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  • Writer's pictureArnie Bernstein

Writing Your Narrative Nonfiction Book: Part 3-The Writing Process

In Part I of this series we looked at how to find your story. Part II looked at how to do research. Now that you’ve gathered copious amounts of research material, it’s time to dive into the pile. You’re ready to craft that research into a solid manuscript.

Grab a notebook, red pen, highlighter, and Post-Its. Start reading. Mark the things that stand out. Make notes about what grabs you. Find what is unique. Look for recurring patterns and themes. Find the commonalities between the information within your myriad of sources.

The Five (okay, six) W’s

What you’re looking for is the journalist’s foundation of The Five W’s: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Add to that the sixth W: How. As case study, let’s consider the W’s that were the bedrock for my book Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing.

1.Who: The Characters

In my case, main characters encompassed the killer, his victims, their families, and other survivors of the bombing. Ancillary figures included law enforcement and first responders, school board members (as the killer was also on the school board), other townspeople, and journalists who covered the bombing in the days that followed May 18, 1927.

You're looking for physical appearance and character traits. This includes how the character moves through time and space. Does she wear a particular hairstyle? Does he walk with a limp? Are there routine habits via interactions with others? These elements are often the easiest to find, as many written sources rely on these descriptions. Pay attention to photographs as well: these are primary resources for someone's physical appearance.

2. What: The Action and Scenes of the Narrative

What happens between characters? What are major and minor events that add to the big picture of your narrative? These are guideposts that keep your plot on a forward trajectory.

Sometimes I found a version of a story told from a different point of view. For example, it was well known that before he committed his crime, the villain of Bath Massacre killed a neighbor’s dog. I found three versions of the tale, all of which rang true. In this case, I included all three, which made the story all that more compelling. Here’s how I did it:

Yet there were moments that revealed a darker edge to Andrew Kehoe. David Harte discovered this early on. The Hartes, like many farm families, let their dogs have the run of their land. One of the family pets, a terrier, enjoyed scampering in the front yard where the Harte home faced the Kehoe residence. After a hard day of yipping and yapping, the dog usually came home. But in March of 1920, nearly a year after the Kehoes moved to Bath, the terrier went missing.

Various stories were told about what happened to the dog. According to one account, Kehoe claimed he shot the dog accidentally. Another had Lulu asking Kehoe if he had seen the dog. Yes, he told her, the terrier was burying a bone along the fence on Kehoe’s property and he shot the damned nuisance. A third story had Lulu coming back from a trip to Lansing with Nellie. The dog was poisoned, and Lulu knew in her heart that Kehoe had killed it.

Regardless of how it died, it is a given that Kehoe killed the dog. There was no dustup over the incident. Kehoe and Harte still spoke as neighbors and farmers, often helping one another thresh their crops.

Lulu Harte, however, no longer offered Nellie Kehoe rides to Lansing.

3. Where/When/How: The Place, Time Frame, and Unfolding of Events

These are the basic elements of narrative. In my case, the majority of my “where” is a small town in rural Michigan; the “when” is the 1920s. “How” is more detailed: I needed daily life of the townspeople, the school kids, and the killer. The answers to these questions were all found in my research materials.

4. Why: The Motivations and Interior World of the Characters

Your “whys” can be both self-evident and/or elusive. It’s easy to follow what motivates kids to go to school or what drives rescuers to save victims.

Sometimes you can even get inside the mind of your characters. In my case, one witness at the inquest told the panel that he had a bad cold on the morning of the bombing and his head felt like “I stepped into a hole.” Here’s how that came to life in my book:

On his farm west of town, Job Sleight worked on his morning chores. His head was throbbing; He was fighting off a bad cold with little success. “My head feels like I stepped into a hole,” he thought. But, headache or no headache, chores had to be completed.

In other cases, it’s not so easy. One of the biggest issues I faced in writing Bath Massacre was finding the killer’s motivation. The only statement he left in the wake of his crime was a sign posted on the edge of his farm: “Killers are made, not born.” Not much to go on there.

There were many accounts which suggested that he blew up the school in revenge for the high taxes. This made no sense. The taxes may have been a catalyst, but to wire a school with six hundred pounds of explosives to murder children and burn down his farm are not the actions of someone upset about taxes. There had to be deeper interior reason, certainly one beyond my understanding.

