Publishing U: Raising the (Nonfiction) Stakes

Our readers are often curious about the process of writing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts! In this installment of our Publishing U series, Tod Olson, author of the narrative nonfiction series, LOST, and the historical fiction series, How to Get Rich, explains how to capture life-or-death situations. 

I was 11 when I learned that people, from time to time, have feasted on the dead bodies of their friends. This revelation was pirate’s booty, buried in the pages of the book Alive. It kept me rooted to a chair for two days. Finally, the remnants of the stranded rugby team, sustained by protein from their less fortunate companions, staggered out of the Andes Mountains onto level ground. I exhaled.

A few years later, I watched the civil rights activist Fred Leonard relive the moment he stepped off a bus into a mob of white people armed with sticks and bricks. He was just telling the story on camera for the documentary Eyes on the Prize. But the scene played like a movie in his eyes: “We thought, maybe we’ll go off the back of the bus because they won’t be so bad on us. But we said no, we’ll go off the front, take what’s coming to us.”

Tod Olson

I was a cautious kid in a safe suburban world when I found these stories. I was transported. Here were people who lived in a world apart, pushed into crisis by fate or commitment. “We’ll take hitting, we’ll take beating, we’ll even accept death,” Jim Zwerg said from his hospital bed after going off the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

What would it be like to be Zwerg, Leonard, or the Andes survivors—to walk where the stakes were impossibly high and risk was the only choice? And what was this strange magic in their stories that made homework and friends and self-doubt vanish for hours at a time?

In my twenties, I went to graduate school to be a history professor. But the big questions we had to answer left me cold: The roots of capitalism? The effect of the frontier on the American mind? I didn’t know, and eventually I realized that I didn’t really care. What I loved were the stories, the moments of decision: Front of the bus? Back of the bus? To eat your friend or not?

A couple (okay, three) decades later, as a writer of narrative nonfiction, it’s my job to get moments like these on paper for kids. Those kids are, I think, readers like my 11-year-old self. They want books as absorbing as Xbox. And they want a glimpse of the world as it is—a place where bus riders are beaten for demanding basic rights and rugby players make extreme choices to keep from starving to death.

When I write it’s those readers who tug at my sleeve. I don’t want to make them mad at me, so we have an unwritten contract, which I’ll try to describe.

Be in-scene. After Fred Leonard and the others followed Jim Zwerg off the front of the bus, they ran. I can picture it as though I’ve seen footage, even though we only have Leonard telling the story. There’s the stone wall, the 10-foot drop to a parking lot, the post office they ran through where people were mailing letters to friends while a battle for the future of the republic raged outside. Sometimes, when I’m tempted to open a chapter by catching up on what’s happened since the last chapter, I think about that scene. Then I try to find a vivid moment and drop readers inside. We can catch up later.

Scene is the great gift we are given as narrative nonfiction writers. Like the novelists who seemingly have all the fun, our mission is to show not tell. If we do it well, people say we’ve “brought a story to life.” It’s a cliché, but it means something. When researchers attach readers to fMRI machines, they see the brain lighting up in sympathy with characters in action. As Leonard goes out the bus door, I don’t just understand his fear, I feel it. That’s the beginning of empathy.

Really? we think, staring at the blank page, I can do that?

No gratuitous background. In some circles, nonfiction is referred to as “informational text,” which makes me wince. Informational text is administered in dosages. In part this is just my bias. I want kids to love nonfiction the way they love Harry Potter, and that goal is sunk as soon as they smell the didactic. But more importantly, when we choose to write narrative nonfiction, we choose to be storytellers, not teachers.

That doesn’t mean we ignore the bigger questions. But every story has its own context, it’s own background. When we decide what our story is—and isn’t—that context arises naturally. Just because the B-17 crew we’re writing about ditched their plane in the Pacific during World War II doesn’t mean we need to explain the roots of fascism or the international competition for scarce resources. Maybe the real story is how people respond when their lives are in danger.

Eyes on the Prize is full of rich background on the legal history of segregation, but it’s all embedded in story. It serves the moment. And where, in the end, does meaning lie? What’s the important “information”? Do I understand the civil rights movement by learning that it ended de jure segregation in the United States, or by knowing that Fred Leonard escaped a mob with baseball bats by running through a post office full of people who had no idea what was happening outside?

Pace ruthlessly. Stories compress time. The Uruguayan rugby team that became the subject of Alive was stranded in the Andes for two months. Piers Paul Read’s book about them takes ten hours to read. That’s as it should be, because for most of the two months, Read’s characters were shivering in their broken fuselage dreaming about steak and potatoes. “Drama,” Alfred Hitchcock supposedly said, “is life with the dull bits cut out.”

So, when I sit down with my research heaped in front of me, I try to pick out a few moments that give my story shape. These are the front-of-the-bus-or-not moments—moments when something important shifted, when a character was forced to define herself. They become the poles on which the story is strung. And when I get to them, I want to marshall all the detail I have to make time slow down. The researcher complains: That means we’re not going to include that great bit about …? The storyteller responds: Sorry.

Maybe all of this—the compression of time, a devotion to scene—is just a way to describe what narrative nonfiction is. But it helps me to remind myself why I’ve chosen to write this way, and that even within the form there are choices to be made on every page, in every sentence. If we make them well, we can inspire the letters that all writers for children love to get: “I don’t normally like to read, but I loved your book.”

And yes, even nonfiction can do it. It takes an attention to craft. And it takes trust. Trust that even young kids can handle stories about cruel injustices and extreme survival tactics. Trust that meaning lies in narrative moments, and that those moments live in a reader’s mind long after the dates and places fade.'

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1 Comment on "Publishing U: Raising the (Nonfiction) Stakes"

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  1. Excellent article! I love narrative NF as it brings life to history, makes it real and relatable as human beings. I, too, have made this my choice as a writer.

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