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.