I didn’t expect to enjoy the process, but to my surprise, I did. The library! The card catalog! The MLA index! Index cards! Pencils! Paper! Taking notes! Scissors! Tape! Footnotes! Bibliography!
That high school assignment would prove to be a lesson that I would carry to college and to grad school and to each of my nonfiction projects today.
I share this anecdote because I want you to know: if you’ve ever written a research paper – even way back when – and if you love a true story, then you have what it takes to plan, research, and write a long-form narrative nonfiction book.
If you didn’t have a Mrs. Walsh or if you want to refresh your memory on the basics, you’ll find some useful sites at the end of this blog.
THE PLANNING STAGE
1. Prepare physically – and mentally. You’re going to need stamina, determination, focus, passion, and time. A long-form nonfiction book takes a long time, sometimes years.
You need physical space. When I started writing, I claimed a corner of our family room. Now I have a dedicated home office, but I’m still a horizontal space usurper.
You’ll also need mental space to hold
and juggle facts and details and ideas as you’re researching and writing. You need
space to allow your mind to wander. Sometimes discoveries and connections
happen when I’m driving or walking my dog or folding laundry. Sometimes they
happen at 2 am, when I pop awake with a solution to a story problem.
2. You need an organizational strategy. For your own mental health, don’t wait until you’re halfway into your project or – gasp! – at the end.
Software programs are available, but I prefer to take notes by hand. My supplies include a marble-covered composition notebook, pens and pencils, sticky notes, index cards, an index card file box, file folders, a milk crate, and a bulletin board.
Whatever your strategy is – high tech or low-tech - make sure it’s consistent. Even a bad system will work, as long as it’s consistent.
THE RESEARCH STAGE
1. Feeling daunted? Join the club. I always feel daunted at the beginning of a new project. To settle myself, I determine my research questions.
Research is about inquiry. It’s about asking probing questions and looking for answers.
2. Determine your story’s focus. Once you have your story’s focus will help you determine your research questions. Your focus will direct your thinking and make your note-taking more efficient and productive.
3. Start collecting your sources. Think of your narrative nonfiction book as a true story that you’re going to tell. You’re going to base your true story on verifiable facts and information that you’ve gathered from a vast number and variety of sources.
You’ll find important sources in the bibliographies and source notes and acknowledgments and photo credits in books already published on your subject.
You’ll scour primary and secondary sources that you’ve found in the customary and usual places: the library, on the Internet, in special collections, on specialized databases, and in archives. In addition to established image collections such as the Library of Congress, I also hunt for vintage images and ephemera on eBay and other such sites.
In your search, you’ll seek out the most up-to-date thinking and research from reliable and reputable sources. You might scout out syllabi from university professors to see the texts they require in their courses. You might interview experts in the field. (If you interview and if you intend to quote the experts, I recommend getting written permission.)
4. As you’re researching, you’ll find that others have already published books about your subject. Never fear! Remind yourself that there’s always room for a good one. It’s your job to push yourself, to examine your subject in a fresh way, perhaps a new slant.
Remember this: good ideas don’t come in the beginning. They come as you burrow down – deep dive - into your research. When it’s time to write, you’ll use your voice to tell a true story in the way only you can tell it.
5. Once you’ve determined your subject and you’ve done your preliminary reading, free write a response to each of these questions: What is the story you want to tell? What is your personal experience with the subject? What is your emotional connection? What is your intellectual connection?
Your connection doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve experienced the exact subject yourself. Do some time travel. Let your memory take you back to a time when you experienced a situation or an emotion that touches on the subject or the people or the events you’re writing about.
Trust the power of these questions and the power of your research. Trust that there’s a reason why you’re drawn to the subject – and if you don’t know the connection from the start, that reason will reveal itself as you move deeper into the research and writing process. Revisit these questions as you move through your draft.
marble-covered composition book becomes an important assistant: in its pages, I
fret, I obsess, I keep lists of contacts whom I’ll want to include in the acknowledgments,
summarize and discuss what I’m reading, I argue with my sources, and I argue with myself. The composition book also helps me track permissions and usage agreements.
7. Double – and triple-check your facts. As you do, you might find mistakes in the work of others. For example, in The Autobiography of Mother Jones, labor activist Mary Jones mentions an eleven-year-old factory girl, Gussie Rangnew, who accompanied her on the 1903 march from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York.
