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.”

Advertisements

When Speaking to Book Clubs, Do Like Bestselling Author Erik Larson

Erik Larson is one of my favorite authors. He lives in Seattle (my former home) and he writes narrative nonfiction. Not only have I enjoyed reading his books such as Isaac’s Storm and Devil in the White City, as a writer (and now author), I learned about research and storytelling from them.

Last week I stumbled onto his site and happened to read his policy on book clubs. Maybe all of us should adopt it.

ErikLarsonNote: I do attend book group meetings when circumstances permit, so please ask, especially if you know I’ll be passing through your part of the country. I have a couple of rules: First, I cannot be present during the actual critique of my book(s). I’m too thin-skinned and things might get ugly. Second, I don’t do prepared talks for book clubs, but I’ll answer any and all questions, and we’ll have a nice time. Third, I require that my host or hostess hand me a glass of excellent red wine as soon as I walk through the door.

Sounds like my kind of author and guy.

John Steinbeck and ‘East of Eden’

I have never read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I have made feeble attempts. This time I think I’ll do it. I’m about 100 pages into it.

I picked up East of Eden this past weekend. It was sitting on the book shelf, one of my wife’s book club books. I’ve always been a Steinbeck fan. I read him in my youth—The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, The Winter of Our Discontent, to name a few.

I like his stories. But I also like to read Steinbeck for his writing. I believe there is something to be gleaned from reading good writing. I’m convinced that it helps my own writing in some way. Good writing is good writing, whether fiction, non-fiction, direct mail, a blog, a newsletter article, a fundraising letter, or an ad.

I like to read as widely as possible for my enrichment and enjoyment. Steinbeck is a welcome diversion.

The last book I read was Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. And my next book (if I get through East of Eden) might be a biography about Amelia Earhart. My curiosity is piqued after seeing the Amelia film last Friday with my daughter.