One Writer’s Journey

October 15, 2014

Nonfiction vs Historic Fiction

Fact or fiction? Whichever path you chose, tell a fantastic story.

If you write about history, you’ve probably had this happen.  You’ve found an amazing true story. But when you try to find the sources that you need to create a winning piece of nonfiction, they just aren’t there.  You can find the story repeated time and time again, but not the primary sources that prove to you, and your editor, that this event really did happen.

So what do you do?  Many of us make the choice to shelve the project, but there’s another choice.

Write it up as historic fiction.  That’s what Mac Barnett did with President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath.  What?  I can hear you shouting about this already.  That story is true!  You’ve heard it time and time again and that isn’t surprising because it is a great story.  Imagine the President stuck in a bathtub!

But when Barnett did his research, he found orders for various oversize tubs that Taft had installed.  He found photos.  He even found a newspaper story about Taft overflowing a tub and soaking the people in the dining room on the floor below.  But Taft stuck in the tub?  It’s a great story but the sources just weren’t there so Barnett did what great story tellers do.

He told the story.  He used cummulative story telling with one person after another coming in to help.  He used exageration to wacky effect — we’ll just blow the tub up with a little dynamite.  The result is a marvelous slapstick story about a stuck President, an ambitious Vice-President and an oh-so-patient First Lady.

In his author’s note, Barnett concedes that his book is a work of fiction, he explains about the sources and the lack thereof, and he also reveals why he wrote it up anyway . . .

Because it is a great story!

And, whether we are writing nonfiction or fiction, shouldn’t that be our goal?  If you can’t find the resources that you need to write a piece of nonfiction about a historic event, write up a great piece of historic fiction.  In the author’s note, tell the readers what you’ve done.  And then you can offer to do classroom visits on fact vs fiction, opinion vs truth.



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