Erik Larson on Narrative Nonfiction

In recent years I’ve been a student of narrative nonfiction, with a focus on history. It’s what I love to read and what I’ve learned to write. In fact, while my two books published by St. Martin’s Press are in the sports/golf category, I also think of them as historical narrative nonfiction.

Erik Larson.

Now I’m happily working on another nonfiction book that has nothing to do with golf or sports.

Bestselling author Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm, The Devil in the White City, Dead Wake and other titles) is a master of historical narrative nonfiction, as are Laura Hillenbrand, Daniel James Brown and others.

Larson has shared a lot about his craft in interviews. This is my opportunity to preserve some of his wisdom where I can find it and hopefully guide others with similar interests.

On Story

In an interview with Creative Nonfiction, Larson said, “If the story doesn’t come alive for you, it’s not going to come alive for the readers.”

Larson’s agent David Black challenged the author to keep refining his proposal  for The Devil in the White City (eight drafts, to be exact) and “concentrate on what makes a powerful story.” A few of those nuggets, according to the author:

“Where is the conflict? Where is the suspense? We’re not talking about making things up; we’re talking about where the story is in real life. Who are your characters? Find the right characters and you’ll have your story.”

The characters don’t usually just show up. You have to look hard and, if you’re Larson, you dig deep in the archives, in places like the Library of Congress.


Chronology is simple and powerful in nonfiction storytelling.

“The detailed chronology is my secret weapon,” Larson said. “Because chronological order is the key to any story. If you simply relate a historical event in chronological order, you have done much more than most historians do.”

Choose and organize your material well and also add some foreshadowing when possible.

‘A Viable Book Idea’

In an interview with The Rumpus, Larson discussed his criteria for settling on a book project. The following is paraphrased.

One, he has to be interested.

Two, it has to have a built-in, organic narrative engine, or arc. (Beginning, middle, end.)

Three: You can have a great narrative, but it also needs enough fine-grained personal detail to tell the story. For Larson, this means a deep, rich reservoir of primary materials–letters, diaries, artifacts and more, because that’s what makes the story come alive.

Lastly, find an idea that has barriers to entry, an approach Larson said he learned when he worked at the Wall Street Journal. In other words, an idea complex enough that no one will do the same book.

The Primary Goal

Larson wrapped up his Rumpus interview with a gem for anyone who writes about history.

“I always try to get across that my primary goal as a writer is not to inform, necessarily,” he said.

“My primary goal is to produce as rich a historical experience as I possibly can. So readers can sink into the past and feel like they’ve spent some time there. That they’ve lived another life, however briefly.”


‘TRUEVINE’ By Beth Macy

28962954-_uy400_ss400_October 18 was the publication day for TRUEVINE: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South (Little, Brown and Company), which is the second book by New York Times-bestselling author Beth Macy of Roanoke.

Anyone who lives in southwest Virginia and has been even a casual reader of The Roanoke Times through the years is surely familiar with Beth’s exceptional work as a journalist and storyteller who, as her biography says, gives voice to outsiders and underdogs.

Two years ago she made her authorial debut with FACTORY MAN, which was a sensation. I expect a similar reception for TRUEVINE, “the true story of two African-American brothers who were kidnapped and displayed as circus freaks, and whose mother endured a 28-year struggle to get them back,” says the publisher.

“It’s a story about race, greed and the circus,” writes Beth at her website, “and I’ve been chasing it for more than 25 years. I’m thrilled to say it was just short-listed for a Kirkus Prize in nonfiction, and long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence, a project of the American Library Association.”

I’m not surprised one bit. Based on what I’ve seen, no one chases, researches and writes a true story quite like Beth Macy.

Celebrating ‘Factory Man’ By Beth Macy

Buy at Barnes & Noble.

It’s July 15, publication day for FACTORY MAN: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy, an award-winning journalist and former reporter for the Roanoke Times. Anyone who lives in my region and has been even a casual reader of the Roanoke Times through the years is surely familiar with Macy’s excellent work as a reporter and storyteller who, as her bio says, gives voice to outsiders and underdogs.

That’s certainly the case in her authorial debut. FACTORY MAN is the story of John Bassett III and his quest to save his furniture company, his employees (and their jobs) and his town (Galax, Virginia) against the fierce Asian competition that was decimating a once-strong and proud American industry.

This factory man is a gritty, determined David against a cunning, overseas Goliath. Unfair or not, Bassett chose to fight.

By intricately telling us about wooden furniture, hard-working men and women, a fiercely stubborn company owner and a small Virginia town, Macy, through FACTORY MAN, has delivered a large American story. There’s much more to the Bassett tale, including a family feud. I can’t do it justice.

What I can tell you is that outstanding reviews have been spilling out of the literary world like finely crafted cabinets rolling off the Bassett assembly line.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin compares Macy’s debut to Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. Publisher Weekly and Kirkus offered starred reviews. Jonathan Alter wrote, “Beth Macy has done a masterful job in personalizing the biggest American economic story of our time….”

Beth Macy.

An admirer of her work from afar, I’ve had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Beth Macy the last few years as our paths have crossed at writing events.

Last Saturday at the Radford Reads Literary Festival, she lamented a missed anecdote that she would have weaved into FACTORY MAN. Despite countless interviews, she couldn’t have known about these particular details because they didn’t surface until well after her copious research and writing were complete.

Nonetheless, it bothered this reporter who, I’m guessing, is every bit as tenacious about telling human stories as John Bassett III is about making quality furniture. FACTORY MAN is a finely constructed and polished American story you don’t want to miss.

