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!
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
What a really wonderful post! Loved the example of dealing with difficult and challenging subjects/information. Thank you!ReplyDelete
I am going to pick up this book at the library! Very great explanation of your process, thank you!ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
I love the insight into your process...thank you so much!ReplyDelete
Thanks for giving us a concrete example of how "to curate the information you gather".ReplyDelete
Wow! Packed with so much information. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this, Carla--concrete examples are always super-helpful for me!ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
That's great inspiration on how to take straight information and bring the text to life! I loved the example, thanks.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
The example you shared is most powerful! Thank You :)ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Carefully curated facts based on a mountain of research is why children's nonfiction is so wonderful.ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing how you conveyed such a depth of meaning through the use of straightforward facts. It's an art, for sure!ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
It really helped having the concrete example. Thanks for sharing how you worked on that.ReplyDelete
comment above by Angela TurnerDelete
Great post. Always a help to have specific examples. Weaving in PS can be a bit confusing sometimes.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.Delete
Your structured explanation and example are helpful. Thank you, Carla!ReplyDelete
Sara Petersohn :)Delete
Thank you Carla. Curation must be one of the more difficult parts of writing nonfiction.ReplyDelete
Great post. Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
Lots of information tucked into a few sentences without reading like an encyclopedia. Primary sources reveal so much.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
Thank you for the great example! That really helps us see how you turned the facts into an interesting paragraph.ReplyDelete
Thank you for making the bridge from research facts to written paragraph. It's so helpful to see that connection. Much appreciated!ReplyDelete
I loved the way you wove the facts into an interesting beginning about Will Lee. My question as I was reading was why did Washington buy the two boys. It seems he paid a lot of money for them.ReplyDelete
Great example of how you turn primary facts into a smooth story. I will come back your example again and again!!ReplyDelete