How do writers keep nonfiction lively? Often, we adopt fictional strategies to tell our nonfiction stories. We think about characterization, setting, and plot arc. We often, like fiction writers, try to show an event rather than simply telling what happened.
Of course, the problem for a nonfiction writer is that her toolbox is limited to what actually happened. Dialogue is one of the most difficult parts of story-telling for nonfiction writers to deal with. Of course historical characters had conversations. Sometimes those conversations have been written down in letters or diaries or autobiographies or memoirs. Writers love to find these snatches!
But often, writers are left without any record of direct conversation. How do you create a story without conversation?
I was fascinated by the contrast in my experience reading two books about Irena Sendler, both published in 2011: Irena’s Jar of Secrets, by Marcia Vaughan, published by Lee and Low; and Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, by Susan Goldman Rubin, published by Holiday House.
Irena’s Jar of Secrets is lively (a hallmark of Lee & Low books!). It moves from scene to scene, plunging us into the action of Irena’s life with vivid snapshots. We see Irena struggling to save Jewish children from the Nazis and hear her conversations with the people around her. I was deeply absorbed in the book and moved by the story.
When I opened up Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, I found it hard to get into the story. The narrative voice was much drier and more authoritative. The words were dense on every page. Yet after just a few pages, I was deeply drawn into the story. I found myself stopping to go back and look at the other book, realizing that my trust in its accuracy was being eroded. All that dialogue–where did it come from?
Sure, the narrative voice in Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto was more off-putting and I felt like I was seeing the scenes at a remove rather than feeling myself in the midst of them, but all the dialogue in the book was carefully reproduced from historical records and faithfully attributed.
You can see the difference in two passages telling the same story. Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto tells the story very carefully:
Persuading parents and grandparents to give up their children was often difficult. A mother might say yes, but then the father would say no. “The one question every parent asked me was ‘Can you guarantee they will live?” recalled Irena. “We had to admit honestly that we could not, as we did not even know if we could succeed in leaving the ghetto that day. The only guarantee was the children would most likely die if they stayed.”
We hear the story from the distance of Irena’s reminiscences. Irena’s Jar of Secrets, by contrast, plunges us into the scene. It’s easy to see how the lines of dialogue came from the above quote from Irena, but it’s equally easy to see that they were invented:
Mrs. Wolman’s face was wet with tears. “if we give you our daughter, can you promise us she’ll live?”
“No,” Irena said. “But if she stays here she will surely die.”
“How will we get back together when the war is over?” Mr. Wolman asked.
“I’ll keep your child’s real name and new identity on a secret list so you can find her, ” Irena promised the worried parents.
The second passage is much easier to read, but I trust it much less than the first passage. At places where there were discrepancies between the two books, I trusted Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto over Irena’s Jar of Secrets.
Writers sometimes agonize between these two poles–should they choose lively, accessible writing or trustworthy historical accuracy?
But this is a false choice! Writers can turn to other tools in their toolbox (especially paying attention to narrative voice) if they don’t have quotations to use in the story. But if he has exhausted the other tools at her disposal, and the writer still feels strongly that dialogue is necessary to telling the story, he can own up to what he has invented.
More recent Lee & Low books do exactly that. In 2012, Alan Schroeder’s Baby Flo tells the reader in a note at the beginning of the book:
Reliable information about her early yeas is limited, and some details and dialogue have been imagined for storytelling purposes.
Don Tate’s It Jes’ Happened also has a note for the reader at the beginning of the book:
In crafting this biography, I relied on the most authentic sources available, my knowledge of the communities in which Traylor lived, and the realities of society at the time.
Other publishers also provide notice to readers when dialogue has been invented. Candace Fleming regularly alerts her readers to any inventions in her picture books. In 2013 in Papa’s Mechanical Fish (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) she has a back matter section entitled “It’s Almost True”. In it, she lays out her historical sources and shows the primary sources she used, at the same time acknowledging, “While this story is fiction, it is based on true events.” Being open about the ways we shape nonfiction expresses confidence in our readers.
Sue Macy’s 2014 book Roller Derby Rivals (Holiday House) titles one section of the Back Matter, “An Important Notice from the Author and Illustrator”:
Thanks to press coverage and interviews given by various Roller Derby stars, we know quite a bit about the Roller Derby’s seventeen-day run in New York City late in 1948. But since no TV footage of play-by-play narraive of the December 5 match portrayed in this book survives, we have done our best to re-create it as realistically as possible. All dialogue and skating action are dramatizations based on our research.
She’s right; this IS an “important notice.” I don’t mind leaving it up to the librarian to decide whether Roller Derby Rivals is nonfiction or historical fiction, but I appreciate Macy trusting me, the reader, enough to tell me what is invented and to discuss why she made that craft choice.