Writing The Narrative Non-Fiction Story

This is what this blog is really about.

Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil

I've read John Berendt's book three or four times now and every time I think what a wonderful story. The book was on the New York Times best seller list longer than any book in history. To research the book Berendt moved to Savannah and lived there eight years. It's no wonder it turned out so well. Having said all that, it must be noted that some stores put this book in their fiction section due to Berendt's having changed some characters and shuffled the time sequence (he fesses up to this in the afterword to his book). Such shortcomings not withstanding, this is by any measure a terrific book.

E.B. White's "Once More To The Lake"

The Essay
They don't get any better than this. In this essay White writes about returning with his young son to the rural Maine lake where his father used to take the family for a month-long vacation every year. Surprisingly little has changed. Just as he remembered, there are the same small waves chucking the rowboats under the chins, the same eternal dragonfly landing on the tips of the fishing poles, the net on the tennis court sagging in the noonday heat, and the school of minnows whose shadows "double the attendance" in the shallows. What he doesn't expect though is the vertiginous feelings that sweep over him when he takes his son out on the lake fishing and suddenly can't remember which end of the boat he's on--whether he's his father's son or his son's father. By the end the reader realizes that is by no means a nostalgic travel piece down memory lane; it is rather a deeply moving evocation of loss, longing, aging and death.

"Best Magazine Articles Ever"

Some of these are really very good.

Buster's of South Pasadena

The best local cafe for coffee, pastry and reading narrative non-fiction.

The Perfect Storm

Sebastian Junger wasn't present for the powerful ending of this book (the fishing boat sinks). Nor did he know any details of the sinking beyond what could be inferred from the storm itself and the knowledge of how small boats founder in heavy seas. All that not withstanding, Junger, an unknown writer working at the time in construction, wrote a terrific book that pleased  his readers and made Junger famous.

Why Did He Cut Off That Man's Leg?

story by Paul Ciotti
Why district attorneys don't allow people who go around cutting off perfectly good legs to actually practice medicine.









Don't Waste Your Time On Stories That Can't Possibly Work

       I sometimes think creative thinking and critical thinking are mutually exclusive. When writers are most creative is when their judgment is most poor. This isn't a bad thing. Trying to find a idea for a non-fiction story is much like brainstorming. You don't want to be critical when you're trying to be creative. New ideas are like soap bubbles. They pop under the slightest critical pressure . . . 

Writing With Attitude

There's a good reason why stand-up comics communicate so much better with their audiences than newspaper reporters do with theirs. They have attitude. . . 

Four Great Narrative Non-Fiction Books

I especially like "The Hot Zone." Check out the opening chapter to see what a great writer does with a minimum of verifiable information. Then see "The Right Stuff" to see what can be done with even more.

Waiting For The Lede To Smile Demurely in a Negligee

Okay, you've been researching a story for weeks. You've tied up nearly all the loose ends. You can't think of anybody else to call or visit or any more tiresome records to plow through. You must be ready to write your story? Right?
     I'm not so sure. Oftentimes, I've found, when I'm really ready to write my story (knowing my material well enough that I'm totally in command), the lede just pops into my head without warning. I'll be walking down the street (thinking of nothing in particular) when suddenly the lede arrives. Then it’s time to write. Before then, you just spend a lot of time in front of the computer spinning your wheels. 
     Another thing, you cannot will good ledes in existence (by lede I mean more than an opening sentence, I mean the whole beginning to your tale, the thing that implies everything else, that sets the story in motion). You have to wait for the lede to come to you. 
      So walk around, try writing the story in your head (much quicker than using a pencil or keyboard), play with organization. Then one day when you're standing there watching the squirrels run down the power lines the lede will suddenly come to you as a willing maiden. 
     At that point, the hard work is over. All you have to do is do the deed--write it down, polish the transitions, correct the spelling and submit the expense account.

Revenge of the Nerds

story by Paul Ciotti
Tom Bates, my editor at California, came up with the title "Revenge of the Nerds," the best title any editor has ever come up with for any article I've ever written. He had to fight his editor, the talented but in this case overly-cautious Bill Broyles, to put it on the story.






Halsey's Typhoon

This book has a great opening scene on Halsey's Court of Inquiry, spends far too much time on the hurricane and the terrible ordeal of the sailors who were forced to abandon ship in the teeth of one of the worst typhoons on record, and then lets Halsey off the hook (as a feckless Navy did itself). The book would have been far better if the authors' editor had cut the hurricane coverage in half. Strangely, the authors spend half a chapter on Nathaniel Bowditch's "Practical Navigator" apparently for the sole purpose of noting that Halsey's fleet meteorogist had a "well-thumbed" copy of the book on his shelf.  Still a very well-written book about a highly-talented and deeply-flawed American hero.

