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.

ErikLarson
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

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.”

Writers Gather for 10th Regional Conference

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Yours truly and Kim Leigh Martin on the blogging panel on opening night.

This past weekend was the 10th edition of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University. I have been to most of them. Dan Smith is stepping down as director, but, as he told me in an email, he will still be on the scene when we gather at future conferences. That is good news.

Dan Smith.
Dan Smith.

Dan was honored on opening night for his vision and leadership. There wouldn’t be a Roanoke Regional Writers Conference without Dan. He felt the love. It even brought a tear to his eye.

“Dammit,” he said. The words got stuck in his throat.

The highly capable and affable Liz Long will take the reins from Dan.

Following are some of my notes and highlights from the conference.

In her class about how to make editors happy, Carol Alexander, editor of Shenandoah Living, encouraged careful listening in 2017–listening to clients (editors), to readers and to sources. She said, “Be a servant, not a diva.” She also said to expect corrections and make them cheerfully.

Author Rod Belcher had great anecdotes and tips during his session on science fiction and fantasy. “The biggest career skill is tenacity,” Rod said.

Cara Ellen Modisett led a class on travel writing and essays. “Chattanooga is travel for Chicago,” Cara said. She encouraged us to write about our hometowns. Personal writing (memoir and essay) is reporting on yourself. It’s a document of the individual mind at work and play.

Roland Lazenby had a slew of personal stories and observations during his session about not violating the trust of sources. “The deeper you dig,” Roland said, “the more you get to a truly human story.”

I also enjoyed sessions with Terry Maggert and Diane Fanning, and was sorry to miss others. Finally, I always love the conversations in the lobby and the hallways and at lunch, renewing acquaintances and making new ones.

I can’t wait until next year.

A Thank You to My 2016 Clients

Many thanks to these clients and people who worked with me this year.

In alphabetical order:

Clearwater Paper (via Digital Kitchen)
Cornell University Law School (Kristen Burke)
Digital Kitchen (Karen Weber-Millstein and Angela Wittman)
Gorton Community Center (Heather Chamberlain)
Heritage University (David Wise)
Leisure Media 360 (Kurt Rheinheimer)
Oster Golf Houses (Rick Oster)
Puget Sound Bank (Brad Ogura)
RJD Creative (Bob Diercksmeier)
Roanoke Times
TKA (Thomas Koontz Architects)

How to Write a Book in 18 Holes

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

Bestselling author John Coyne.
Bestselling author John Coyne.

I recently published a book entitled How To Write A Novel in 100 Days. Now I thought I might attempt to tighten that frame of reference (and time) and focus on, How To Write a Book in 18 Holes.

Over my writing career I have published three novels on golf, and edited three books of golf instruction. I have some advice on how to do both for anyone who writes or plays golf, or both, like myself.

In my mind, playing golf and writing a novel are incongruously connected. Let me try and explain.

Golfers enjoy playing alone, often playing early in the day or late in the evening after the sun has set when it’s cool and quiet and the course is empty. Why? Well, as all golfers know, we have to work on our game without the distractions of others.

The same is true for writers.

The first task for a writer is finding a quiet place to work. A comfortable room where it’s just you and the blank page. Writing a perfect sentence takes as much time and effort as grooving one’s golf swing. You have to do it more than once to get it right.

Nothing is more intimidating to a writer as a blank sheet of paper or an empty computer screen. It sits there in its emptiness. Staring at you as if to ask: Now what do you have to say?

Golfers face similar fears. Standing on the first tee, for example, staring down the empty fairway, they tell themselves:

  • Keep it straight.
  • Keep it out of trouble.
  • And whatever else, don’t top it!

So, staring at a blank sheet of paper or empty computer screen, or standing alone with a driver in your hands on the first tee, the fears and demands for both writers and golfers are similar: Get me off to a good round of golf! I’ll start writing my novel now!

Still, the writer might secretly think at that moment: I’m going to write a bestseller!

The golfer might secretly declare: I’m going to break par for the first time in my life. Continue reading “How to Write a Book in 18 Holes”

January 23: Roanoke Regional Writers Conference

roland lazenby and me
Conference director Dan Smith (left) and author and biographer Roland Lazenby.

UPDATE: The conference has been rescheduled for Saturday, January 30, due to an expected snowstorm.

The 2016 Roanoke Regional Writers Conference is on Saturday, January 23, at Hollins University. (For details, schedule and to register, go here.)

Twenty or so writers, authors, journalists and publishing professionals will speak and teach classes on a range of topics, including yours truly. This is the ninth edition of the popular writers conference.

More from conference director Dan Smith:

The conference, which has been held over two days for the past eight years and has featured 24 classes each year, has slimmed down in every respect for the coming year. The entire conference will be contained on Saturday and the number of classes will be trimmed to a more manageable 18. The cost of the conference has also been reduced to $65, including lunch on Saturday in the Hollins dining room.

This year’s featured topic is blogging and there will be three classes held for those interested in beginning a blog or improving the one they have (including increasing the following). Other classes will deal with storytelling, fiction, biography, memoir, converting a manuscript to the stage, editing, publishing (traditional and self-publishing), and poetry.

 

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Saturday, January 23, 2016 [snow date January 30]

All classes will be held in the Dana Science Building.

[#12 on the campus map]  Continue reading “January 23: Roanoke Regional Writers Conference”

My Tips in Seattle’s ‘Marketing’

Thanks to publisher Larry Coffman for sharing my writing tips in the November issue of Marketing:

• Neil’s Notes: Good friend and author (The Longest Shot) offers these five sensible steps in the writing process for writers of any ilk:

  1. Ideas: Brainstorm. Get them out of your head. Many will stink.
  2. Research. Collect information. Observe the world. Talk to people.
  3. Notes and Outline. Get organized. Shape the material you’ve collected. Get ready to write. 
  4. Rough Draft. This is where you write everything down, so to speak. Get the story out; don’t edit yet.
  5. Rewrite, edit and polish. This step is self-explanatory. If your writing was woodwork, this is the chiseling and sanding stage and where you add a finishing coat.