I recently had the pleasure of hearing a talk about narrative nonfiction by Paul Collins—a professor at Portland State University, author of five books, and, if that isn’t enough, National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday “Literary Detective.”
Collins gave his lecture as part of the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads program.
He presented an engaging overview of narrative nonfiction—nonfiction that tells a story—and discussed just how narrative nonfiction authors bring their stories to life.
Here are my notes (with apologies to Mr. Collins, who was way more insightful and engaging than the snippets below will reflect)…
* Narrative nonfiction is storytelling using facts. It is based in scenes, with characters and dialog, and thus is novelistic or cinematic. Instead of summarizing events, it places the reader in the scene, among the people. Unlike a novel, however, a narrative nonfiction storyteller must work strictly from facts.
* Not every event can be written about using a narrative nonfiction approach. In order to work as a story, there needs to be:
-- a specific setting
-- identifiable characters, and ideally a central character to hang the story around (a protagonist, as it were)
-- a beginning, middle, and end
*So just how does a narrative nonfiction author gather the facts needed to recreate a specific setting and the characters who people the story?
Through research. (And from what Collins described, plenty of it—he talked about a trip to New York City where for weeks, he showed up at the NY Public Library as soon as it opened each morning and stayed until closing, reading microfilm literally all day long, and then returning to his hotel room utterly spent.)
To gather enough facts to recreate a single scene, an author might:
-- interview participants
-- read letters, reports, and accounts written at the time
-- check a census or other history of area
-- utilize new digital sources to search for nuggets of information (more on that below)
From these sources, an author can begin to get a sense of how to place the reader in that scene, among the people. For example:
-- an interview could provide a wealth of information: who was there, what mood they were in, what people said (the ‘dialog’ for the scene), etc.
-- letters/reports/accounts can provide similar facts (and are especially helpful if there is no one available to interview)
-- a census or history of the area provides additional details that can be used to recreate a scene. (An example Collins gave was a historian learning that a horse stable/blacksmith were across the street from the event he was writing about, which let him know that in the scene he was recreating, there would be the background sounds of the blacksmith clanging and horses clopping down the street. These kinds of sensory details go a long way toward placing the reader in the scene.)
Also helpful to narrative nonfiction authors, and especially to historians, are all the new digitized books and newspapers, because they allow authors to search in whole new ways, accessing information that is not, and probably never will be, indexed.
In searching digitized newspapers, an author can type in a character’s name, or the street address of an event, and pull up articles and even relevant advertising. (Collins described how one such ad for a hardware store in the 1800s—the setting of one of his scenes—included a drawing of the inside of the store, right in the ad. It was a bonanza of information that he might not have had access to before newspapers were digitized.)
Digitized newspapers include the New York Times and the Washington Post, and sources such as the Library of Congress and a fee-based service, Newspaper Archive (dot) com.
Similarly, a keyword search in google books can point an author toward, say, a mention of their main character in someone else’s memoir—the kind of information that is not indexed.
Collins’s talk gave me a greater appreciation for the amount of work narrative nonfiction authors do to create each scene—literary detectives, indeed.