Ask an Expert

I approached criminology specialists, but any psychiatrist who agreed to speak with me wanted an upfront expert witness fee far beyond my budget. Consequently, I consulted books written by top people in the field of unsettled minds. I found my answer in the book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us by Dr. Robert D. Hare. Hare, an authority in what is deemed psychopathic behavior, developed a checklist, based on his work with mentally disturbed individuals. His psychopathy checklist applies to all range of dangerous people, from a modern office bully who enjoys tormenting coworkers to the killer who blew up a school in 1927.

The common thread among psychopaths is an ability to lead a secret double life, have no sense of responsibility or remorse, and blame others for their actions. This was a perfect analysis of my book’s villain. In the terminology of the psychopathy checklist, he took no responsibility for his horrendous actions, and held the firm belief that others pushed him to commit such a devastating crime. Psychopathy was the key to his last words: killers are made, not born.

A Quick Aside on Story Versus Plots & Subplots

Before we go further, a word about story and plot, two terms that are often confused. “Story” tells readers who your characters are, what they do, and where they do it. “Plot” is the how, when, and why of character action. “Subplots” are smaller moments that comprise the overall plot of your narrative.

Map of the Story Arc

The Story Arc

Now that I had the Ws all cataloged, it was time to give shape and order to my material. This is where the story arc comes into play. The arc is vital to any written work, be it narrative nonfiction or a short story or novel. There are five sections within the arc:

  1. Exposition: The setup for Who, Where, and When. Exposition gives your reader the basic information needed so they understand what the story is about and where it will lead. In my case, this was the introduction to the townspeople and the history of Bath.

  2. Rising Action: The catalyst for what gets your story moving. It’s the events and/or situations that propels your narrative along its trajectory. This element is also known as “inciting incident.” The rising action for Bath Massacre was a series of occurrences after the killer moved to town, and his presence became known—for better and for worse—among all.

  3. Climax: the pinnacle where actions and subplots collide. The climax was obvious in Bath Massacre: the explosion at the school, subsequent rescue efforts, and the killer’s death by suicide bomb in his truck.

  4. Falling Action: what happens in the wake of the climax. This can take place in a brief period of time or—as in the example of Bath Massacre—over the course of years. In my falling action, I wrote about how people came together in the wake of this unspeakable crime, the reactions and help received from others, and how victims coped over the years.

  5. Conclusion: Where the different elements of story and plot come to a natural denouement. For Bath Massacre, this is how the crime still unites the people, and the continuing importance of memory so that victims are never forgotten.

Within this overall arc are what we call mini-arcs. They follow the same sequence as the main arc but are broken down into smaller developments. This are the chapters of your book or scenes in your script. When put together, the mini-arcs constitute the overall development of your narrative.

Outlining the Arc: Writing in Butter

Once you have established the arc you should develop several outlines. The first is for your complete narrative. Then drill down to create an outline for each chapter. These outlines are the roadmaps for writing.

That said, you should give yourself a little wiggle room to change your outlines if necessary. A TV producer I once worked with gave me advice that I still take to heart: write outlines in butter, not stone. In other words, be flexible. Let the writing tells you where it wants to go. If your writing session heads in a different direction than originally intended, follow where the creativity takes you. You can always go back and change things in the rewrite phase.

The Drafting Process: An Author’s Juggling Act

Unless you are blessed with enormous amounts of time and considerable cash, you need to continue researching as you write. Sometimes you will find you have questions about action or dialogue or sequencing in your narrative. Or maybe you need more background information to make a scene work.

This is why you continue to research while you write. That’s a juggling act and not an easy one, but standard operating procedure for almost every narrative nonfiction author.

When I wrote my book Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and The Rise & Fall of the German-American Bund, I found a new story and character literally hours before my deadline. Two years of research and writing were boiled into a tight manuscript but this unexpected element—a repentant American Nazi testifying before a congressional hearing—added an important layer to the overall story. I drafted and edited the new material at a furious pace, found the right slot to insert the scene, and completed the final manuscript just in time for submission.

This three-part series is culled from my many years in the narrative nonfiction genre. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the process. You can leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments section, shoot me an email or let me know on Twitter @RealArnieB.


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