“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” – The Truth About Nonfiction, With Deborah Heiligman

Originally Published: Feb. 1, 2011

by Emily Goodman

Members of the Metro-NY SCBWI who braved the cold on December 13, 2010, were treated to an intimate and inspiring talk with writer Deborah Heiligman on how to craft narrative nonfiction from primary sources, as part of the Tuesday Professional Lecture Series. Heiligman, who was filling in for the originally scheduled speaker, Ellen Levine, said how much she’d been inspired by Levine’s books.

Her title – “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” – had two meanings. First, Heiligman stressed, “narrative nonfiction uses all the elements of fiction – scenes, characters, story arc and dialogue – without making anything up.” And second, the truth is sometimes more surprising, and makes a better book, than anything writers could invent.

Because it’s often difficult to create a good story without making stuff up, Heiligman explained that sometimes it’s necessary to “finesse” things. For example, “as good as it might be, you can’t have someone say something on their deathbed that they actually said in the middle of their life.” But writers can creatively “restructure” their information. “If it makes a more compelling story arc, that deathbed scene might include a flashback to the midlife quote, thus bringing it into the end of the book.”

Where to get your information about historical topics? Heiligman strongly urged using primary sources such as letters and contemporary newspaper articles, rather than secondary sources written later. Using her own award-winning book Charles and Emma as an example, Heiligman said her sources were mainly a 2-volume set of Emma Darwin’s letters, Charles Darwin’s autobiography, and other letters, journals and diaries – all primary sources – not the voluminous amount of material written by scholars about the Darwins. “I met Charles and Emma myself,” she said. “So I got to develop my own theories about them instead of following someone else’s opinions.”

She used Charles and Emma to illustrate how she turned bits of letters and diary entries from different people into a single scene. “Keep your eye out for scenes and dialogue while you’re researching,” Heiligman advised. “It’s very hard to find dialogue from dead people, so if you find some, do your best to get it into your book.”

Writers, she added, are like rats looking through a dung heap for something sparkly – but the ‘sparkly’ still has to fit into the book’s theme. “I had a mantra: ‘It’s a love story,’” Heiligman said about Charles and Emma. “Everything had to be in service to the love story.” She suggested writers develop a mantra or theme for their books; anything that doesn’t fit doesn’t belong in the book. To develop your own mantra, “Go into your research with an open mind.You never know what you’re going to find.” And recalling the second meaning of her lecture title, Heiligman ended with, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

Emily Goodman’s picture book Plant Secrets is the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Book of the Year for 2009. Follow Emily on Facebook!

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