I have always been drawn to amazing true stories. There’s something so urgent about the truth—we need to remember it, share it, keep it in people’s minds. In some cases, place it in people’s minds. The question is: how can we make a connection with readers, one which will resonate and linger? For me, the answer lies in the heart of our story.
It strikes me as odd that the same stories are told over and over about our heroes. Like George Washington crossing the Delaware. A crucial tactical move, but was it really his greatest accomplishment? I learned, through a research rabbit hole, that Washington had saved his surviving men after the Battle of Long Island (the first Revolutionary War battle). He invented a plan to sneak all his men across the East River in one night, right under British noses. Not only would the fight for independence have ended had he not done this, but his men would have been killed. He did it to save his men. What an amazing true story to tell about George Washington, which hadn’t been told!
Only I didn’t have enough intel on Washington’s thoughts to create the nonfiction book I wanted. But I did have the memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, who was a teacher when the war broke out. We did not have a trained army like the British—we had people who sacrificed everything to head off and fight against the tyranny they were experiencing. Tallmadge, the son of a reverend, wrote about looking an “enemy” in the eye and realizing that he had to kill or be killed. Reading this chilling passage, I knew that every soldier must face this, in every war. This was the heart of my story: the universal, timeless element we can all relate to. This was humanity at its rawest.
I wrote that book, my first book, called BY THE SWORD, from Benjamin Tallmadge’s point of view. He had given me the information to do so, in his memoir. He graciously gave me a beginning, middle and stunning end—when he realized he had left his beloved horse Highlander behind and risked his life to return and save Highlander. I still get chills when I think of this, all these years later.
But what about when you don’t have someone’s memoir? A great
beginning, but no middle or end? This is what happened to me when I tackled the
story of three freedom seekers who, on the night Virginia seceded from the
Union, stole a rowboat and crossed the moat to Fortress Monroe—the only Union
stronghold in Virginia. They asked for sanctuary from General Benjamin Butler
on his first night commanding the fort. Butler was a lawyer, and he was so determined
to help them that he thought of a legal argument to keep Frank Baker, James
Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory at the fort. (The custom was to return freedom
seekers back to the Confederates.) He called the three men “contraband of war”
because they were being forced to build weapons stations for the Confederates.
Contraband could be confiscated because it was used as weapons against the
What a story! I had to tell it! But I hit a roadblock: Baker, Townsend and Mallory’s paths were untraceable after that night. We know they were granted sanctuary, but nothing specific about their lives at the fort.
I refused to give up. After much research I found the incredible story of a freedom seeker named George Scott, who risked his life to go on a mission for the Union, tracking down the Confederates in the woods who were conspiring to take down Fortress Monroe.
It turned out that George Scott’s determination for freedom at any cost was the heart of my story—SEEKING FREEDOM: THE UNTOLD STORY OF FORTRESS MONROE AND THE ENDING OF SLAVERY IN AMERICA, and I had no idea until I discovered him.
What if you have a passion you want to share, but don’t know how? My sons Casey and Michael both took dance during the era of “it’s a great time to be a girl.” Yes, but why did boys have to be bound inside their boxes of masculinity? I wanted to share my boys’ hearts—that anyone can do anything that makes them happy—but how? We went to see the tap dancer Savion Glover perform, and the answer poured over me. How did Savion Glover find his way to the stage? I had no idea—yet—but just from his energy I knew that sharing his journey would be the heart of my story: the story of a passion which had to be unleashed. It took 19 years to get THIS IS TAP: SAVION GLOVER FINDS HIS FUNK published, but it is here.
Every nonfiction book I have written started with a spark—but until I found the heart of my story I could not write it.
You have a story which must be told. But how? Are you overwhelmed with too much information? Or are you lamenting not enough information? You must be like Michelangelo, carving until you set that angel free. That angel is the heart of your story, the reason people will relate, no matter who they are. Because in that heart lies our common humanity, which is now more crucial to embrace than ever.
Meet the Author:
Selene Castrovilla is the award-winning author of 18 books, many of them nonfiction. You can read about her writing journey and her books at selenecastrovilla.com.
Amazing true stories are inspiring. Thanks for sharing the stories behind your stories, Selene! I'm excited for THIS IS TAP and just requested it from the library.ReplyDelete
You're welcome Robin! That's for commenting, and please let me know what you think of THIS IS TAP. :)Delete
Wow! I wept when I read this, Selene. After six years of trying to tell the story of pivotal fossil discovery, I finally "carved out the angel" by writing the manuscript in rhyme. Once I tried a new format, the heart of the story revealed itself. Thank you so much for this post! I will share it with my 4/5 grade Literature class.ReplyDelete
I'm thrilled to have helped you! Hurray!! You've made my day. Thank you for sharing it with your class. Excited to know this is being passed on. :)Delete
The heart of a story is a necessary element.ReplyDelete
Thank you Selene, for sharing your thoughts.
