Listen to the Voices: Writing Narrative Nonfiction
Rosetta D. Hoessli
The term ‘narrative nonfiction’ is really just a high-falutin’ way of saying that you’ve written a true story that reads like a novel. It sounds simple enough, but the process isn’t as easy as you might think.
While you’re fortunate to have your plot laid out for you (it is a true story, after all) and you already know that your facts must be thoroughly documented and well- organized, those aren’t the most challenging aspects of writing narrative nonfiction. The most difficult—and rewarding—part is ‘channeling’ each character through your own psyche and out onto the written page—and doing it truthfully.
Now, this isn’t really as spooky as it sounds. While you, the author, need to become each character in order to tell his/her story with drama and authenticity, there’s a procedure for this. It’s time-consuming and often exhausting for you to ‘find all the voices’ involved in your story, but as a ghostwriter and co-author, I swear by this technique.
The easiest way to begin this process, obviously, is to find out everything you can about your subject. If he’s famous or notorious enough for the internet to contain information about him, pour through it all. Track down his contacts through books, newspapers or magazine articles, then hit up each person willing to talk. Keep meticulous notes with every bit of information you can find. Begin an actual notebook (or a file on your computer) for each individual in your story and cram it full of details.
Then, begin the interview process with your main subject. This may take months, but look at it like you’re building a character in a novel, which is usually slow going. Transcribe each interview immediately after you’ve completed it, while the individual is still fresh in your mind, and add the transcript to his file.
As you transcribe each interview, add your own observations (far beyond the obvious). How does he laugh? What does his voice sound like? Does he have an accent? Perhaps he swears, uses unusual colloquialisms, drinks, smokes, talks with his hands. Is he comfortable in his surroundings? Is his handshake strong and reassuring, or soft and wimpy? Does he meet your eyes when he talks or does his gaze slide away from you like that of a sleazy car salesman?
Write down everything that occurs to you; you never know in the course of writing your book what you’re going to need. Place your notes at the appropriate segment in your transcribed interviews so that his way of expressing himself goes with your observations. Add as many candid photos of the individual as you can to his file, as well as pictures of his family, home, workplace, pets, favorite places to hang out. This will help you turn him into a real human being when you begin actually writing.
Tape record your own thoughts about this person right after each interview and then transcribe your recording. I find this to be far more effective than just writing down my impressions whenever the mood hits me, although I carry a notepad and recorder with me everywhere—in case I have an unexpected stroke of brilliance. Finally, keep your personal transcript and the transcript of your subject’s interview together so you don’t forget your sensory reactions (negative and positive) to him and his surroundings.
Writers of narrative nonfiction must remember that everyone has interesting flaws and foibles; no one is all good or all bad. If you do your homework and keep your notes organized so that you can immerse yourself in them when you begin the actual writing process, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to bring each character to life with truth and empathy.
*A freelance writer and editor, Rosetta D. Hoessli co-authored with Carolyn Huebner Rankin the narrative nonfiction book, Falling Through Ice (Crossover Publications LLC, Pearl, MS, 2011)