Thursday, February 1, 2024

WELCOME and WRITING FACT BY FACT

By Peggy Thomas

Welcome to NF FEST 2024! The Ninjas and I are super excited to celebrate the art and craft of writing nonfiction all this month with you. Every guest blogger has been incredibly generous sharing their stories and providing a wealth of information that will help you no matter where you are on your writing journey. We encourage you to show them some love by following their social media and reviewing their books on Amazon. 

We also want you to join the conversation! Tell us what you think in the comments section and on our NF Fest Facebook page. It helps us plan future posts. In fact, today’s post comes directly from a comment we had on our Facebook page. Someone (sorry, I can't remember who) mentioned that it would be helpful to see how facts from multiple sources can be pieced together to make a factual scene.

Before I write a sentence, scene or chapter, I ask myself, “What do I want this bit of text to do?” Introduce a topic, elicit an emotion, explain a complex concept…? It is important, especially in picture books, for every part of your story to have a purpose. For example, in THOMAS JEFFERSON GROWS A NATION I needed to reinforce Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of farmers, and transition the reader from Jefferson's early days in the White House to his purchase of the Louisiana territory. Here is what I came up with: 

            Through the geraniums growing on the windowsill, Thomas could watch cattle graze in the distant meadow. How many times did his imagination look even further west across an entire continent to picture “a rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land”? 

It is just two sentences cobbled together with facts from four primary sources:



Here is another example from HERO FOR THE HUNGRY: THE LIFE AND WORK OF NORMAN BORLAUG. I had never used a prologue before, but in this mid-grade biography I wanted a brief scene that 1. showed where much of the action would take place. 2. revealed Norm’s character. And 3. explained why the reader should care about his story. I chose to write the scene where Norm learns that he has won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Rather than write the whole thing out, here is some of the information I used and why I used it:

The setting is a Mexican wheat field. But I included certain details to show that this isn’t a typical farm. The men are Romanian, Brazilian, Mexican and American. They are standing in a sea of thigh-high wheat (readers will later learn that prior to Norman’s work most wheat was very tall).

I show Norm standing in the middle of a small group of men, heads bent to hear every word their teacher says. He is sweat-stained and dirty under the hot Mexican sun. Hopefully, the reader gets a sense that Norm is important, a leader, but also not afraid to work hard. He leads by example.  

Then Norm's wife shows up. Alarm bells go off in Norm’s head… Has one of the children been in an accident? He’s a caring family man.

When his wife says he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Norm shakes his head. “That can’t be, Margaret. Someone’s pulling your leg.” He waves Margaret off, then turns back to his wheat-breeding students. Why on earth would anyone give him the Nobel Peace Prize?  I want the reader to get the sense that Norm is humble and more interested in the work than in accolades. Also, he won the Nobel Peace Prize!? Maybe I should keep reading to find out why.  

Each detail from the sweat stains to Norm's thoughts came from multiple sources: recorded interviews with Norm, old newspaper clippings, archival photographs, and first-person recollections of the event. But pieced together they reveal a factual scene that does the job.

Does every paragraph of your current project have a purpose? What do you want a particular passage to convey? Once you know that, gather your research notes and write your scenes fact by fact. 



About the Author:

A co-host of NF FEST, Peggy is the author of 28 award-winning nonfiction titles and co-author of ANATOMY OF NONFICTION: HOW TO WRITE TRUE STORIES FOR CHILDREN. Her newest books, THE SOIL IN JACKIE'S GARDEN (Feeding Minds Press)  and A FAMILY OF TREES (Phaidon Press) will be released in May. Peggy loves nature, gardening and helping new writers to grow. For information on critique services and mentorships, visit her website peggythomaswrites.com.





48 comments:

  1. What useful information!! Thanks for sharing them!

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    1. You are very welcome. Enjoy the rest of NF Fest!

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  2. Looking forward to learning so much as I work on my NF manuscript!

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  3. Thank you! I'm exploring writing NF and can't wait to learn more this month!

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  4. Whoosh - I can feel the sweat and see him bending low! I never thought of a prolog. What an exciting month this will be!

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  5. Masterful, Peggy! It's so cool to see the breakdown of how much thought and effort goes into every single word of published nonfiction.

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  6. Wow, thanks for this thoughtful post showing how much intention goes into every bit of a nonfiction book!

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  7. Good questions to ask myself as I head into another draft of my current WIP. Thanks!

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  8. Thanks so much! Loved seeing how you pulled things together.

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  9. Robin Brett WechslerFebruary 1, 2024 at 10:30 AM

    Thought provoking, Peggy! I will consider your question about what I want specific text to do as I write. Thank you!

