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How much leeway?

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Hello,

I'm working on my first NF picture book biography, and I'm having trouble with the idea of including anything that isn't fully documented in my sources. I'm told that in NFPBs, there can be some assumptions made, but I'm a very black and white person, so I'm having trouble seeing where the line can be drawn.

Could someone who has published a NFPB bio give me some examples of things you included that weren't documented, per se, but still allowable?

Thank you!
#1 - October 02, 2015, 11:52 AM
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Starfish, the older NF bios have made up dialogue, to the point I'd call it historical fiction (and I love HF). I think both publishers and schools are getting away from that so I'd lean towards documenting everything you put in your biography (it's good to have 3 independent sources). Sometimes, there is a discrepancy and you can discuss it an author's note.

Good luck,
Vijaya
#2 - October 02, 2015, 01:33 PM
TEN EASTER EGGS (Cartwheel/Scholastic, 2015)
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Hi Vijaya,

Thanks for replying.

I didn't explain myself very well, but I wasn't talking about something clear cut like making up dialogue or something that didn't happen.

I'm talking about something like this: Say you found in your research that your MC went to Washington DC, visited the Washington Monument, and went to the top. So, presumably, you could write a scene where your MC is at the very top of the Monument, staring out onto the buildings, right? Even if there's nothing in the research about that exact moment. And if the MC visited DC before 1888, when an elevator was installed in the monument, you could assume she climbed the stairs to get to the top and write a scene where she's climbing stairs and her legs are burning, correct?

But, say she visited after 1888, and you don't know if she took the elevator or the stairs to get to the top. Could you assume she took the elevator, because most people would, and write the scene that way? Or if you only knew that she *went* to the monument (maybe there was a photo of her in front of it), but you don't know whether or not she went inside, could you assume she went inside because most people would? These are the kinds of assumptions I'm talking about. I was under the impression you couldn't make these assumptions because you didn't know for certain, but I've heard otherwise. I'd love to hear others' opinions.
#3 - October 02, 2015, 03:02 PM
« Last Edit: October 03, 2015, 07:44 AM by Sara »
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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I already love this thread! And I appreciate that you're concerned your research is accurate, Sara. That speaks well of you.

I'm thinking of my PB bios, and the first thought that comes to mind is that, unless I could actually find that specific detail, in the final edit, most of the information wasn't as specific as saying the subject's legs burned (using your example) when they climbed the stairs. There was too much important info to share and not enough space, so lots of the super-detailed bits got cut.

I'm not sure that's entirely what you're asking, though. Instead, I think you mean what can you reasonably assume occurred, given a certain set of circumstances. Still, that's all I've got. ;)

Not sure that's helpful for you, since your treatment of the subject might be totally different than the treatment my publishers wanted. Trade vs educational?

Many PB bios these days take a very specific event in a subject's life, which exemplifies who that person was/is, and discuss only that, rather than the birth-to-death bios of olden days. In that case, I can see where you might get as detailed as to discuss burning legs, etc.

Helpful like someone poking you with a stick, huh?  :poke
#4 - October 02, 2015, 03:40 PM
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Thanks for your response, Jody. And yes--
Quote
I think you mean what can you reasonably assume occurred, given a certain set of circumstances.
--this is more what I was asking. But maybe to go further, CAN you reasonably assume anything occurred when you're writing NF? I remember taking a class at Highlights Chautauqua, and listening to Carolyn Yoder, it didn't sound like she approved of anyone writing ANYTHING that wasn't fully documented.

As for the burning legs, there may not be room for that detail in my finished product, either, but my project is for a trade publisher, and in reading trade PB bios, I find a lot of these kind of details that are hard to believe were documented. They're often small, scene-setting details. So I'm wondering--is that kind of creative license approved of? And how far can you go with it?

#5 - October 02, 2015, 05:57 PM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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Oh, I see, Starfish. Well, if your historical figure wrote to somebody about the burning she felt in her legs, then, yes, it's a great detail to include, but without documentation, I wouldn't presume. What if she rested along the way and there was no burning?

I think in a first draft, you should just write the story and then when you revise, comb it for anything that may be questionable. An editor like Carolyn would definitely want documentation for everything that's in the book. That's why I love her so, and trust even the HF that comes from her imprint.

