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Narrative nonfiction

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Several editors and one agent have asked me to turn several of my nonfiction picture book manuscripts into "narrative nonfiction". I thought I knew what narrative nonfiction was, but I'm beginning to think I don't. I have no idea of how to do this with these particular manuscripts. Can anyone can help?

One manuscript features a variety of animals that have a certain trait in common, but I have no idea how to link these animals together in a narrative. Has anyone else had to do this? I need some help in coming up with some ideas. I don't want to fictionalize the manuscript, just turn it into a nonfiction narrative.

Thanks. Any help would be appreciated.
#1 - February 26, 2015, 12:04 PM
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Hi Betsy,
I'm working on my second narrative non-fiction for a publisher.  The first was a picture book biography.  I was told it had to be a compelling, fast-moving narrative that moved along a narrative arc.  My editor wanted as much dialogue as I could include (taken from quotes, interviews, etch).

The second is a chapter book about a historical event.  Again, I was told it had to be compelling and each chapter (different participants in the event) has to have a narrative arc.  Plus it had to have lots of sensory details to help the reader visualize the text.  My editor brought up the issue of "plausible" dialogue: dialogue that could be inferred to have happened.  The non-fiction writer in me has some trouble with this, but I am trying to adapt.   

I'm still grappling with this idea as well and I don't know how it would apply to the manuscript you are describing. 
#2 - February 26, 2015, 12:27 PM
Rebecca Langston-George
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Thanks, Rebecca. It's not historical, it's science--and that makes it harder, I think. I guess I really don't want to fictionalize it.
#3 - February 26, 2015, 12:50 PM
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I'm at a loss too, Betsy. I remember one editor asking me to fictionalize something and I just couldn't. The real story was far more compelling ... I made a case for it and got to do my version (the truth). It was a biographical piece.

But most NF already has a built-in arc if you're writing bios or events, but not if you are doing a thematic collection.

Okay, as I'm writing this, a book a friend wrote about Nocturnal animals comes to mind. It's very poetic and it's what I'd called Narrative NF http://www.amazon.com/Im-Nocturnal-How-about-You/dp/1590920643/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424988296&sr=8-1&keywords=jennifer+sy+heger  From beginning to end, you are getting closer and closer to the house. I won't spoil the ending, but it's really lovely.

Vijaya

#4 - February 26, 2015, 02:12 PM
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Oh, good. I'll take a look at that, Vijaya.

Yes, if this were a bio it would be easier.
#5 - February 26, 2015, 02:17 PM
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Ellen, IMO to create narrative nonfiction from a book about "a variety of animals" you would have to create SEVERAL narratives, one for each animal, unless they happened to live in the same place (I'm assuming not).

My favorite narrative nonfiction about animals are the books of Holling Clancy Holling, though of course those aren't picture books--"Minn of the Mississippi" and "Pagoo."

I've heard good things about "Star of the Sea" but haven't read it--actually just requested it from my library.
#6 - February 26, 2015, 04:07 PM
Harold Underdown

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Betsy, take a look at "Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes" by Nicola Davies. I'm not sure if it's exactly what you're looking for, but I would say it ties in a narrative as the reader explores microbes. I thought it was a great book and it's a recent one - 2014.
#7 - February 26, 2015, 07:15 PM

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Well, you've got me thinking, Harold. These aren't animals that overlap much, and the potential publisher doesn't want me to do several narratives (I kind of already did that).

BUT I might be able to connect them through a time traveling narrative device. The trick is to make it flow in a natural way and not seem gimmicky. It may be something that sounds great in my head, but doesn't work on paper. Wouldn't be the first time...   ::-)


I absolutely will take a look at the books you're all recommending. So far:

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes
Star of the Sea
I'm Nocturnal, How about You?

Thanks, dks and everybody else.


#8 - February 26, 2015, 07:46 PM
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I'm having a hard time imagining how that would work, but then I'm just an editor.... Good luck with it! I hope you'll be happy with the result.
#9 - February 26, 2015, 08:26 PM
Harold Underdown

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I agree, Harold! The animals in the manuscript have a certain trait in common, which might serve as a theme.