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  10. I love that we can all learn so much every February. Thank you, Peggy! (Will these show up in our inbox if we subscribed a different year? I didn't get it yet.)

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    1. Annette, there is a subscription option in the sidebar; not sure how quickly posts are sent out as it's an automated service.

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  11. Fantastic and fascinating post, Peggy! Thank you.

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  12. What a great post! I love that you highlighted (in THOMAS JEFFERSON GROWS A NATION) how the facts from different sources could be stitched together to show one scene. And showing all the different sources you used to show how you set the stage for Norm's story about the Green Revolution. Writing a note to post above my monitor: Does this Paragraph Have a Purpose?

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  13. What a great way to kick off NF Fest! I'm especially grateful for that first diagram showing how you pieced together facts from multiple sources into a solid paragraph. As a visual learner, these types of things are extra helpful. Thank you!

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  14. PEGGY: THANK YOU for SHOWING how each fact is like a puzzle piece, and that "pieced together they reveal a factual scene that does the job"---that tells the story. I'm SO EXCITED for another year of NF NINJA FEST! THANK YOU!!!

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  15. Such a great post! Thank you, Peggy!

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  16. Thanks for this! You've given me some things to think about and validation on an idea (I've been on the fence about a prologue for my WIP since so many warn against it)

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  17. Thank you, Peggy, for the importance of asking, "Does this paragraph have purpose?"

    I also appreciate the examples you shared for creating factual sentences from primary sources.

    Suzy Leopold

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  18. Thank you, Peggy, for this insightful post! Your examples were awesome!

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  19. An excellent and thought-provoking post to start off this year's NFFest! Thank you!

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  20. Thank you for such a helpful post, Peggy! I especially appreciate the diagram of how you pieced together facts gathered from several resources. It is a great reminder that every part of your story must serve a purpose. Also love your use of the word “cobbled” - it provided the perfect visual!

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  21. Thanks to your post, I analyzed my WIP today. This time asking myself if each sentence serves a clear purpose.

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  22. That graphic of where the sentence came from was incredibly helpful. What is your technique for tracking references? Do you just write it as a footnoted version and strip footnotes later?

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  23. Thanks for sharing your insights and process.

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  24. What a great way to build intriguing text! I love how you blended big pieces with seemingly small details for emotional impact. Thank you!

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  25. Great post, Peggy. The visual was very helpful. Thanks for sharing.

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  26. Thanks for sharing your writing process.

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  27. Great working tip. Your books inspired me to look at writing nonfiction in a totally different way.

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  28. I love how you use your research, your words and the pictures to bring the reader into the subject's world.

    I did look for your book, ANATOMY OF NONFICTION: HOW TO WRITE TRUE STORIES FOR CHILDREN, on Amazon, but it looks like there are only used copies available?

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  29. Thanks for sharing ideas on how to make very word count in a picture book.

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  30. Thank you for such a wonderful post. Your example of how you've taken bits of different research and put pieces together is really enlightening...and smart!

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  31. Thanks, this was really helpful to see this process!

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  32. I've never written exclusively NF, so this is fascinating to me. Thank you for the insight!

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  33. I love writing non fiction for children. Looking forward to learning more.

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  34. Thanks for this post! I believe it was my question on the Facebook group that prompted it. These are just the kinds of examples I was hoping for. Maybe it will inspire other writers to share this type of behind the scenes look. Kirsten Larson also gives a couple of examples in her book on revising nonfiction. I'm curious whether you are conscious as you are writing of piecing together from different sources or if you absorb the information and then it intuitively comes out in this new form (and gets fact checked)?

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    1. Oops, didn't mean to publish anonymously. www.priscillagilman.net

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  35. Thanks for a fantastic opening post! I'm so excited for NF FEST! I love how you showed the pieces of your research and how you stitched them together in your story. Much appreciated!

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  36. Peggy, thank you for sharing how you weaved together four sources into two sentences. The visual is wonderful!

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  37. My library had three of your books and I put in a request to purchase the two you mentioned in this post!

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  38. Found you on Writer’s Rumpus. This first post is so fascinating. I’ve just written a narrative NF PB MS. So much to learn. Glad to be here!

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  39. Excellent post! So many puzzle pieces! I think it's part of the fun and part of the challenge. Thanks for your examples.

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  40. Wow, this is really interesting but intimidating at the same time! Any tips for getting experts in the field to respond to not-yet-published authors trying to research and fact-check? ~Louise Aamodt

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  41. Great post. Thank you for the examples. And your writing thought is something I need to do with every sentence and paragraph in my own NF stories.... "What do I want this bit of text to do?"

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