Since January I’ve been working on a picture book based on a real event. Like almost everything I’ve written up to this point, I was sure it was historical fiction. But at critique group a few weeks back, Uma Krishnaswami showed me that wasn’t the case.
Have you invented scenes? Uma asked.
How about dialogue?
None of that either. I’ve only used conversations I’ve found in my research.
Then you’re writing non-fiction, she said.
It sounds kind of goofy I had no idea the “biography-ish historical” I thought I was writing was actually something else. Looking back to my research, the non-fiction classification makes the most sense: I’d spent weeks creating a very detailed timeline of events (with a simplified version to hang on my office wall). I wanted to only hint at emotions I knew the people in the story had expressed themselves. All facts I included would be absolutely true. So why was the idea of writing non-fiction so surprising to me?
Because that’s not what I do. And new things are scary.
Uma has reminded me I’m a storyteller. That story is just as essential to non-fiction as it is fiction. That now that I’ve done my research, it’s time to set it aside and get down to weaving a tale — one that’s true but not weighed down or worried about every last detail. Her advice echoes something I read recently in Jeannine Atkins’s Views from a Window Seat: Thoughts on Writing and Life:
Once I get my facts straight, once I’ve described, say, a bird, with the slant of every feather distinct, I shut my eyes and listen for what flies, flutters, or falls.
Jeannine is talking about poetry, but the heart of what she’s saying is the same: We can’t stop at the facts. We need to find what lives in the words — must unearth the story within.