Sunday, August 1, 2010

Nonfiction Panel: The Rock Stars of Nonfiction, Part 1

Here are a few key insights and habits these great writers shared:

Susan Campbell Bartoletti starts her research in libraries, and has six times as many library cards as credit cards. These libraries have databases and other sources you can't find anywhere else. But she also travels to the places she's writing about, and even spent time at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

She has a secret for knowing when to stop researching: "When the facts begin to repeat themselves, that's when I know it's time to begin writing." (Sometimes research can be a sophisticated form of procrastination.)

Deborah Heiligman: Almost all of her sources are primary. She read Darwin's autobiography and a two-volume set of letters from Emma's family. A line in one of Emma's letters made her cry. "I knew I was hooked. I got absolutely passionately attached to both Charles and Emma."

Tanya Lee Stone calls extreme research "detective work." You have to let go of not knowing what you're going to find and whether it's going to fit into the story you're going to tell. Before she started researching ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, she kept coming across obscure mentions of women who almost became astronauts and got interested; tracking down the women was a big challenge. She interviews lots of people to enhance her baseline research. You want to learn all you can before you interview people, though.

Elizabeth Partridge spoke about connecting with an editor. With nonfiction, you generally send a cover letter, a sample chapter, and an outline. Crafting that forces you to get some clarity on the research you've done (even if your book changes as it's written and polished). She's also used photographs to engage an editor's imagination.

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