Thursday, May 28, 2009

Craft post: writing nonfiction, part 3

Current work: research trip to Colchester (looking forward to this)
Listening to: DH’s car… so it’ll be John Martyn
Reading: Crazy for You, Jennifer Crusie (enjoying so far)

I’m off to Colchester today with DH and the kids on a research trip. Castles and abbeys - that kinda stuff. Yippee. I’m also blogging about soundtracks over at the Pink Heart Society today, so do go over and tell me about your favourite musical.

And here's one craft post on writing nonfiction, as promised.

With nonfic, you’re dealing with facts. What kind of facts do you need? (Yup, that’s the question you ask before you start the research…)

Rudyard Kipling had a rhyme about it:

I have six honest serving men
They told me all I know
Their names are what and why and when
And how and where and who.

In schools, nowadays, this is often taught as the five Ws and an H. It works for all kinds of nonfic: journalism, press releases, books… your reader wants to know what happened, to whom, where, when, how and why.

So I review my research material and check that I have answers to the questions – and, if I don’t, I go away and do more research to fill in the gaps:
  • What happened in the location?
  • Why did it happen?
  • When did it happen?
  • How did it happen?
  • Where did it happen? (Considering what I’m writing about, that one’s a given)
  • Who did it happen to? (Yes, the structure should be ‘To whom did it happen?’, to avoid the preposition at the end of the sentence, but I’m making the point stylistically by putting the question word first.)

If I can answer those six questions, I have my story. Because it’s history, things can be open to interpretation (especially the ‘why’ question), so the important thing there is to look at the evidence and make sure that I have information to back up my interpretation. And look at the evidence which suggests the opposite: why am I rejecting one particular view in favour of another?

Obviously these questions can be used to develop points further – particularly ‘why’. Why did an event happen at that particular location, rather than elsewhere? Why at that particular time? Why were particular characters involved?

Once you have the answers and enough of a background (because events don’t take place in a vacuum – there are factors which lead up to the event, and consequences afterwards), then you’re ready to tell the tale.

That's how I do my Halsgrove books. This also holds true for my Breedon books. With Norwich: Street by Street I looked at every street (including the ‘lost’ ones) within the old city walls. How did it get its name, who lived there, what events happened and when, where/what are the significant buildings on the street… and of course ‘why’ to fill out all the details. To find out the answers, I pored over old maps and trade directories, and I was able to pin down former names of roads as well as when the little yards and courts on the main streets were ‘lost’. I also walked every inch of every street, to check I had the physical details right. This involved a considerable amount of research and I think people will find it useful for decades to come (and it probably shows that I’m very proud of that one!).

The Norfolk Almanac of Disasters is basically stories of big events (fire, floods, shipwrecks, extreme weather), formatted as a calendar. What happened, when did it happen (I formatted that day by day, and within that year by year), where did it happen, who was involved, how did it happen, why did it happen?

As for crafting the book itself: each chapter or section is similar to writing an article. You need an intro (giving your thesis for that section, i.e. ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them’), the main body (usually told chronologically, i.e. tell them the story and show the evidence for your thesis), and a conclusion (i.e. ‘tell them what you’ve told them’ – a brief summary, preferably including one very telling piece of evidence you’ve kept back from the body of the story that will support your argument).

Always remember your audience when you’re writing. What are they expecting from your book? (This will be in your original pitch to the editor – what can you give your reader? What makes your book different from books that are already published on the same or similar topics?) Deliver on your promises, keep it simple and edit out the frills (aka introspection and waffling, and cut the jargon unless it’s extremely well known to your audience.

I’d also suggest reading Gordon Wells’ book ‘How to Write Non-Fiction Books’ – I think it’s out of print now, but if you can find it in your library or a second-hand bookshop, it’s very good.


Jan Jones said...

Another interesting post. Have a good day in Colchester.

Katie said...

Enjoy Colchester! I'm hoping to get there myself when we're back for a visit in a couple of months. I've not been to the zoo or the castle for years and they were regular haunts when I was young :-)

Diane said...

Thank you, thank you. :o)

I'm going to print all 3 off. My current WIP (how good does that sound?) is actually an oral history, so the "characters" will be telling their own stories. If I do the "great days out" too, those will be more of a gazeteer. But I've started another idea off to bubble on the back burner and your help and advice will, well, help and advise me on that.

Have a great day out.

Kate Hardy said...

Jan - thanks, we did.

Kate Hardy said...

Katie - thanks, it was great. Haven't been to the zoo for years, but I do remember the Siberian tiger there. Definitely a plan for the summer.

Have a good trip home!

Kate Hardy said...

Diane - glad this was useful. And congrats on having the WIP :)