Friday, April 13, 2018

Creative Nonfiction: 3 Ways to Bridge Gaps and Turn Facts into Narrative

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

Stashed among the pages of my father’s genealogy chronicles, the faded photocopy of three men leaning on their 1885 era firearms begged a story. The trio had been commissioned to explore and map a portion of the newly acquired territory Alaska. One of them was a distant relative. By researching archives, genealogy records and old photos, I gathered facts. But how could I turn the historical facts of a report into an engaging narrative? Is it possible for a writer to suggest the motives of someone long dead and still remain true to the expectations of nonfiction?

Here’s what I learned from other writers:

1. Use clue words likeperhaps, I imagine, I suspect, possibly, it could have been, it may have gone something like this . . . to let your readers know what follows is your interpretation.

Author Maxine Hong Kingston, a first generation Chinese American, explores a family secret about a now dead aunt back in China. The family was shamed by the aunt’s pregnancy and refused to talk about her. Kingston uses her knowledge of the cultural and social beliefs of the village to imagine what might have happened. She uses perhaps to separate fact from supposition.

“My aunt could not have been the lone romantic. … Women in the old China did not choose. … Perhaps she encountered him in the field. … Or perhaps he first noticed her in the marketplace. He was not a stranger in the village because the village housed no strangers.”

Author Rick Braggemploys a similar technique, using “it might have been,” to inject a little humor into why he was almost born at a drive-in theater during the ending of The Ten Commandments.”

“I am told it was a hot, damp night in late July 1959, one of those nights when the setting of the sun brings no relief. It might have been the heat, or something she ate—an orange slush and a Giant Dill Pickle—but about the time Charlton Heston laid eyes on that golden calf  . . . I elected to emerge.”

2. Use photographs, diaries, news clippings, and weather records, to lend detail and establish a scene.
In Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets, Luke Dittrich weaves his own family’s story into his investigation of the sometimes dark history of modern memory science and brain exploration. Here’s how he connects facts and supposition in describing his grandmother’s admittance to an asylum: 

“The car drove through the gate and up the gently sloped driveway that led to the asylum’s main building. If she was looking out the window, my grandmother would have seen carefully tended flowers and bushes and lawns glide by. … If my grandmother was feeling well enough to exit the car without assistance, Pete Souza . .  . who had worked as the asylum’s head porter for almost a decade would have been there to grab her bags. On her bedside table, a member of the housekeeping staff had probably left a copy of a slim magazine called the Chatterbox. There was an Easter Bunny on the cover… .”

3. Use free indirect discourse to blur the line between author and character.
Free indirect discourse allows the author to pose a question without actually attributing it to the person written about. It suggests a character’s thought, but since it doesn’t attribute the thought, or put it in quotation marks, it doesn’t violate the rules of nonfiction. 

For example, Erik Larson begins Thunderstruck with a scene of the captain of the SS Montrose, preparing his shop “for what should have been the most routine of voyages, from Antwerp direct to Quebec City, Canada.” Shortly before passengers boarded, he bought a copy of London’s Daily Mailfull of speculation about the North London Cellar Murder and Scotland Yard’s search for two suspects, a doctor and his lover.”

“Kendall knew at once this would be the mainstay conversation throughout the voyage.”

Larson then interjects: The question at the fore: Where were the fugitive lovers now?

Although this is a reasonable question for the captain to pose, Larson doesn’t attribute it to the captain because he doesn’t know for fact this is what the captain thought.

By employing these clue words, I was able to suggest possibilities in the gaps of information for my article on Cady Robertson. I didn’t know whyhe was one of two men chosen by the expedition leader but I knew he was decorated for marksmanship, so I said, “I suspect it was that determined spirit, along with the marksman skills Robertson would later be medaled for, that prompted Lt. Henry Allen to pick him as one of his three-man team.”

At some point Robertson was covered with black spots of scurvy, but still had to continue on. Relying on the facts, I was able to imagine what it might have been like and suggest why a river was named after him:

It’s difficult enough to imagine the misery that accompanies this disease—the ache in all the joints, the bleeding gums, shortness of breath, spot-riddled skin, and fatigue. Harder still to imagine bearing it while navigating rapids for nine hours straight, avoiding quick sands and hostile natives, and sleeping wherever you can find a place to pull the boats. Maybe that is why Allen chose to name one of the tributaries they encountered at this point after Robertson—a permanent acknowledgement of the forbearance and fortitude that helped carry this band of men across uncharted lands.

These techniques not only give you, the writer, an opportunity to explore unknown motives but also engage your reader in imagining what might have been.

Creative nonfiction: 3 ways to bridge gaps & turn facts into narrative - @MarciaMoston on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Engage your reader as @MarciaMoston shares 3 tips for #writing creative nonfiction on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


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  2. Great suggestions Ms. Marcia. Nonfiction does not equate to non-action, non-humor, and non-interest. I love your ideas to help "spice up" our nonfiction. God's blessings ma'am...

  3. These tips are great. I write all sorts of stuff, including non-fiction. This is a great article. Thanks a bunch. Donevy

  4. Good, good, stuff, Marcia. Thanks for these tips and insight. :-)