• Arnie Bernstein

Writing Your Narrative Nonfiction Book: Part 1-Finding Your Story

Over these next three weeks you'll learn the building blocks of creating your narrative nonfiction book. This week we're looking at how to find your story. Week 2 will be an in-depth exploration on research techniques. Week 3 will conclude by showing you how it all comes together, including structure, character, plotting, and citing your sources.


Let's Get Started

You have probably heard the authorly advice “write what you know.” I disagree. Rather, I say, “write what interests you.” If something grabs your attention, and demands you explore it, chances are you’ll have what you’re looking for.

That said, you’ll have plenty of false starts. I know I’ve had my share. Many gung-ho ideas turned into dead ends for assorted reasons. It takes a lot of patience, coupled with doggedness and sometimes sheer will to find the narrative nonfiction story that’s right for you.

How It Begins

My first book Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies is a classic example of a “happy accident.” During a trip to New York, I came upon a used-book sale at a neighborhood branch library. Library books sales are something I can’t resist, a call more tempting to me than the Sirens were to Odysseus.

Amidst piles of old Steven King novels and all three volumes of the 50 Shades of Crap trilogy, a title jumped out to me: The Movie Lover’s Guide to New York. It was a combination history and guidebook, recounting the story of Manhattan and surrounding boroughs through its movies, ranging from the silent era to modern filmmaking.

Thanks to this book I was able to track down beloved sites where the movie madman in me could pay homage. In no specific order, I went to the bar where Griffin Dunne sought refuge in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours; the old setting of the original West Side Story, now the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; and—in a Holy Grail for me—the Astoria movie studio where the Marx Brothers shot The Coconuts and Animal Crackers. It was a thrilling way to explore the mosaic that is New York.


Sweet Home, Chicago: Movies, War, and Connections

Studio entrance to Essanay Studios, now a historical landmark.

When I got back to Chicago, I searched for a similar kind of book. The Windy City’s cinema past is just as wide-ranging as New York’s. We are not limited to The Blues Brothers or any number of John Hughes movies. The buildings that formerly housed two silent-era film studios—Essanay and Selig Polyscope—still stand in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. More than a century later, they still look essentially as they did in the 1910s. Charlie Chaplin filmed His New Job, a 1915 short, at the Essanay Studios on Argyle Street. You don’t get more movie historic than that.

And there was more. Well-known buildings and neighborhoods were settings for everything from 1940s crime pictures, to 1950s and 1960s indie productions, to small and large Hollywood films from the 1970s through the 1990s, to the monster blockbusters the 2000s like The Dark Knight and Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. Add to that a plethora of today’s smaller films and series television productions. All this, plus the low budget-no budget Grade Z horror films of shlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis (who later became a guru in the direct marketing business).

Chicago had a bounty of film history—and yet it lacked an in-depth account. This was an epic saga scattered in library archives, old newspaper clippings, a few websites, and stories traded at neighborhood saloons. I was shocked that none of this was chronicled in book form. So why not do it myself? Thus was the birth of Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100+ Years of Chicago and the Movies.

This was no “happy accident” after all. Rather, it was a wedding of my dual passions for Chicago history and movie geekdom, inspired by a chance encounter at a New York book sale.

My second book born from a trifecta love for local history (once again), the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln. My city was an important center for the Union during the Civil War years, including national support hubs for Northern troops, a notorious Confederate POW camp, the machinations of Chicago’s infamous political gamesmanship which transformed Lincoln from dark horse candidate to America’s greatest president, and antebellum memorials that still stand today.

It was perfect material for another history-based guidebook. As with Hollywood on Lake Michigan, I took the stories scattered across various sources, and then collated them into a singular history which became The Hoofs and Guns of the Storm: Chicago’s Civil War Connections.


From Guidebooks to Narrative

Now that my writing palate was expanded, it was time for me to tackle a comprehensive story beyond narrative guidebooks What I needed was a rousing narrative filled with compelling characters and events. All I had to do was find it, a task easier said than done. This is where chance, coupled with targeted exploration came into play.

Like you, I enjoy trolling the internet in search of anything that catches my fancy. One of my favorite sites is Find a Grave, a comprehensive web catalog of necropolises from around the world and their permanent residents. You can get lost on this site, an endless archive of the final resting places for the celebrated, the infamous, and the everyday people who make history happen.

One day I saw something on the site called The Bath School Disaster memorials, which were located throughout the state of Michigan. It was an extensive list of graves for the children and adults who died on May 18, 1927 when a madman exploded a cache of dynamite he had methodically hidden beneath the local consolidated school in small town of Bath, Michigan, about 13 miles from the state capital of Lansing.


The “A-ha!” Moment

It was a shot to my writer’s solar plexus. This was an incredible story, yet one that had fallen into the cracks of history. The deadliest school killing in American history. Thirty-eight children killed, along with four adults (two teachers, the school superintendent, and the local postmaster), plus the killer and his wife. How could such a story be forgotten?

I knew this was something I had to write about. It fell into my lap out of sheer, dumb luck. But was that really the case? Consider my first two books. They were both born out of passions. But so was this one. Two of my favorite books are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. They are masterpieces of narrative nonfiction told via the true crime genre by two of America’s boldest authors.

Both Capote and Mailer explore a similar idea: how a devastating crime affects life in a small American town. It was a territory that I wanted to investigate as well.


Let the Research Begin!

So now, thanks to a glorious website, I had my story. Now it was time to follow the trail into the world of deep research. It was the only way I could turn this story into an expanded narrative nonfiction tale. Just where and how does a narrative nonfiction writer start digging? I’ll delve into that and much more in my next blog post.

See you in a week. In the meantime, email me with any questions or jot a few comments below.

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