Through my digging, I located Gussie’s grandson. Gussie, it turned out, was Gus Rangnow, a boy who grew up to become a Philadelphia police officer.
This factual mistake raises an important question: Does this error of fact change the truth of Mother Jones and her crusade? Does it change the truth of the other published accounts written about this march?
I don’t think so. As much as I like “fixing history” and getting the facts right, I know there’s a difference between what is true and what is truth.
8. Don’t raid a primary or secondary source. Read all of an important source so that you have an understanding of the spirit and context of the quote or information.
Try your best to track each and every quote and detail of fact back to its original source. You might discover that the quote or fact was misquoted or used out of context, or even worse, that it was invented or misattributed or gasp! that horrid invention called “an alternative fact.”
9. Travel informs my work. I try to visit the places I’m writing about for several reasons: to gain experiences that I can’t find in books, to gain an understanding of the physical and emotional landscape, to gain a better sense of the spirit of the place and people, and to collect sensory details.
10. Read sources that support your story – and those that do not. It’s good to know the opposition. It will help to inform your story and strengthen your argument. Read, too, the reviews of other books published on your subject, both professional reviews and reader reviews.
THE WRITING STAGE
1. Narrative nonfiction writers use the same literary devices as fiction writers: we use our research to develop plot, to create scenes out of real events, to flesh out our characters, to create setting, and more.
The difference is this: nonfiction writers can’t invent. We cannot invent dialogue or any detail of fact. We can’t presume to know what our subject is thinking or believes. Every fact, every detail must be verifiable, based on the facts and on reason.
2. Think about the shape of your story. How will you arrange the information into an order -- a plot -- that will best serve your story? How will you move your character(s) through time and space? Remember the rising-and-falling-action story structure (Freytag’s Pyramid or often called a “plot mountain” by some) you learned way back when?
3. As you prepare to write, think about the voice and tone of your story. What “attitude” will your narrative convey? Will the attitude be one of identification or one of distance with the subject? Will it be judgmental or sympathetic? Will it be humorous or serious? Or something else?
4. Think about your story’s pacing. (Plot and pacing are not the same thing.) At what speed and what rhythm will the events of your story unfold? Do you want your story to unfold like a fast-paced thriller or adventure story? Or a leisurely epic?
5. Think about sensory details. It takes at least three senses to breathe a story to life. Can you work verifiable senses into your story?
6. Research can become a sophisticated form of procrastination. You’ll know it’s time to begin writing when the facts begin to repeat themselves and you’re no longer learning anything new.
But this doesn’t mean you’re finished. Expect that your research and writing will continue, side-by-side as you find more opportunities to lean in, to flesh out your story, to deepen your story and its meaning, and to breathe it to life -- right up until you’re ready to hit send – and beyond.
7. As you write, cite.
8. Don’t lose sight of your subject. For example, if you’re writing about Abraham Lincoln, try to keep the camera on him at all possible times.
9. When you near the end of your writing, you may find leftover bits of research. You may be able to use the leftovers in your captions or source notes.
10. Be generous. In the spirit of true scholarship, we share our research in our bibliography, acknowledgments, and source notes. It’s not to show off how hard we worked (that would be like leaving a price tag on a gift!). We want to show readers where our facts come from. We want to help the writers who follow us. For them, our back matter becomes a trusty road map, a how-to-guide.
In case you’re wondering, I earned a 90% and a compliment (“Your material is excellent”) on that first research paper. She passed before she could see the writer I became. Thank you, Mrs. Walsh, for the lesson that made a difference in my life.
Examine one of the following sites:
- The Online Writing Lab at Purdue University https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/purdue_owl.html explains how to write, research and cite, and build a bibliography.
- A free bibliography and citation generator, such as https://www.bibme.org.
- Another powerful tool that functions as a writing assistant is Grammarly.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s nonfiction work has received dozens of awards, including the Newbery Honor, the Sibert Award and honor, the Orbis Pictus award and honor, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor, the SCBWI Golden Kite and honor, and the Washington Post/ Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for her body of work. Her most recent titles are Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, and How Women Won the Vote: Alice Paul, Lucy Burns & Their Big Idea. With Marc Aronson, she co-edited two acclaimed year-based nonfiction anthologies, 1968 and 1789. Visit her at susancampbellbartoletti.com.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Winner will receive a signed copy of How Women Won the Vote: Alice Paul, Lucy Burns & Their Big Idea (Harper 2020).