Many people think writing nonfiction is just stringing together a bunch of random facts. Nothing could be further from the truth. While writing nonfiction, I use every single fiction technique a novelist uses.
I feel strongly that I need to write my text in a way that will lead my readers to invest emotionally with my nonfiction text. Real. Raw. Emotion. But I don’t tell readers what to feel. I trust they will supply their own emotions as they read my book.
Let me give you some examples.
My newest book Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon is about six, specific enslaved individuals. This book was challenging to write because no written record exists from these individuals. Therefore as the author I had to be very careful not to put words, thoughts or feelings into their mouths, so to speak. I had to figure out how to write the text that is full of emotion while maintaining historical accuracy.
To begin Buried Lives, I wanted to pull in my readers emotionally from the start. So, the first sentence of the first chapter is:
“William Lee, a sixteen-year-old African American boy, was for sale.”
It is straightforward and historically accurate. But at the same time, I hope my words carry a lot of emotional weight.
Later in the book, I give readers a peek into the daily life of Caroline, the housemaid at Mount Vernon. I wrote a section about the work she did each day. I explained how she swept, turned the feather beds, and dusted. While our modern day sensibilities understand basic house cleaning, I intentionally left one detail of her cleaning routine to the end of the sentence. To modern readers, this should pack an emotional punch:
“She emptied and cleaned the chamber pots that had been used during the night. Then Caroline poured a little bit of water into the pots to cut down on the smell and mess for the next time she emptied them.”
In my book Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium, I wrote about the death of Marie’s husband, Pierre, and his funeral. Then I wanted to pull the readers emotionally into the way Marie handled the loss of her beloved husband:
“Marie could not bear to talk about Pierre, not even to mention his name. In the years following his death, she would never talk to her daughters about their father.
Around this time, Marie began rubbing together her fingertips and thumbs (which had become hard from working with vials of radium) in a nervous habit. Unconsciously, she would rub and rub and rub. The habit stayed with her for the rest of her life.”
Another of my books, In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, relates how an American journalist saved thousands of refugees from falling into the hands of the Nazis by secretly helping them escape. Fry stayed in Marseilles for thirteen months, and then was forced to leave France. In this passage, I want readers to feel the emotions of Fry’s sadness and uncertainty on the day he said goodbye to the people who were part of the team who worked with him to save lives:
“Rain poured from the sky on September 6, 1941, the day Varian left France. The gray, dreary weather matched their mood as Varian and his staff ate their last lunch together. Around the table, long moments of silence took the place of heir usual mealtime chatter. None of them knew what hardships lay ahead. None knew what the outcome of World War 11 would be. Would Hitler ultimately be victorious and take over all of Europe and the rest of the world? Would they ever see each other again? Would the Vichy police or the Gestapo come for them in the middle of the night? Would they have enough food to survive the winter?”
In each of these examples, I don’t tell the reader how they should feel, yet I hope each reader makes these emotional jumps with me.
I’ve always said, “I don’t create the facts, but I use the facts creatively.” It is possible to fill the pages of a nonfiction book with powerful emotions. I believe this is what readers will remember long after they close the cover.