Narrative Nonfiction: Finding the Lesser Known Story
Many new writers whose greatest goal is writing fiction shy away from writing nonfiction. They recall texts read as children without pleasure and don’t want to create material like that. But nonfiction actually has plenty of room for the storyteller. In fact, narrative nonfiction has been described as “facts told as a story.” The real challenge is to tell a true story that hasn’t been told far too many times before. This is because many new writers turn to the easiest to recall stories when asked to write narrative nonfiction. Then when their piece on why Abraham Lincoln grew a beard is rejected, they assume they have no gift for narrative nonfiction instead of recognizing they’ve simply retold a story we’re heard many times before. The reality is that the market is hungry for good narrative nonfiction, especially those that emphasize certain themes, and this is something fiction writers can do with the skills they have.
Choose A Little Known Story
One of the reasons why narrative nonfiction has surged with stories of women in science is because history is full of such women, but their stories have rarely been told. Thus, narrative nonfiction accounts can come at them totally fresh, and fascinated readers love hearing about these new stories. For example, the actress Hedy Lamarr was famous in her lifetime for her beauty, but she has been rediscovered by writers for her brains. Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark and Hedy & Her Amazing Invention by Jan Wahl are two books that have come from the rediscovery of the amazing work Hedy Lamarr did outside of the movies. In fact, she and George Antheil developed a system that allowed ships and torpedoes to communicate without their signals being jammed. Many years later, this system would become the precursor to secure wireless communications.
Hedy Lamarr’s story is fascinating, not only for what she invented, but for the challenges she faced. Challenges overcome often play a part in a really good narrative nonfiction subject. This is another way narrative nonfiction tends to resemble fiction: challenge and conflict make the story more compelling. And many of the untold stories are full of challenge and conflict. Heddy Lamarr struggled with her intellect being ignored even while her beauty was celebrated and that is compelling conflict.
The story of an actress who was also an inventor is only one of many being discovered by narrative nonfiction authors these days. Untold stories are all around us and only require a little digging. The more we study the history of inventions or discoveries, the more we find figures barely mentioned whose role can be spotlighted. And now that so many primary documents have been scanned and are available digitally, it has become much easier than ever to research into the lesser known people and discover their stories.
Narrative Nonfiction Wins Awards
Not only is narrative nonfiction popular with readers, it is also frequently found on lists of the best nonfiction books, and it wins awards. The Orbis Picture Award promotes and recognizes excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children. The award is often given to narrative nonfiction. For example, four of the six books chosen for the award and honor books in 2021 were narrative nonfiction, including the winner of the award, Above the Rim by Jen Bryant, which tells the story of Elgin Baylor’s 1959 protest against racial injustice.
Narrative nonfiction has also popped up in the Newberry Award and Honor lists. In 1988, Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman won the Newbery. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Latham won in 1956 and Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates won in 1951. In all, six nonfiction books have received a Newbery award and all were narrative nonfiction.
So How Do You Find a Subject?
One way to begin your search for a good subject for narrative nonfiction is to decide on a theme that interests you. Your personal interest will be essential for you to maintain the energy necessary to do that require research and then write the article or book manuscript.
Some of the popular themes that are frequently found in today’s narrative nonfiction are social justice and activism (who are little known voices in major movements?), the environment (who are the little known environmentalists who made a positive difference in things like protecting water purity or defending endangered species?), and technology and invention (begin with important areas of technology such as robotics or computers and begin mining the history for those lesser known people who made today’s tech possible). Unrecognized people who acted bravely and selflessly during war time, from the Revolutionary War to World War II are also popular subjects, in fact, stories of selflessness and courage in any time period tend to be excellent choices for narrative nonfiction.
Check out periodicals that regularly write about these sorts of topics for adults to find a story that fascinates you. You will be the first hurdle as your interest and excitement will help ignite the same in readers of your writing. And don’t overlook serendipity. While visiting a museum focused on maritime history, I saw a display that highlighted an event about which I thought I was familiar, but brought forward a person I’d never heard of before. This immediately caught my interest. Why was this man overlooked when I learned this history in the past? I jotted down the man’s name to look into later. That thrust me into weeks of research to answer my own questions and resulted in an article for Highlights magazine.
Keep it Interesting
When it comes time to begin your own retelling of an important nonfiction story, keep in minds the needs of young readers before you begin. Does the story have action? Does it have challenge and conflict? Does it take place in a time or location that would be new and interesting? Does it contain something the reader can relate to? For instance, at first thought, a writer might wonder if children would be interested in the story of an actress who lived years before they were born and whose movies they will likely never see. But Hedy Lamarr’s story has something children can relate to very well: being underestimated. Just as Hedy Lamarr was underestimated because she was beautiful, a woman, and an actress, young readers can relate to being underestimated because they are young.
If you’re considering expanding your writing into nonfiction but don’t want to put away all of your storytelling tools, consider narrative nonfiction. The market for it is always hungry, both in commercial trade publishing, educational publishing, and children’s magazines. And the skills you’ll gain in research will prove invaluable throughout your writing career. So the next time you’re tempted to tell people you’re just not a nonfiction writer, think again — if you’re a storyteller, there’s a place in nonfiction writing for you too.