Narrative Nonfiction: Kicking Ass at Last

Between songs, Arlo Guthrie likes to strum his guitar and tell a story he learned from his father, Woody Guthrie. It goes like this: Two rabbits, a mama and a papa, are running full speed from a pack of baying hounds. Spotting a hollow log, the rabbits rush in and are immediately surrounded by the enthusiastic dogs. “What are we gonna do now?” the mama rabbit asks. “Don’t worry,” says the papa rabbit. “We’ll just stay in here ‘til we outnumber ’em.”

As an author of nonfiction, I confess I sometimes feel like the mama rabbit, stuck in a tight, dark spot, constrained by my craft. We nonfiction writers are considered…well…educational. Boring. Outside our tight quarters, the baying and shouting and enthusiasm goes to the fiction writers.

But look at what has happened in the past few years. In 2009 three of the five finalists for National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature went to nonfiction…

…and one, Charles and Emma, went on to receive a 2010 Michael L. Printz Honor Award and was named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize;

…and the winner of the 2009 National Book Award, Claudette Colvin, went on in 2010 to earn a silver Newbery Honor sticker;

…and three out of five finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize were nonfiction, and the winner, my book, Marching for Freedom, was the dark-horse champion of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books;

…and the Coretta Scott King Author Award went to a picture book biography, Bad News for Outlaws;

…and you may think I am done, but I am not, because in 2010 Jim Murphy became the first-ever nonfiction author to win the Margaret A. Edwards Award for a “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.”

In this amazing, starry, silver-and gold-stickered time, I’d say we were well on our way to outnumbering ’em. I’d like to talk about how we do it, because actually there is a method to our madness.

It’s called narrative nonfiction, sometimes called creative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction. I think the term creative nonfiction is misleading — we don’t create anything that isn’t there already, and literary sounds pretentious to me. So I prefer narrative nonfiction. It boils down to this: making sure we are telling a story. The author of narrative nonfiction uses all of the best techniques of fiction writing: plot, character development, voice, and theme.

Nonfiction often gets accused of just being about plot. But here’s that famous quote by Nabokov (himself paraphrasing E. M. Forster) that shows what we are striving for: “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 narrative; that’s plot. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart, that’s narrative.” So narrative nonfiction takes people, places, and events, builds bridges between them, gives them meaning and emotional content. Without making anything up.


We begin with an idea that smacks us in the head.

Here’s how Deborah Heiligman got smacked for Charles and Emma. Her husband, Jon Weiner, who writes about science, said to her: “You know, Charles Darwin’s wife was religious. She loved him very much, and she was afraid that he would go to hell and they wouldn’t be together for eternity.”

“Literally,” Deb said, “had fireworks gone off at that moment, I would have not been surprised.” She knew she had a book to write and headed for the library, where she checked out a two-volume book of letters collected by the Darwins’ daughter, Henrietta. After reading the two volumes straight through, she tackled the autobiography Charles Darwin wrote for his children and grandchildren.

Then she wove the strands together:
One of the great things about doing primary source research for Charles and Emma was that I got to put together pieces of a puzzle. For example, I could read a letter that Charles wrote on a particular day, and then I could go online and see what Emma wrote in her diary for that day or week. I could figure out what Charles was concerned about scientifically and what was happening in his very busy family life at the same time.

Two lives, imbued with meaning and emotion, delivered to the obsessed researcher.

In 2000, Phillip Hoose was researching his book We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History when he came across a mention of Claudette Colvin. He did some snooping around and found that, indeed, Claudette Colvin had refused to give up her seat on a bus nine months before Rosa Parks, and a year later she and three other women sued the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama, challenging the laws that required segregated seating on the buses.

“Is Claudette Colvin still alive?” he asked himself.

He found her. It took more than four years before she agreed to talk with him.

In an interview on PBS’s Newshour after winning the National Book Award for Claudette Colvin, Hoose said about the book: “In addition to what happened, it was as much about how she felt and why she did things…how her friends took it, how her parents took it,” he said. “So it was this story not only of historical events, but of a girl’s journey through those.”

Being a primary source junkie myself, I e-mailed Phillip Hoose and asked why he wanted to write about Colvin. “In book after book she was portrayed as this mouthy, undisciplined, kind of loose teen from the wrong side of the tracks. Claudette was always compared unflatteringly and, I thought, unfairly, with Rosa Parks. As I read those books I yearned for her side of the story.”

He went on to say:
When I know I’ve found a story to tell I let the flood tide run in me for a day or so and just let myself be soaked with love for the idea. In those dawning hours I’m blindly in love with the idea…Then I sleep on it. I try to put it away for a little bit…I am so excitable that I know I need a day. If my idea can survive those stages, I explore it with all I have.

As for me, I stumbled backward into writing Marching for Freedom. I read that Pete Seeger had been on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and I casually went online to see if I could find any images. That’s when I found Matt Herron’s photos of the march, including one he’d taken of Seeger.

Unlike Heiligman’s fireworks, I always get a feeling of utter silence, that the earth has stopped turning, just for a nanosecond.

