Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction

December 19th, 2012

Earlier this week, we wrote about the important place that narrative nonfiction can have in English and social studies classrooms under the Common Core State Standards. Today, we suggest another nonfiction teaching resource: have students write their own nonfiction narrative.

Writing for the New York Times, Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, helps students write their own nonfiction by detailing the “three R’s of narrative nonfiction”: 

Nonfiction means that our stories are as true and accurate as possible. Readers expect—demand—diligence. […] As I explained in my previous article for Draft, all creative or narrative nonfiction books or articles are fundamentally collections of scenes that together make one big story.

But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.

In a recent interview in Creative Nonfiction, the magazine I edit, the writer Erik Larson explained his approach to portraying characters’ inner states of mind. “I will only propose what somebody is thinking or not thinking if I have something concrete in hand that makes that clear,” he says in the interview. “But you absolutely cannot make that stuff up out of whole cloth because then you pass into another realm entirely.” That realm is fiction.

Most writers separate research into two interwoven phases. They begin with archival information, meaning what’s already been written or collected. The Internet may be a starting point, but it’s important to then go to direct sources. Letters, diaries, papers, interview transcripts will often reveal defining and intimate details of your subject. Story lines you had never imagined may also present themselves. In researching “In the Garden of Beasts,” Mr. Larson searched documents, letters and writings related to his primary character, Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. Among the files were two locks of hair from the poet Carl Sandburg, with whom Martha had had an affair.

After the archives comes real-world research. Interview the people involved in the scenes — not just the primary characters, but the bystanders, as well, who may provide different perspectives. Visit the places where the action occurred and seek telling details, like the locks of Sandburg’s hair, that will surprise readers. This is the stuff that stands out and makes your work unique, memorable and three-dimensional.

 Read the rest of Gutkind’s advice at the Times

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