Wow! What a weekend.
We spent Friday and Saturday at the Family History Expo in Mesa, Arizona, where we spent two days talking with enthusiastic genealogists and family historians and presenting classes about creating family history books. It was a great event. We met a lot of wonderful people.
One of the topics often at the center of our conversations was how to use the art of the storyteller to make family history come to life. We found ourselves introducing the techniques of creative or narrative nonfiction to many people faced with a dilemma. They thought they were duty bound to stick to only documented fact, but they also wanted to make their books interesting for their readers. We tried to show them how borrowing methods from literature could help them accomplish both goals.
So, it was a little ironic when I opened my Google Reader this morning and found a post from Richard Gilbert’s Narrative blog on exactly that subject.
Gilbert had run across an old copy of an article, “A Brief Introduction to Narrative Nonfiction,” by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes who has written 10 books of narrative nonfiction.
One of the things we talked about at length this weekend was how getting away from straight chronological organization could make stories more interesting. Here was Gilbert providing two examples of how Humes explained his rationale for doing just that.
Here they are:
I hated the fact that Bill Leasure, the corrupt LAPD traffic cop in my second book, Murderer with a Badge, chose murder as his first crime. Only later did he segue into stealing a few million dollars worth of yachts. Chronicling events in that order would have been anticlimactic. So I abandoned any pretense of a chronological structure, and started the first chapter with Leasure aboard a stolen boat. The murders unfolded later in the book, in a section that dealt with an earlier period in Leasure’s life. Then the narrative jumped forward again to a time after the yacht thefts, when those unsolved murders were finally linked to Leasure by the police. That kept the tension in the narrative building, though structurally it was kind of messy—like my main character’s life.
Finding the right structure for No Matter How Loud I Shout, my juvenile court book, was even more challenging, as I was weaving together an ensemble of characters with different story lines that only occasionally intersected—a kind of literary version of Hillstreet Blues or ER. Yet these varied threads had to build toward some sort of critical mass and shared climax in order to make sense. Finding those intersection points was not a matter of clever writing. It was a matter of being there, day after day, haunting the courtrooms, the juvenile hall, the offices of the prosecutors and public defenders and judges. In the end, I have found, even the most thorny sorts of questions about structure and character development end up being less about writing technique, and more about reporting technique. Narrative nonfiction requires authors to immerse themselves in their subjects, to painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) interview characters, research place (past, present and future), and reconstruct dialogue (spoken and interior).
That final sentence is great advice to family historians seeking to create more interesting books.
Click here to read Richard Gilbert's post on Narrative.