Even though writing historical fiction requires the same kind of research and accuracy as nonfiction, I have never been comfortable writing nonfiction. So for today’s blog post, I asked my friend Tracy VonderBrink, who excels at writing nonfiction, to write one for me.
Tracy’s adventures in nonfiction began as a writer for Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader in 2014. After contributing to seven Bathroom Reader books, she dived into children’s magazines. Now her nonfiction work has been published (or scheduled to be published) in Highlights, Cricket, and ASK. You can find her at:
By Tracy Vonderbrink
Nonfiction? Ugh, boooring! At least that’s what you might think if your nonfiction experience comes from school textbooks. But nonfiction is as exciting, inspiring, heartbreaking, and weird as any novel. Don’t believe me? How about a Cold War-era proposal to warm nuclear landmines with chickens? Or cockroaches that succumb to peer pressure?
The trick to writing captivating nonfiction is to find the story. Facts and figures reveal a lot, but they don’t move readers. Some topics, especially biography and history, easily lend themselves to story-telling. Others don’t, but you still need to find the narrative hook.
Take something like the peer-pressured cockroaches. The scientific study contains stats about what percentage of cockroaches run for shelter vs. how many explore their environment and how that behavior changes when they’re in a group. Written like that, it’s (maybe) interesting, but it’s not particularly compelling. But picture “shy” cockroaches scuttling for cover, while “bold” cockroaches probe with antennae twitching, and you might have the start of a story.
Of course, finding the story doesn’t mean playing fast and loose with the facts. In nonfiction, accuracy is crucial. In the case of the cockroaches, the study itself describes the bugs as “shy” and “bold,” so it’s not over-anthropomorphizing to use those terms.
How do I find the story? The best tip came from Deborah Heiligman, an utterly amazing and award-winning writer, who was my mentor at a Highlights Foundation workshop. As I struggled to find the narrative voice, she suggested I picture a child I knew and tell that child a story. At that time, I was working on a piece for 6-to-8 year olds, so I imagined my cousin’s little boy. As I “told” Gabe the story, all the cold facts fell away and I was left with the heart.
I use that technique in everything I write, no matter the age level. Because that’s the key to nonfiction writing:
You have the facts. Now find the story.