You're welcome Suzy! Thanks for commenting. :)Delete
Great to learn the heart of some of your stories. It takes a heartbeat to bring the spark to life. Good to remember, even for fiction.ReplyDelete
Thanks! Yes, good point: even for fiction. :)Delete
Great post! Terrific books!ReplyDelete
Thanks Cynthia! :)Delete
Wow - this is research with a big R but what amazing results! Thank you for not giving up!ReplyDelete
Thanks Robin! When I look back, I get shocked by the amount of research and work I've done, lol -- but I think it's like being a parent, you just do what you have to do and don't even question how you're doing it. :)Delete
Love this! I'm working on two PB bios, one that I started in 2019 and won an award but still isn't quite there yet. The other I started this year, and it's still taking shape!ReplyDelete
Thanks Susan! Congratulations on your award! Keep carving--you'll set those angels free. :)Delete
A post with heart! Can't wait for This Is Tap to hit the shelves!ReplyDelete
Thanks Sue! Please let me know what you think of it. :)Delete
Thanks for sharing how you got to the heart of your stories. Your books sound fascinating. Will definitely check them out.ReplyDelete
You're welcome Suzanne! Thanks, please let me know that ou think of them. :)Delete
What an inspiring post! Thank you!!ReplyDelete
You're welcome Kimberly! Thanks for commenting. :)Delete
Wonderful, inspiring post, Selenne. Love your books and can't wait for the next one. Thanks for the post.ReplyDelete
Thanks Rosi! Great to read this from an old pal. :)Delete
So inspiring, so at the heart of it all, Selene, thank you!!ReplyDelete
You're welcome Echo---thanks for this lovely comment! :)Delete
Thanks for a terrific post, Selene! You have certainly found the heart in your books! I'm excited for THIS IS TAP!ReplyDelete
You're welcome Melissa! Please let me know what you think of it. :)Delete
Terrific post, Selene. Thank you for sharing how you found the heart in your stories.ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Charlotte! Thanks for commenting!Delete
Thank you for sharing your story with us.ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Sue!Delete
Thank you for your concrete examples. It always helps me digest information better. <3ReplyDelete
You'e welcome, Kerry. I'm the same way! :)Delete
Thank you, Selene. THIS IS TAP cover art is very compelling.ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Manju. Thanks--I'm so fortunate that Laura Freeman agreed to illustrate!Delete
Fascinating and inspiring post!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Claire!Delete
I can hear your passion in your post and thank you for revealing how long it can sometimes/often take to publish a story.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Bonni. Yes, we must persevere!Delete
Such and important post. Thank you for sharing.ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Brenna. Thank you for your comment. :)Delete
Thank you Selene for this womderful post and great examples at working with an idea until.you find the "angel within."ReplyDelete
You're welcome. Thanks for commenting. :)Delete
Thank you for sharing. I often find a "good" story but don't always get to the heart of it. I need to read and reread this post, Selene.ReplyDelete
Wow, thank you. So happy this piece speaks to you!Delete
Selene, thank you for your excellent examples and encouragement. I am looking forward to reading your books!ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Melissa. Thanks, please let me know what you think of them. :)Delete
I LOVE how you describe the process - "You must be like Michelangelo, carving until you set that angel free." WOW...just wow!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much, Doreen! :)Delete
Thank you Selene for encouraging words of wisdom on your process. I cant wait to read , This is Tap! Wow, 19 years to get your story of Savion Glover out to the world! Congratulations!ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Deb. Thank you for your congratulations, much appreciated!ReplyDelete
I love your persistence Selene! Thank you for sharing how you found the heart of your stories.ReplyDelete
This post really hit home for me. I disappear down rabbit holes. A lot. I was happy to hear that expanding your search resulted in finding the heart of your story. I will definitely be more alert and aware of finding heart during my own research. Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
SELENE: THANK YOU for sharing with us the winding paths leading to the discovery of the HEARTS of your stories. THANK YOU for INSPIRING us to go on these journeys DEEP within the story, in order to make true and lasting connections with our readers! And THANK YOU for INSPIRING us to NEVER GIVE UP on a story close to our own hearts, as you SO BEAUTIFULLY demonstrated by NOT GIVING UP on your "This is Tap." NINETEEN YEARS!!!???!!! WOW! NOW THAT'S PERSEVERANCE! THANK YOU!!!ReplyDelete
Thank you so much for sharing your process of finding the heart of your nonfiction book.ReplyDelete
Thanks for reminding us to connect to our readers with common threads of humanity. With broader research, I can explore the characters' POV, ages at the time, and POV's with hindsight. Do more. Get better. Appreciate all you do!ReplyDelete
Loved this post, Selena, and congratulations on your next book. I look forward to reading it! Carol BaldwinReplyDelete
I admire your persistence and resourcefulness. Congrats on finding the key pieces that became the heart of the stories you were determined to tell!ReplyDelete