A Story is a Story…Or is It?

fiction vs non-fictionBear with me for a moment please, and read this opening paragraph to a short story. You’ll soon get my point.

Saroo’s past haunted him.  In dreams or in quiet moments, images from more than 20 years earlier floated into his head – a bridge, a train station, a dam overflowing with water.  He saw himself as a young boy, running down dusty streets, over train tracks, to a mud hut that looked familiar.  A family lived there – his family. Occasionally Saroo saw their faces… his mother…his brothers…his sister. Were they still looking for him?  What happened to Guddu that day?

Now for a question:  Is this piece of writing fiction or is it non-fiction?

Although you might hazard a guess based on the unfamiliar names in the text, really both are possibilities.  There are no definitive clues to say for certain whether this is a fictional story or a true account, and that really is my point.

This paragraph is the opening to a story I recently wrote for a yet-to-be-titled non-fiction book for 9 to 14 year olds that will be released in 2014. It’s a true story about a real person – Saroo – who searches for a family he lost long ago.  Although the paragraph might read like fiction, the details that build the story are real.  The bridge, the dam, the family names are facts and Saroo’s quest to unravel the past really happened.

The paragraph is a small sample of creative non-fiction, a branch of writing that is sometimes so closely aligned with fiction that it can be difficult to tell them apart.  At the heart of both, though, is a well told story, only in the case of creative non-fiction that story is real. According to Lee Gutkind, a guru of creative non-fiction, the goal “is to make non-fiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.”

HindenburgCoverCreative non-fiction presents its own brand of thrills and challenges as I discovered when writing Surviving the Hindenburg (Sleeping Bear Press, 2012; illustrated by David Geister). The picture book tells the story of Werner Franz, the 14 year old cabin boy aboard the doomed airship that went down in flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. Even before I began writing the book, I faced an onslaught of questions and decisions.  Most are fairly typical for anyone wanting to write creative non-fiction for young people.

Q: Is this a ‘story’ in the narrative sense, and can it be told as a story? 

A:  Not all historical events have the necessary ingredients for storytelling.  Some fall flat – no ups, downs, curve balls, drama or standout characters who face problems and conquer them or became transformed in the process. This one had it all, though – a compelling protagonist (Werner), a problem situation (fire), an interesting setting (the interior of the zeppelin), rising action (efforts to escape), a climax (at last, a way out!), and a satisfying resolution (survival).

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Q: Is the story suitable for youngsters? Would it interest them?

A: The Hindenburg was the pride of the Nazi fleet and the larger story is a political one, set at time when the world was bracing for war. This side of the story might interest adults, but kids – not so much.  The story of a 14-year old boy who is trapped in a fiery airship that just happens to a rather famous one– now that’s a different matter. Telling Werner’s personal story within the context of the larger Hindenburg story would not only interest kids 8 years old and up, but also put them front and centre to a history-changing event.

Q: Is there access to research material?  Is there enough to flesh out details and tell a vibrant story?

A: Fortunately, the Hindenburg tragedy was well documented.  Film crews, reporters, broadcasters, and photographers were on site when the airship caught fire.  There was also a full investigation afterwards, and dozens of books, audiotapes and DVDs were available should I need them.  If anything, there was an overabundance of material, always a bonus for non-fiction writers striving for rich details.

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Q: If so much information exists, why bother writing yet another account?  What will be unique about this book? 

A: Werner’s story appears mostly in sidebars and footnotes. To my knowledge, it’s never been fleshed out in full detail in a picture book.  Furthermore, most accounts of the Hindenburg disaster are told from ground level, from observers outside the airship.  My story would be told from inside the airship, from the perspective of a single survivor.

Q: If the story occurs inside the Hindenburg, how will you handle descriptions of the interior when, aside from a few charred remnants, nothing of the great airship exists?  

A:  Knowing just where Werner was, and how he found his way out of the airship in the 32 seconds it took for Hindenburg to disintegrate was essential to the story.  Fortunately, blueprints, scale drawings and interior photos were all available for examination.  So, too, were a few experts who knew the Hindenburg like an old friend.

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Q: How will you handle dialogue?  It’s a 75 year old story.  Almost everyone involved has either died or is inaccessible.

A: Creative non-fiction demands accuracy.  For purists of the form there can be no invented dialogue, no invented scenes, and so this is a huddle to cross when dealing with historical material. To tell Werner’s story properly, I felt I needed to know what he was saying and thinking, and what motivated him to make the choices he did.  Fortunately, Werner Franz had been interviewed over the years for various newspapers, books and film productions.  He also kept a journal.  Werner’s own words furnished the dialogue and gave me the opportunity to hear his story first-hand.

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