nonfiction—narrative and otherwise

Note: I’m reorganizing this site. Moving stuff around. Modifying it. Might look different from one day to the next. Just so you know ….



I stumbled across narrative nonfiction purely by happenstance. Had things unfolded differently, field guides, gardening and farming books, and a smattering of how-to house and barn-building books—oh, and doubtless stuff about heritage livestock breeds; anything having to do with homesteading or farming—would be mostly what you’d find on my bookshelf. Of course, all are nonfiction. But they’re also reference books. Not usually the sort of thing you sit down and read cover to cover for the sheer pleasure of it.

But well-crafted nonfiction, narrative or not—that’s a whole other matter. Considering how much shorter most magazine articles are these days compared with, say, thirty years ago

Maybe that’s because the emphasis in high school English was mostly on fiction with a serving of poetry on the side, augmented by a touch of Chaucer and the obligatory Shakespearean play during our senior year. Since (in theory at least) we were going to college, we’d have read the random essay; Lord knows that between those and the ubiquitous book reports, we had to write enough of them.

But I just wasn’t that into fiction (though when I began writing I tackled fiction first; you’ll find out why) or poetry or Olde English or (truth hurts) Shakespeare. And those expository essays we had to write? What could be more boring than to start with a thesis statement, provide three points (the body) that support your thesis, and conclude by restating the thesis? Damned if I know.

History? Since it wasn’t English, it wasn’t literature. More’s the pity, because history well-told can make for brilliant narrative. Even during my school days it could’ve been narrative’s kissing cousin — but no; not between the sheets of a high-school history book. Back then we were textbook regurgitators, mostly.

Is it any different now? I suppose, as with so many other things, it depends. But apparently they still teach this stuff. You know: thesis, body, restate.

Ah … and then there was science. Agony. I remember nothing, for good reason—lack of aptitude pure and simple. And then…and then…I stumbled across some stunning writers who moved science into the realm of of narrative, Of art. I was hooked. Thus my day job: science writer. Who knew!

But now I need to back up a bit. In fact, I’ve been seeking that back-up spot practically since I began this missive. Not having found one, I’ll simply do it.


So…getting hooked on narrative really began in an oddball sort of way with a twelve-year-old girl named Angel (and she was.) It was the early 1980s. She and her dad lived with us—“us” being Carl, my six year old son and me—during the year her dad, a dairy farmer from the North Country, was working toward his masters degree in dairy something-or-other at Cornell. One day, Angel was looking through my bookcase and sees The Lord of the Rings and says you’ve got to read this to Carl — my dad read it to me when I was six. It’s got dragons! Wizards! It’s got … well, you just have to read it.

Granted, The Lord of the Rings is hardly narrative nonfiction. Granted even that the first time I’d read it, several years before, I didn’t exactly fall for it. But anything Angel thought was cool, Carl thought was cool. So we began. What could I lose?

It’s what I gained that changed my life. I’d been an over-the-top insomniac for years. I was also a single mom. Those last couple of hours between supper and bedtime? A nightmare of exhaustion. But I will never forget how good it was, reading together. Even if he had read ahead, Carl still listened avidly. Every night it was “Let’s read, Mom!” And as each chapter progressed he’d get a little closer, and closer still, and then he’d slip his arm through mine and after a few sentences my tiredness would just float away. As if someone were reading to me.

Not long after Tolkien (marvelous the second time through) and a few lovely children’s chapter books, both fiction and not (who knew narrative kid-lit could be so cool?), I started reading adult-level books to my son. We stayed with them for years. It was well over a decade later, after I’d begun writing, that I learned most of those marvelous tales had a place—narrative nonfiction—on agents and publishers’ wish lists.

Here’s one reason, fresh today (which is to say August 27, 2016) from an agents-editors-publishers’ website: Hey, so, I’d bet that 95% of my submissions are fiction. I really want some compelling NF proposals.

Please bear with me as I remake this section and populate it with links to my favorite articles and snatches from my failed but no-regrets book proposals.


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