Tragedy made me a writer.
My fourteen-month-old son Corey died from a head injury after a minor fall off the backyard swing. Life as I knew it was over. I faced a crisis of faith that took time to work through. Although I’d never written before, I knew I was supposed to share my experiences. I wrote a deeply personal book for adults entitled Forgiving God: A Woman’s Struggle When God Answers No.
After that book, I continued writing. I believed I could write about the lives of other people and keep my own emotions unattached and a safe distance away. I was wrong. I soon discovered that I’d use the fire of my own emotions to choose topics and write about them in a way that only I could.
When I was doing the research for Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium, my mother was dying of cancer. On nights I spent beside her hospital bed, I filled my sleepless hours reading research material. I searched for the best way to make a reader understand that underneath the always-stern-looking Curie, beat the heart of a vulnerable woman who had faced a lot of adversity.
While I grieved the loss of my own loved ones, I wrote about the day Marie’s husband, Pierre Curie, died. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I wrote and rewrote that scene. Still today, I tear up when I read the words I wrote.
As I searched for the topic of my next book, a photograph I’d seen once lurked in the back of my mind. It was of Nazi soldiers surrounding an elderly Jewish man, laughing as they cut off his beard. I started researching the Holocaust, looking for a true story that hadn’t been told. When I found Varian Fry, I knew that was the book I had to write.
Fry was an American journalist who volunteered to go to Marseilles, France, in 1940 to rescue Jewish refugees trapped there. As I researched In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, I studied Hitler’s rise to power and the war in Europe. While writing the text, I chose each word carefully so that my readers would be transported to the streets of Marseilles in 1940. I want readers to feel the fear and desperation of the refugees who were trapped there. I want them to understand how Varian Fry and his team felt as they made life-and-death choices about who they could help and who they couldn’t.
As a writer, I must feel the emotions first (oh yes, I feel them). Then, hopefully, my readers will feel them too.
I’ve tackled another difficult topic in my newest book, Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In it, I’ve highlighted the lives of six enslaved people who served the Washington family. For the past five years, I’ve felt a host of emotions as I’ve thought about the lives of each one.
I hope my readers will see these six individuals as real, flesh and blood people with the same feelings we have today. I want them to step out of the fog of history and stand in the spotlight.
As any nonfiction book should be, my books are filled with the facts. But along with the facts, I do my best to deliver maximum emotional impact. I want readers to FEEL my books.
At the beginning of my career, I didn’t know how deeply I would need to dig into my own emotional life to write about the lives of others. When I look back through my books, I recognize tiny fragments of myself scattered across the pages.
Carla Killough McClafferty is an award-winning author of nonfiction books. She is a popular speaker at schools and teacher conferences both in person and via video conferencing. Her books have been recognized for excellence with starred reviews in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and more. She is an active member of iNK Think Tank that produces The Nonfiction Minute. She joins other writers on the blog TeachingAuthors.com Visit her website at carlamcclafferty.com