Beheading On Mt. Baldy

story by Paul Ciotti
A tough story to write. I had trouble finding good people to interview. Marcia, the murderer, who was in prison, wouldn't talk on the advice of her attorney. Debra, the woman she confessed to, would only talk a little (she didn't want to ruin her chances of becoming a psychologist). Judy, Marcia's erstwhile wife, didn't want to have anything to do with reporters. The DA, despite having an entire wall lined with boxes of research, claimed he couldn't show me anything more than what was already in the public record.
     The best people to talk to turned out to be friends of Jack, of which he had quite a few up on Mt. Baldy, the detectives involved in the case, and most of all the intimate and extensive medical records (including an autobiography) from Marcia's ill-conceived malpractice lawsuit against Debra filed years before in another court.
     Surprisingly, many years after Marcia was sentenced to prison for life and Judy was sentenced to jail on weekends, Judy was still trying to claim the remainder of Jack's fortune on the grounds that he put it in a trust for her and thus she was entitled to it as a matter of law. So far no judge has agreed.

Dispatches

This book practically  killed Michael Herr, first of all to research it in Vietnam, and then to write it back in America where it took him years to overcome his demons. His description of the aftermath of a firefight is wonderfully memorable for the gloriously unexpected final line: And every time, you were so weary afterward, so empty of everything but being alive that you couldn't recall any of it, except to know that it was like something else you had felt once before. It remained obscure for a long time, but after enough times the memory took shape and substance and finally revealed itself one afternoon during the breaking off of a fire fight. It was the feeling you'd had when you were much, much younger and undressing a girl for the first time. 

Also unbeatable in this book is the dialogue. "I gotta be gettin' a mo'--effective--deodorant." When I first read this book I couldn't imagine how Michael Herr managed to take such great notes of conversations in the heat of battle (or anywhere else). Then when I talked to Herr he told me that a lot of the people in his book were "composite characters," though he said the dialogue was absolutely real. He also said he made up a lot of the names of the units and the places where they fought. This was no secret, he said. In France the book was listed under fiction. My first thought on hearing this: "Oh no! Say it an't so, Joe!" But, not withstanding these considerations, it's still terrifically rewarding to read, as long as you realize not everything is precisely true.

Don't Worry About What People Might Think. Just Write The Story.

I remember when I did my first major magazine article 35 years ago. It was entitled "Nazis Among Us" and was about a (pathetic) group of American losers who who professed to admire Hitler and the German Nazi Party of WWII . . . 

What If It Happened Here?


"On Wednesday, March 5th, around 5:30 p.m., a single-engine Cessna 172 passes over the Santa Monica Mountains, just west of the 405 freeway heading southeast at 3,500 feet. Over the next 12 minutes it will fly over Brentwood, LAX, Hawthorne,  and Torrance, trailing all the while a fleeting white cloud, like a mini-rain squall. Despite the plane's flying right over the middle of LAX, no one on the ground even notices it, or the fact that it has just delivered a near-invisible cloud of 10 trillion of anthrax spores, each one so infinitesimally small and fine it's hard to believe they will kill 38,000 people in the most gruesome way over the next ten days. . . . "

Ditch the Tape Recorder

Whenever possible, avoid tape recorders or taking notes during interviews. It turns what should be an intimate conversation into a formal interview, which is the last thing you want. Even if people are fully comfortable being recorded (and most people are not) the recorder tends to tie them down to a particular spot. Sometimes the best things you learn are those informally tossed off while chatting in the kitchen, drinking coffee and leaning against the counter, walking down some woody path or driving through the countryside.

Mark Bowden's "Desert One Debacle"


Good clear straightforward writing by someone who knows what he is talking about. For someone who wasn't there, his detail is astonishing. I always regretted that the mission failed.