Betsy! I know all the definitions for narrative nonfiction might be difficult to transfer to your craft. I have come to think of it as fact-based storytelling or using the elements of fiction to tell the story revealed in the facts.

#10 - February 27, 2015, 08:26 AM
« Last Edit: February 27, 2015, 08:28 AM by RebeccaGAguilar »

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I've been confused by narrative NF, too. I hear the term a lot, but I'm still not sure what it means. I think BOMB might be considered narrative NF, but that's an MG (fascinating though).

I like your time traveling device idea. Could you break the fourth wall and talk to the reader? Something like, "If you had a phone (or watch or tablet or whatever) that wandered through time, where would you go? I'd go to (whenever). Set your phone to (whatever time you want). Let's go!"

I don't know maybe that's just gimmicky. How about someone with some sort of issue that ties in with your topic finds a traveling device that takes her different places that help with her issue. Sort of tying the past in with life today.

This is tough.
#11 - February 27, 2015, 08:40 AM

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I agree! Steve Sheinkin is an author who utilizes the elements of story to great effect.

Lynn Cherry's picture books might serve as good mentor texts, too. Fantastic use of characterization, setting, plot in THE SEA, THE STORM, AND THE MANGROVE TANGLE.
#12 - February 27, 2015, 09:14 AM

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I've been confused by narrative NF, too. I hear the term a lot, but I'm still not sure what it means. I think BOMB might be considered narrative NF, but that's an MG (fascinating though).


I thought of this^ very book when I read your initial post, Ellen.
When Truman Capote kept hammering that his In Cold Blood was a "non-fiction novel," and that it was a revolutionary thing no one understood, he may have been at the cusp of what is now everywhere. No one wants to read anything that is not a page-turner anymore. Even some textbooks have gone in this direction. My kids kept one of theirs from HS because it was "so much fun to read."
Facts must be strung as a story with suspenseful narration. I think this is what your publisher is after.
I have no doubt that if anyone can, you can do it.  :clover
#13 - February 27, 2015, 09:25 AM
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Thanks, everybody. I'm making a list and ordering some of these from the library. My ms. has some of the same kind of humor that Steve Sheinkin does so well (at least, I hope it does).

I appreciate your confidence, 217.
#14 - February 27, 2015, 10:02 AM
« Last Edit: February 27, 2015, 10:18 AM by Betsy »
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Chiming in a little late, but I thought of another narrative nonfiction book that ties in lots of different animals. "What to Expect When You're Expecting (Larvae)" is a fun take on the popular pregnancy book, but applied to insects. I wondered how it was first sold, since most kids probably wouldn't be in on the Pregnancy Book joke, but it is fun and holds together really well.
#15 - February 27, 2015, 01:32 PM
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That's hilarious, Julie.

The thing about picture books is that there's usually a bored mom or dad reading the book to the child, and it's nice to throw in some adult humor for the parent now and then.

I'll have to take a look at that!
#16 - February 27, 2015, 01:44 PM
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Julie, I should have thought of that title, since it was written by a friend of mine, Bridget Heos! There are others in the series, too: WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING HATCHLINGS, WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING JOEYS.
#17 - February 27, 2015, 02:01 PM
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I don't think that narrative nonfiction is a new thing--the Romans were writing it. It's just the label, and the conscious aim of creating something that can receive that label, that is new...
#18 - February 27, 2015, 03:26 PM
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I write narrative nonfiction.  The stories I write have a beginning, middle and end.  I just read Bomb and found it captivating (but scary at the end).  It's definitely a more complex narrative nonfiction story with three threads and lots of characters.  It sounds like you have a bunch of animals that are not connected, so I agree with Harold that it will be difficult to merge all of that into one story if there is nothing in common.  Can you make a story out of each of them individually?  Owen and Mzee is a story about two different animals, but their friendship was what they had in common.   :goodluck    :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2 :snowman2  (we've been inundated with snow, can you tell?)
#19 - March 02, 2015, 01:21 PM

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I'll just throw another couple of examples out there: Melissa Stewart's NO MONKEY, NO CHOCOLATE. Or something like LOOK UP, BIRDWATCHING IN YOUR OWN BACK YARD. Also, Kate Messner's OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW has a (fictional) narrative while focusing on a number of winter animals.