Vijaya
#6 - October 02, 2015, 06:01 PM
TEN EASTER EGGS (Cartwheel/Scholastic, 2015)
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Yep, if it were me, I wouldn't presume anything. Carolyn is a stickler for documented detail, and rightly so. If it wouldn't pass the Carolyn test, perhaps don't include it...?
#7 - October 02, 2015, 06:10 PM
PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK, IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS!, THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED
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I've run into this problem every time I've written historical nonfiction. I wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln's relationship with animals, for example. There were some wonderful stories about AL and a pig he owned when he was a child. But I had no confidence that the story was true as described, so I left it out--even though it was a good one. My own rule is that there should be two separate sources telling that a specific event or piece of dialogue happened before I'll include it.

I think it would be safe to describe the environment as it would have looked at the time, as you said--looking out from the Washington Monument. But I wouldn't create dialogue or feelings that hadn't actually made it into the historical record in some form. I wouldn't describe a burning in her legs--that feels to me like it's going a bit too far. Can you use weasel words and phrases like, "Some people think that..." or "She may have felt..." or "If she'd gone inside, she would have seen..."? Not too many or it gets a little tiresome, but a few are OK.

Anyway, good luck!
#8 - October 02, 2015, 06:41 PM
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Thanks for your responses, everyone. I appreciate the input.

Just to be clear, my project isn't in any way connected to Carolyn Yoder, and it doesn't have anything to do with the Washington Monument. :)

From what you're all saying, you wouldn't assume anything unless it was documented, and that's the way I feel, too. I just wondered if there were differing viewpoints out there, especially in the trade world of PB bios. After reading some of these published bios, it appears to me that there must be some leeway.
#9 - October 03, 2015, 07:59 AM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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Hi Sara,
This has been a great thread. I completely understand your question, because I have the same. And I agree, in many trade PB bios, it does seem like there are some assumptions made. But I haven't been published yet, so I don't know for certain. I feel like I have read somewhere, or in various workshops that I have taken, that you CAN assume things that are reasonable. For instance, if you have documentation that your subject said he was cold outside, you could write that he had goosebumps on his arm. If your subject was in Colonial times and wrote a lot, you could write that he set down his quill.

But I would love to see if other published authors chime in!
#10 - October 03, 2015, 09:59 AM

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Quote
I feel like I have read somewhere, or in various workshops that I have taken, that you CAN assume things that are reasonable. For instance, if you have documentation that your subject said he was cold outside, you could write that he had goosebumps on his arm. If your subject was in Colonial times and wrote a lot, you could write that he set down his quill.

Yes, I learned this in a workshop, and it didn't sit right with me, maybe in part because that's not what I learned from my magazine writing workshops. Plus, it just plain bothers me to assume things that might not be true--what if the MC was the kind of person who never got goosebumps? :) It's a tiny thing, but to detail-oriented me, it matters. But I'm wondering if it matters to trade editors.
#11 - October 03, 2015, 10:45 AM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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I'm getting goosebumps reading this thread. ;)

I bet Carolyn would be pleased to know she's the standard.
#12 - October 03, 2015, 11:45 AM
PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK, IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS!, THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED
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I would go into sensory detail if all people in that situation reacted that way.

In your example of the stairs or elevator, you don't know which one the person took. Some people may have taken the stairs. Others may have taken the elevator.  If you know for certain the elevator wasn't installed or wasn't working then you can write the character took the stairs. Otherwise, I'd skip that detail. "At the top...." 

Another example that was mentioned was the cold environment. If you are dressed warmly or working out in the cold, you aren't going to get goosebumps. However, it is likely you will have frosted breath or rosy cheeks. If your character is climbing a high mountain on a hot day, you can be pretty well assured that the person would be sweaty and tired at the top. That doesn't mean they downed a sandwich when they reached the peak.

I guess a basic rule would be not to make assumptions.  :fairywand :rainbow
#13 - October 06, 2015, 12:00 PM

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#14 - October 07, 2015, 11:18 AM

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Great blog post, dkshumaker! Thanks for sharing that.
#15 - October 07, 2015, 11:39 AM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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Thanks for starting this thread, Sara, and for the excellent link, dkshumaker! They're exactly what I needed to read right now!!

 :thankyou
#16 - October 13, 2015, 04:04 PM

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I've seen some very fictional PB biographies. One example is the Caldecott Honor book The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art. The note at the end says it's pretty much all made up.
#17 - October 13, 2015, 05:54 PM
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