My Agent Answers: How Can a Writer Improve Odds of Landing an Agent?

My literary agent, Rick Broadhead, specializes in non-fiction and works with the top publishing houses in North America. Rick has represented non-fiction books that have appeared on bestseller lists. His clients’ books have also been shortlisted for literary awards, translated into multiple languages and optioned for film and TV development.

By Rick Broadhead

Copyright © Rick Broadhead. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

First of all, you should know what types of books I’m most interested in, as I’m most likely to be receptive to a pitch if the book fits my interests and the subject categories I like to work on.

Second, books rarely sell themselves these days, so I need to look for authors who have a “platform.” This means that, ideally, you have some type of public stature that a publisher can leverage to promote your book.

If you’re a leading expert in your field or you have experience writing for major newspapers or magazines, I’m more likely to have success selling you to a major publisher. If you have a popular blog or Web site or you’re affiliated with a major organization or university/college, publishers are more likely to be interested in your work.

The lack of a decent platform is one of the most frequent reasons for an agent to reject a book proposal. It is very hard to generate publicity for books, even when a major publisher is doing the pitching, so publishers, and hence agents, are very leery about taking books by authors who don’t have a platform.

Third, you need to have a strong proposal and strong writing skills. As good a salesperson as I may be, publishers usually make decisions on the strength of a proposal that outlines the book, the author’s credentials, and the marketing opportunities the author can bring to the table. A strong proposal can make the difference between getting an offer and not getting one.

My Agent Answers: What’s the Most Common Author Complaint?

My literary agent, Rick Broadhead, specializes in non-fiction and works with the top publishing houses in North America. Rick has represented non-fiction books that have appeared on bestseller lists. His clients’ books have also been shortlisted for literary awards, translated into multiple languages and optioned for film and TV development.

By Rick Broadhead

Copyright © Rick Broadhead. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Most authors are unhappy with the marketing efforts expended by their publisher. In some cases these complaints are warranted, but in many instances they are not.

A publisher will typically include your book in their catalog (used by the publisher’s sales reps to sell your book to retailers), include it on their Web site, and assign an in-house publicist to mail out review copies and pitch the book to print and broadcast media. Sometimes the publisher will run print advertisements in selected publications or on Web sites. The publisher cannot be expected to do much more.

Most publishers are publishing dozens of books a year and it is simply not practical or effective for your publicist to continue pushing your book month after month.

Some authors hire a publicist at their own expense to supplement the publisher’s efforts, but even with this added ammunition, the results are often disappointing.

By and large, the media decide what books they are going to review or feature. A well-connected publicist (yours or your publisher’s) will get your book to the right people, but after that, it’s up to a reporter, editor, or producer to decide whether they are interested or not.

If you’ve ever tried to get publicity for yourself or an organization, you know how difficult it can be. Publicists have the same challenges. In an environment where there are always more books being pitched than there is space or air time to feature them, the media usually give precedence to books by well-known authors or hot topics that they feel their readers will be interested in. Even if you’ve got a decent platform and a timely book, there’s no guarantee you’ll secure the type of national press coverage that’s usually needed to sustain strong sales.

Even if you’re able to generate publicity or land a positive review of your book in a major publication, it doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. Sometimes luck and/or timing play a role in determining what books make it onto the bestseller lists.

Since a publisher has limited control over which books succeed and which ones fail, and a narrow window of time to promote any given book, it’s essential that you work hard to promote your book through your own network of industry-specific contacts.

Publishers are generally focused on reaching mainstream media outlets, so you should draw up a list of your own contacts, people who may not be on your publisher’s radar screen, and have your publicist mail out review copies.

Your personal involvement in your book’s media campaign doesn’t guarantee success–you’ll no doubt run up against the same obstacles your publisher faces–but at least it will give your book a better shot at success.

Photos of My Writer’s Retreat at Ambrosia Farm Bed & Breakfast

The farmhouse.

This past weekend I joined with talented writers from Floyd, Richmond and Annapolis for my writer’s retreat at Ambrosia Farm Bed & Breakfast (located in Floyd, Virginia).

I led sessions on writing and publishing nonfiction and fiction, with an emphasis on books. I had a very enjoyable time with these new writer friends. (More to come on activities and topics.)

Special thanks to owners Caroline Thomas and Craig Gammarino for hosting us.

The below images are courtesy of artist and writer Patricia Robin Woodruff.

I encouraged writers to discover
and trust their writing process.
Another fresh and delicious breakfast
by Caroline Thomas.
Ideas, sharing and notes flowed on Saturday.

Stealing Time With ‘The Book Thief’

I’m generally not a reader of fiction. There’s only so much time, and I prefer true stories. (I know, I know. There’s often more truth in fiction than nonfiction.) Nor do I typically read young-adult books, although I did read some of The Hunger Games and dabbled with the Harry Potter series.

TheBookThiefThat said, I recently finished The Book Thief, the bestselling novel by Markus Zusak. It was outstanding.

I have my daughter to thank. She gave me The Book Thief for Christmas, otherwise I seriously doubt that I would have noticed it. The author’s approach to the narrator was unique and brilliant.

Here’s a brief description from the publisher:

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

I can tell you that any book with a 4.37 average rating (from a total of 464,776 ratings) on Goodreads is a very solid read. The Goodreads members are a discriminating bunch.

Now I’m back in my comfort zone. I’m reading The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. A part of me, though, still wants to be reading The Book Thief. It was that good.