For your book, unless you can focus on a scientist, adding a narrative might be adding a fictional element, but that sounds like what the publisher wants.

Let us know what you come up with. I'm curious.

Kirsten
#20 - March 03, 2015, 05:39 AM
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I too have a nonfiction PB that an editor wants me to "fictionalize."  Oh, my.  If I were good at writing fiction, I would be writing it.  I truly love nonfiction and every time I try to make this piece narrative nonfiction, it feels very much like fiction to me. I have trouble with inventing and naming characters and calling it any kind of nonfiction.  Makes my head spin around backward. Since she loves the piece, I would like to try to write it, but am still struggling with the concept.
#21 - March 12, 2015, 01:26 PM

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Check out books by Barbara Kerley -- for story arc and flow / pace. I realize they are about people but they are great examples of narrative nonfiction. She teaches a workshop on it for Highlights Foundation.

The first thing that came to mind when I read this thread is -- Charly the Lonesome Cougar -- remember that from years ago - on The Walt Disney Show?
That strikes me as being a narrative nonfiction piece about an animal.
#22 - March 13, 2015, 05:08 AM

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 :thankyou This is a really helpful thread. Everyone chimes in with such useful suggestions. I'm new to the boards and currently also working on a narrative non-fiction PB. It's about honey bees, told from the perspective of one of the workers in the hive. Originally I had the bees speaking, but when I attended a workshop on Nature Writing at Highlights, many of the editors/published authors said no talking allowed in non-fiction. So I rewrote it, removing speech.

Will check out all the wonderful suggestions. Is there a narrative non-fiction critique group on one of these boards? Would love to learn more by reading works in progress by others and participating in an active group. I have a PhD in biology, do science writing for adults, and am trying to learn as much as I can about the craft of writing for children.

-Kirsten
#23 - March 20, 2015, 06:21 PM

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I had surgery this week, so writing hasn't been foremost in my mind. But I've made notes of all the suggestions, and I've reserved a number of the books mentioned here at the library. Once again, thank you for all your great ideas.
#24 - March 20, 2015, 07:52 PM
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Heal quickly, Betsy! And thanks for asking an interesting question, one I've wondered about, too.

In trying to understand how to write narrative nonfiction, I recently read the text  for the documentary March of the Penguins. It is storytelling at its best, with a beginning, middle and end, and yet it is totally nonfiction.
#25 - March 20, 2015, 08:07 PM

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Yes, heal up fast and healing time is reading time.  Another place you might find narrative nonfiction is old blog posts from Interesting Nonfiction for Kids.  Many of the participants of the I.N.K. blog write narrative nonfiction.  Look for their old posts where they write about craft.  Many of their books are stories, but not all.

http://inkthinktank.com/    :paint     :writing3     :goldstar
#26 - March 21, 2015, 05:33 AM
« Last Edit: March 21, 2015, 07:59 AM by lrzajac »

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Thanks for the suggestion, lrzajac. Yep, I'll do that. And I AM doing some reading.
#27 - March 21, 2015, 09:43 AM
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More healing wishes coming your way, Ellen.  :hug

 :flowers2
#28 - March 21, 2015, 10:38 AM
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I just got a contract for a science narrative nonfiction so am finding this thread very useful. I'm just at the outlining stage, but keeping in mind that I need conflict, an arc, maybe foreshadowing or flashbacks is very useful as I research and put the story together in my head.
#29 - March 22, 2015, 12:52 PM
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Narrative non-fiction is 100% non-fiction, it just reads like fiction.
#30 - June 30, 2015, 12:34 PM

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