I am on a mission to rid us of the term nonfiction. It is meaningless.
Why do we describe an entire genre of literature by what it is NOT? It tells us nothing about what it IS.
I no longer say “I write nonfiction.” Instead I say, “I tell true stories.” The latter sparks excitement. Rightly so.
A true story is a real adventure. It is something that actually happened, in need of being captured, told, passed on. That’s what history is, after all. A collection of true stories about ordinary people who have done extraordinarily wonderful—or horrible—things that have shaped our world. And my entire motivation for writing them comes from discovering a true story that so enthralls me I can’t wait to share it with other people. (It likely also makes me an incredibly annoying dinner party guest. “Did you know that Alexander Calder invented the mobile?!”)
Telling these stories depends on all the tools we use for fiction—character development, plot, setting, dialogue—with one crucial addition. The tool that allows me to tell an exciting story without making anything up is research. To understand the depths of this real-life character, to put myself in his or her shoes, to find the nuances of the plot, to become enough of an expert to do them justice, that research has to go deep. It has to get personal. Intimate, even.
There is a magnitude of secondary sources, of course, but it’s the primary sources that feed me. I’m especially enamored with in-person interviews and any amount of extended time I might be lucky enough to spend with a person I’m writing about.
It’s in the quiet spaces, in between the formal interviews, that you have a chance to learn about a person. To watch their body language and their facial expressions in conversation, to talk about topics unrelated to your book; to know them. By the time I emerge from the research, the subjects I’m studying practically feel familial.
Research is another term that doesn’t necessarily connote excitement. But if you call it what it really is—exploring—it takes on a whole new feel. When I think about my roots in research, I realize I have been doing it since I was a little girl.
Growing up on the beach in Milford, CT, my sister and I conducted research every day. I mean, what else do you call calculating how long it would take to walk the long, skinny sandbar out to Charles Island before the tide might strand us there, or how much seawater we should add to the shale we just crushed in order to make a paste that could cool the sting from a jellyfish?
The things I learned then are as clear and memorable to me as the personalities and quirks of the people I have been lucky enough to explore in the books I have written.
In Almost Astronauts, for example, deep and varied research yielded me facts, insights, and emotional information enabling me to write the opening lines to the book:
“One woman stands alone, off to the side of the crowd. She paces back and forth—agitated, excited, impatient. From the back, it is hard to tell her age; her faded brown leather jacket and blond ponytail reveal nothing. But if she were to turn to glance at the group of women on the observation bleachers behind her, you would see the lines of time etched on her face. You would see a smile tinged with sadness.”
It reads like fiction but is grounded in fact.
Achieving this kind of intimacy in true stories takes time. For me, it doesn’t come until I am fairly far along in the writing process. My early drafts are a bit of a mess for a while, truth be told.
There’s a whole lot of reading and thinking and writing and re-writing, trying to make sense of who this person really is and what is really going in the intricacies of their life. As I revise, I dive back into the materials again and again, searching and re-searching.
Inevitably—and often just when I’m convinced I may never properly capture this person’s story—a moment of understanding unfolds; it shows itself to me. It says: pay attention, this is what the story is really about, and this is why it matters to you.
It’s a difficult phenomenon to describe, but unmistakable when it occurs. From that moment on, I know where I’m going. I can proceed with the business of getting what’s in my head and in my heart onto the page.
Tanya Lee Stone is best known for telling the unsung true stories of women and people of color. Her work has earned many recognitions, including an NAACP Image Award (Courage Has No Color), a Sibert Medal (Almost Astronauts), and a Golden Kite Award (The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie). Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time was her 100th book. Forthcoming books include Remembering Rosalind (Franklin) and A Story of War, A Story of Peace.