Partners in the Dance: From Fiction to Nonfiction and Back Again

by Liza Ketchum

Liza's nonfiction bookshelf (Click to enlarge)
Liza­’s non­fic­tion book­shelf (Click to enlarge.)

This week, while I pre­pared for a talk at AWP (Asso­ci­a­tion of Writ­ing Pro­grams) on writ­ing non-fic­tion biogra­phies for kids, I thought about how I enjoy research­ing both non­fic­tion and fic­tion titles. Yet a gulf often sep­a­rates the two gen­res. In my local library, you turn right at the top of the stairs for the non­fic­tion stacks and left to peruse the nov­els. The same divi­sion holds true in the children’s room down­stairs. In my own writ­ing stu­dio, non­fic­tion books fill one shelf, while nov­els threat­en to top­ple anoth­er. Yet ele­ments of one often bleed into the other.

I have always been fas­ci­nat­ed by the role of women in Amer­i­can pio­neer his­to­ry. My first YA nov­el, West Against the Wind, drew heav­i­ly on 19th cen­tu­ry diaries, let­ters, and news­pa­pers. The facts of the time shaped and inspired the sto­ry. A few years lat­er, I was asked to write a non­fic­tion book on the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush. For that book, I drew both on pri­ma­ry sources I’d used in my nov­el, as well as on new mate­r­i­al I uncov­ered in such won­der­ful resources as The Hunt­ing­ton Library in San Meri­no, CA. 

An edi­tor at Lit­tle, Brown was inter­est­ed in the sto­ry of the child per­former Lot­ta Crab­tree, whom I pro­filed in The Gold Rush. Could I write about eight adven­tur­ous pio­neer women like Lot­ta, who “broke the rules” and made his­to­ry dur­ing that time? I agreed and end­ed up with my non­fic­tion book Into a New Coun­try.

note basket
Gold Rush notes (Click to enlarge.)

By now, I had a huge box of notes and images on the pio­neer peri­od. I thought I was fin­ished with that era, but the dance con­tin­ued. In the process of writ­ing The Gold Rush, I uncov­ered infor­ma­tion about chil­dren who also caught “gold fever.” They panned for gold along­side their par­ents, helped them run stores or restau­rants, and per­formed in saloons — where some girls ran hair­pins along cracks in the floor­boards to col­lect gold dust.

Two small items from my research went straight into my Idea File. One was that gangs of boys in San Fran­cis­co could make more mon­ey — sell­ing six-month-old East Coast news­pa­pers on the street — than their par­ents, who strug­gled to sur­vive in that hurly-burly town. Anoth­er was a news­pa­per item about a boy who sur­vived an acci­den­tal bal­loon ascent. He became the first per­son to see the bay area from the air.

Those sto­ries — and some nag­ging ques­tions — stayed with me. What if a girl want­ed to be a news­boy? What if the boys wouldn’t let her in? And what if her fam­i­ly arrived in San Fran­cis­co pen­ni­less: could she help them sur­vive? And what if she tried to get a news scoop on a bal­loon ascent? 

bk_newsgirl_120.jpgI wrote News­girl to answer those questions.

Whether I write non­fic­tion or fic­tion, each informs the oth­er. I use fic­tion­al tech­niques in non­fic­tion. I want to grab the young read­er, pull him or her into the sto­ry with action, dia­logue, strong char­ac­ter, and sig­nif­i­cant detail. I want to appeal to the son of a writer friend who asked his mom, “When are you going to write one of those books where, you know, some­thing hap­pens on every page?”

At the same time, I use tech­niques and infor­ma­tion from non­fic­tion to anchor my nov­els in time and place. My most recent YA nov­el, Out of Left Field, is not his­tor­i­cal fic­tion per se (though 2004 may feel like ancient times to some young read­ers). The Viet­nam War casts shad­ows over the nov­el. Though I lived through that era, I didn’t know enough about men who fled the coun­try for Cana­da, as my protagonist’s father did. I tracked down mem­oirs of draftees and enlist­ed men who fled the coun­try and read accounts of life on the run. My friend, the Cana­di­an writer Tim Wynne-Jones, sug­gest­ed books about Amer­i­can resisters who lived in Toron­to dur­ing those times. I watched a video of the draft lot­tery that took place in 1969, an event that deter­mined the lives — and deaths — of thou­sands of young men. And I read and reread Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Car­ried, itself a stun­ning fusion of fic­tion and memoir.

While Bran­don, my nar­ra­tor, is invent­ed, I had the actu­al Red Sox sched­ule at hand as I wrote. Bran­don fol­lows the 2004 sea­son with as much devo­tion as I did that year. When Bran­don sees David Ortiz slam his game-win­ing hit in the 14th inning of the Sox-Yan­kee game, the pan­de­mo­ni­um in the stands is real, as are the smells, the sounds, the ener­gy of a ball park when fans real­ize the team could win it all — for the first time in eighty-six years.

My friend and col­league, Phyl­lis Root, asks: “Is the line grow­ing more mal­leable between spec­u­la­tion and fact?” Cer­tain­ly young read­ers need to know the dif­fer­ence between what is real and what is invent­ed. But per­haps the sep­a­ra­tion between non-fic­tion and fic­tion is arbi­trary. Maybe I’ll mix the two gen­res on my own shelves. Who knows what sparks might fly if these books end up danc­ing together?


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8 years ago

Fab­u­lous piece and excit­ing new forum!