Within days I was ensconced in Herron’s studio, looking through his archives (I had discovered that he lived about thirty miles away). I also started sniffing around through secondary sources, getting a feel for time and place, for the politics of the era. I cruised bibliographies, acknowledgments, footnotes. I call this “reading around” because it sounds like “sleeping around” and I like the slightly pejorative ring, and because I’ll read anything at this point, good, bad, or ugly. I’m getting my feet under me.

I also began looking for more photos and reading photo credits. I wanted to go deeper than the mainstream, well-publicized photos.

Searching out primary source materials, I found a 1965 New York Times article interviewing some of the kids who were there, protesting, marching, singing, going to jail, getting beat up, and getting up the next day and doing it all over again. I picked up the phone and started calling people with the same names in Selma, Alabama. In the end, I interviewed about six of these people, now in their late fifties to mid sixties.


So what do authors of narrative nonfiction do with all the information we’ve collected? Let’s take as our starting point some famous lines from an unlikely source, The Cat in the Hat:
“Look at me!

Look at me now!” said the cat.

“With a cup and a cake

On the top of my hat!

I can hold up TWO books!

I can hold up the fish!

And a little toy ship!

And some milk on a dish!”

That’s exactly what my brain looks like when it is stuffed full of research. I’m precariously holding a whole lot of things, very, very carefully and enthusiastically, and I’m scared to death it will all come crashing down around my feet.

What nonfiction writers have to do is find a structure for our material.

Charles and Emma opens with Darwin writing his list: to marry or not marry. With each item on his list, Heiligman fills us in on his life, the state of science, pressing social issues of the time. We can sense the quiet of Darwin’s rented room on Great Marlborough Street as well as the grit and smoke of the London streets outside.

The opening launches us, expectations aroused, into the book with the chapter-ending sentences: “But he had one other fear, a fear that he could not bring himself to write down. The issue was too big. He would have to talk to his father.”

Brilliantly, brilliantly woven.


All this careful crafting is glued together by passion: for our subject, for our craft, for our readers. As we writers of narrative nonfiction work with draft after draft to make a clear, clean manuscript, we not only strive to do justice to our topic, we choose every word as carefully as any poet or fiction writer. We weight the resonance for each word, searching for those rich with meaning and emotion. These just-right words, strung together one after another, give us the queen’s broken heart, and win over our readers’ hearts in turn.

With a little luck, we’ll outnumber ’em yet.

From the March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Elizabeth Partridge
Elizabeth Partridge

Elizabeth Partridge's favorite projects are at the collision point of tubulent times, politics, social justice, and art. Her upcoming subjects include painter, Hung Liu, photographer Imogen Cunningham, and Manzanar photographers Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams. Visit

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Elizabeth Partridge

Hey Raymond, I really understand the need to have emotional content in writing. I am always trying to weave it in myself. But to write narrative nonfiction, any emotions or thoughts of my characters have to be from them -- either something they told me in an interview, or something they wrote, or someone close to them wrote. Once you imagine anyone's thoughts or feelings, what you are writing is a whole new category: historical fiction. Perfectly legit, just not nonfiction any longer.

Posted : Nov 09, 2015 11:06

Raymond Huber

Fascinating essay, Elizabeth, thank you. Historical non-fiction is based on recorded history, but history never tells the whole story. We might know the dates and events, but people’s thoughts and feelings are not always recorded. The question arises, is narrative history (from a character’s viewpoint) any less true? In my writing I try to capture feelings as well as facts, and by imagining what it was like to be present and dramatizing key moments. Jane Smiley expressed it well: "My motto as a historical novelist has been: “You are there.” But in order to put you there, I have to use my imagination to make connections, to evoke feelings, to show patterns, to build a logical structure. But then, my historian colleague must do the same."

Posted : Nov 09, 2015 07:53

Elizabeth Partridge

Good question, Virginia. Not only are authors somewhat unclear on this, editors can be as well. At its most fundamental, nonfiction means you make nothing up. Nothing. No characters, no dialog, not even the weather. What you write has to be the "truth." With historical fiction, you take real historical times, and plunk in characters that act within that time. Or you write about real people, but you make up dialog, or perhaps change the order of historical events. Of course, it isn't so clear cut as this, which is why there is confusion. What about writing a subject that is, well, subjective? Right now, I'm doing a book on the Vietnam war, and some of the politics involved. Someone else could write on the same subject with a very different viewpoint. Both of us can use the facts and be historically accurate. Does this help?

Posted : Aug 30, 2015 04:18

Virginia Rinkel

What is your take on historical non-fiction? How would you say it differs from narrative non-fiction?

Posted : Aug 28, 2015 03:51


Yea, for non fiction, I have just begun writing a children's non fiction picture book series using a funny character as narrator who visits historical places. My idea is to making learning facts fun. In view of the emphasis on the core curriculum in the US placing more emphasis on using non fiction in the classroom, I thought this approach is needed.

Posted : May 12, 2013 01:58

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