One Writer’s Journey

March 20, 2014

Writing Nonfiction: Mary Cronk Farrell Discusses How to Build Reader Empathy

Pure GritLast week, I read Mary Cronk Farrell’s Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific.  As I was reading about the variety of women who were sent to the Pacific both as Army and Navy nurses, it struck me.  This is a story very like Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s book about Leo Zamperini.  Where Laura had to build reader empathy with one man, Mary had to build it with a whole group of women.

What was that experience like?  Me being me, I contacted Mary to ask.

SueBE:  You’ve written biographies of single individuals, such as Top of the World.  Pure Grit tells the story of a group.  What was the same about building reader empathy for a group of characters vs a single character? 

Mary Cronk Farrell:  I knew I had to find the characteristitcs about each woman that was unique.  I had to find the core characteristics of each woman. That I could find in my research.  Details about what they grew up, what kind fo family they lived in why they joined the nurses corps.  When I originally proposed this story, I thought that I would chose one woman for each segment.  I would tell teach chapter from a different woman’s point of view.  But when I started writing it, I realized that I would have to leave out too much good stuff to do it that way.  It was a risk to do it that way but I did.

SueBE:  What other reasons did you have for choosing to tell a group story vs the story of a single individual?  

Mary Cronk Farrell:  You have to look at what the core of the story is.  If the core of the story has to do with the relationship between the characters or their interdependency, then you write about the group.

This story could have been told from one woman’s point of view and it still would have been fabulous.

SueBE:  That feel for the group and them working together really comes through in Pure Grit.  What are you working on now?  Do you have another group story in the works?

Mary Cronk Farrell:  I have a biography that is coming out and its about one woman.

I’m working on another nonfiction story that is about a group of women.  I haven’t submitted it yet.  I’m doing it as a group story because its something they did as a group.  It has been difficult to find the thread to tell the story.  It isn’t a biography but an event that involved the group.  I think it may be harder to do as a children’s book.  In a picture book you need such a distinct story line with a single narrative arc.  Finding that in a group story is hard.

SueBE:  Whether you are writing a biography or a piece of nonfiction about a group, you have to find the story as well as a way to make the character(s) real to the reader.  Read Pure Grit to discover how Mary did this.  She will inspire you to find stories previously untold and bring them to life for young readers.

Thank you to Mary for taking time out of her busy schedule to discuss writing with me!



  1. Sue, Thank you so much for interviewing me and featuring PURE GRIT on your blog. I hope I have been able to offer something of value to your readers.

    Comment by Mary Cronk Farrell — March 24, 2014 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

    • Mary,
      This is my top post for the last week, so you definitely helped everyone. Thank you!

      Comment by suebe — March 26, 2014 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

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