A writer reveals how she finds the heart of a story
In my early days as a nonfiction writer, I mostly wrote books that offered straightforward, informed narratives for young readers. Then, as my writing evolved, I delved into subjects that affected me more personally and I began to write a new kind of nonfiction. Of course, nonfiction must always be clear and accurate, but now my main motivation and responsibility is to bring my passion for a topic to the writing table. For me, that passion is often sparked by a moment of discovery, which leads to my immersion in a research process that becomes deeply personal. This has brought me to places in my nonfiction writing that are surprising, gratifying, and in the end, I hope, authentic.
Nonfiction writers go to great lengths to offer their most truthful work. Sometimes it is the story behind the story that reveals those lengths. Consider Marc Aronson’s Unsettled: The Problem of Loving Israel (S & S/Ginee Seo Books, 2008). In his foreword, the author explains why he was inspired to write this particular book. He talks about his relatives in Israel and his own time spent there. The foreword begins with, “I love Israel” and ends with, “but I could not live in Israel.” Readers know that the author is about to share a process of deep discovery that undoubtedly drove his research.
The first thing that drives me to pursue a topic is the attraction of taking something apart in order to understand it better. It’s like a big puzzle that somebody else has finished, except that some of the pieces are missing and others are jammed in where they don’t quite fit. I need to take it apart and put it back together for myself, examining each piece and deciding where it best goes given what I learn along the way. Sometimes what I learn is that I need to look at things from a different angle in order to get it right—and to get kids as excited as I am. This was the case with my picture-book biographies, Elizabeth Leads the Way (Holt, 2008) and Sandy’s Circus (Viking, 2008). And with longer works, to truly understand a piece of history, I also need to fully realize its larger context. With my new Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream (Candlewick, 2009), that turned out to be a huge undertaking.
On the surface, the accepted sound bite goes something like this: In 1961, 13 women took astronaut tests in secret until NASA discovered what was going on and gave them the boot. This is the hook the media adopted and repeated when the story first broke. But what was really going on? Was it really in secret? Did NASA really kick them out?
As it turns out, no. Their testing wasn’t a secret. And NASA didn’t kick them out—because they were never allowed in. That was the soul of the story for me. It is a feminist piece of history, something to be learned from, held up, and acknowledged. And in order to appreciate its significance, readers have to see it in the context of what was going on in America in 1961. What was life like for women then? What are the truths of this story? How did these women pave the way for others—and how much farther do we have to go?
But deconstructing a story like this not only requires examining historical setting. It also involves a cast of characters—the second thing that compels me to write about a particular topic. At the heart of any story are the people involved. Their often varied and complex perspectives on a topic make me want to spend time understanding it. Who are they? What were their lives like? How did the time in which they lived color their perspectives, their opinions, and ultimately, the events that unfolded? How did each of their viewpoints affect what occurred in the past—and what happened next?
For Almost Astronauts, this involved 13 unique and complicated women—not to mention the allies and villains who played their parts along the way. So whenever I can, I go beyond the usual suspects of books, articles, and documentaries to track down the people directly involved. Clues are often found in those books and articles. An article may lead to a first-person source I hadn’t discovered, or a minor photo credit might point to an eyewitness who hasn’t yet added her voice to the story. With each piece of the puzzle, I have new information to examine. Who is this person with a fresh opinion? What is his or her link to my story? Are there biases, and where do those biases originate? All of these factors and more must be examined and turned over, and each time, I have choices to make. Is it a reliable piece of information that makes sense? How does it fit into the story I am trying to tell, and where? What is fact and what is fiction? Ultimately, the story puzzle begins to take shape and have dimension. And it is the people who not only make it possible, but also make it infinitely intriguing to me.
This is true of riveting historical fiction as well. I suspect the main character in Elizabeth Winthrop’s Counting on Grace (Random/Wendy Lamb Bks., 2006) would not be as compelling and authentic if the author hadn’t done the kind of relentless research she did. As with much nonfiction, Winthrop’s initial spark came from a moment of historical discovery. In this case, a piece of history she held in her hands—a photograph of a mill girl. How would our picture of what life was like for a girl in those circumstances have been diminished if Winthrop hadn’t met with a man who had trained girls like Grace? If she hadn’t let this man, in turn, teach her how to operate the same spinning frames Grace had? If she hadn’t heard the roar of the machine, held the bobbins in her hands, and allowed this trainer to mimic how Grace would have been pressured to hurry up, hurry up, hurry up? It’s in the details, as they say. And those details, more often than not, are illuminated by the people authors encounter on the research journeys we take.
These personal connections are imperative even when a source seems solid. For my Almost Astronauts research, I had a 1959 Look magazine article with a full photo layout. It documented pilot Betty Skelton taking astronaut tests alongside the Mercury 7 men. Or so I thought. And I would have continued to think so if I hadn’t discovered–through a museum curator I had gotten to know–that Betty Skelton was 81 and living in Florida. I sent Betty my text that referred to her. She sent me a lovely note full of praise. But I pressed her to determine if everything I wrote was accurate. She finally told me that the Look article was misleading, and explained that parts had been staged. Without repeated interactions with Betty, I wouldn’t have been able to set this record straight. This is why I always try to go directly to the source. I am like a detective, taking nothing at face value, solving riddles. It is exhilarating.
One of the most thrilling moments of discovery for this book occurred when I was in Wisconsin, spending the weekend with eight of the women for an event in their honor. The fairly shy and reclusive main heroine in my story, Jerrie Cobb, had flown in from South America at the last minute. I let her get a sense of me in her own time, and when she did, she confided a critical piece of information about LBJ that she had kept to herself since 1961. Her disclosure had a dramatic impact on my story.
There is a certain satisfaction in placing a missing piece in a puzzle. Likewise, it is gratifying to pull out a piece that has been slotted in where it doesn’t belong, righting a previous wrong. This happened several times while researching Up Close: Ella Fitzgerald (Viking, 2008). Similar stories, with varying discrepancies, were repeated from source to source. I was reminded of the telephone game we used to play as kids. For example, many books tell the story of Ella’s discovery: Chick Webb was there the night she sang at the Apollo and signed her up on the spot. Dramatic? Yes. True? No. What’s a writer to do? Dig deeper, find the expert, track down people who might have been there, determine the reliability of your sources. Find the truth. Pull out the piece that has been crammed into the puzzle, repair its edges, and refit it properly.
And through all of this work, if you’re really lucky, you make a new friend. One of the “Mercury 13” women had long downplayed their story, almost to the point of being embarrassed when space buffs wanted her autograph. She didn’t feel she had played a role in our space history. We emailed back and forth, had dinner together, and came to an understanding that while we both appreciated each other, we had different points of view. That is, until she read my completed manuscript and told me that my research and storytelling had given her a new take on the total picture. Instead of feeling embarrassed, she now feels proud.
And I’m proud, too. Because in the end, if the passion is there, and you’ve told the story in the best way you can, your nonfiction can’t be anything less than honest and authentic. And those are the kind of books this writer wants to write—and read.
Tanya Lee Stone writes fiction and nonfiction. To learn more about her work, visit www.tanyastone.com.