Love In Venice

story by Paul Ciotti
"Even Bob Greenfield's best friends never tried to defend him on the grounds that he wasn't a madman—he had wild, electric-blue eyes, a satyr's visage, a habit at parties of going up to women and asking them "Let's fuck."
       "And yet, desperate as he was for the company of women, he had little luck—he was too needy and intense. He'd gone years without sexual intercourse. He didn't understand the ordinary social conventions. He hit on women in front of their boyfriends. He dashed off erotic poems and handed them to strangers. Once in a restaurant, he saw two waitresses being hugged and patted on their backsides by old friends and then couldn't understand why they took such offense when he tried to pat their backsides too . . . "

Finalist--Best Feature Article of 2007--When The Elderly Die in Katrina, You Don't Bring Them Back By Prosecuting The People Who Tried To Save Them

This is not so much a non-fiction short story as a great magazine article but it does illustrate one factor that makes any story great--an ethical dilemma. Also, the writer must be congratulated for his observations and interviews. One reservation, the writer gives his (strong) opinion on the matter at the end. Not only does it ring the first false note in this otherwise impeccable piece, it isn't necessary. We know the the writer's point of view long before we gets to the end. It's carrying coals to Newcastle to remind us again.

The Single-Mom Murder


Well observed, lively writing. The author has a great eye for status details. I won't tell you who did it.

Ragtime isn't a non-fiction novel but it easily could have been

Much of Ragtime is constructed and written like a non-fiction novel (and some parts, like the sections on Houdini, are almost completely non-fiction). The author, E.L. Doctorow, describes what people did and said and, unlike most novels, only briefly--albeit to great effect--goes inside their heads to say what they felt. The result is a novel that seems as if it really happened (a true story). The best part is that none of of what Doctorow does here is outside the reach of a non-fiction writer (though having his talent is a great asset) who is willing and able to do the reasearch.

When Good Stories Die

Sometimes good writing is not enough.










Nabokov on the difference between narrative and plot

Nabokov, it will come as no surprise, had the most illuminating remarks about narrative. Paraphrasing E.M. Forster, he wrote that "the term 'narrative' is often confused with the term 'plot,' but they're not the same thing. If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that's not plot, that's narrative. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of grief, that's plot."

Robert Vare, the Nieman Foundation

Murder In The Math Department

story by Paul Ciotti
Perennial students don't usually murder their professors. They just sort of bleed them dry.











Writing Resource List From the Poynter Institute

A list of books and articles on non-fiction writing complied by Poynter's Chip Scanlan.


In Cold Blood

This book was Truman Capote's greatest achievement, catapulting him from a minor writer to a full fledged society star. He claimed (along with his old childhood friend and fellow author, Harper Lee, to have done 400 interviews over many years researching this book). Unfortunately, as a long time fiction writer, he apparently used not only fictional techniques to write the book, he occasionally engaged in actual fiction as well (most memorably creating an closing scene for the book that participants say never happened). Despite such faults, this is a classic that is going strong in high school classrooms across America.

Joy of Re-Writes

when writing is actually fun

How Can You Waste Your Time Writing About Murder While Ignoring Global Warming, Income Inequality and the Need to "Level the Playing Field?"

This is almost too easy. I know from having done this for the last 40 years that the best non-fiction stories are never about issues, per se. At the very least they are about people involved with those issues and at best they are just about people trying to cope with the awful terror of the human condition. Politics have nothing to do with it.

Non-Fiction Story Checklist

Not every story will work. A brief checklist to help you weed out the ones which will never work.

Ghost Town: A Venice California Life

How long does it take to research a non-fiction book? Pat Hartman took six years to research hers (and she apparently didn't waste a minute). This book hammers a stake through the notion that all we have to do to cure racial tension is mix everyone up in a big diverse salad and the result will be the promised land. If there were any justice in the world, this book would be required reading at the UCLA School of Management and the Communications School at USC.

Murder On The Last Turn

Good story. Voluminous records. Lots of people to interview. There was only one (big) problem. Of the couple dozen or so people I interviewed for this story only one of them I thought actually told me the  truth.
     Mike Goodwin, a bright and resourceful murderer, has been fighting his conviction tooth and nail from day one. He currently (July  2014) has another appeal in the works, which could very well succeed.  Do I think Goodwin was behind the murders of Mickey Thompson and his wife, Trudy? Yes, I do. Did the prosecution prove that in court? I'm not so sure.

Should A Writing Instructor Sleep With A Student Who Shows Up On His Doorstep With A Bottle of Merlot In Hand?

Absolutely not!

Anne of the Shining Eyes

Writing about yourself in the third-person--an (only somewhat fictionalized) story telling how to do it

Endurance

A wonderfully told story by Alfred Lassing. He makes a frozen ordeal something you want to read, albeit while you're sitting next to a cozy fire with a glass of brandy close at hand.








Black Hawk Down

One of the great books of war reporting.