Fact and Fiction in Picture Book Form

If picture books are your form, take a moment to read Luli and the Language of Tea by Andrea Wang. There are other children in the play room but Luli always plays alone. Each child sits in isolation because none of them speak the same language. Their parents are in an ESL class and the children are simply biding time.

But that isn’t going to work for Luli. The next time she comes, she brings a treat to share – a pot of tea. She calls everyone over and begins to pour. I’m not going to tell you the two marvelous twists in this story. You’ll have to read it yourself.

This is a story all about tea and the fact that the names for tea worldwide are variations on a closely related theme – tea or chai. In the author’s note, Wang explains that the similarities in the word for tea worldwide have always fascinated her.

She could have written about this in a nonfiction book. That’s what Ann Morris did in Bread, Bread, Bread. I haven’t discussed this with Wang but perhaps she didn’t choose a nonfiction route because it would be too similar to the many books written by Morris on bread, hats, shoes, homes, weddings and more.

Many topics can be approached either way. But a straight nonfiction approach, handled less artfully than Morris does, can feel at worst preachy and at best like a lesson. “Hey, kids! I’ve got something you need to know.” With skill, Morris has created numerous books that show of the joyous variety found in our world.

Wang’s fictional story does the same thing while also demonstrating the compassion of the young characters and just a bit of humor. Do you have a nonfiction story that isn’t quite working? Could you spin the information into a fictional story?


Fiction or Nonficiton: Which Is More Work?

Last night, I met with my critique group.  Two of us normally write nonfiction but this time we both had fiction manuscripts.  I had to laugh because the other author kept commenting on how much work fiction was to write.

The reason that this struck me as so funny was that I’ve heard other writers argue about how much work nonfiction is.  You have to do so much research.  And besides, it just isn’t any fun because it is so limiting.

I suspect that which one feels like more work may depend on two things – your personality and the individual project.

Some nonfiction definitely requires more research than other pieces.  Yes, I did a lot of research for The Ancient Maya but The Dakota Access Pipeline felt like a lot more work.  The former required history, anthropology/archaeology, and a bit of chemistry.  The latter required history, social policy, energy policy, and chemistry.

My background is in anthropology and history so getting to go back there for the Maya was just fun.  Researching the chemistry and the drilling information for the pipeline book was work.

Some fiction is more work than other fiction. And I’m not even talking about the research needed to bring yourself up to speed on the Himalayas, snow leopards, or sheep.  Yes, I’ve researched all of those things for fiction.

If you write fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction, you have to world build.  You have to figure out how to introduce this world to your reader.  That’s going to make these projects more labor intensive than writing contemporary fiction.

But if you love doing it, it isn’t going to seem like WORK.   That’s where your personality is going to come into play.

Are you a trivia wizard?  A store house of obscure knowledge and facts?  Then you should try nonfiction.

Do you love creating new worlds and situations?  Do you spend a lot of time in your head fixing movies you’ve seen or books that you’ve read?  Then you might want to try your hand at fiction.

Some of us have personalities that are suited to both.  So which is more work?  The project you don’t like.  While I loved writing The Dakota Access Pipeline, a book about music theory would be pure torture.  I’m currently working on a young middle grade fantasy and noodling over an adult mystery. Those are both genre I love.  Romance?  That would be a slog through hell.

If you love doing it, it isn’t going to seem like half as much work as a project you despise.



Nonfiction Research: What If You Can’t Find the Facts that You Need?

Monday I’ll be turning in a book on the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Invariably 25% of the comments/questions that I get from my editor will be requests for more information.  Why did this person do X instead of Y?  Where did he get this idea?  Why didn’t he do Z instead?

Most of the time, I can see why she wants me to add these things, and sometimes I actually manage to pull it off.  But there are other times that the information just isn’t anywhere that I can find it.

That’s the wacky things about doing research, especially historic research.  You may suspect that a give fact is out there in the world someplace, but that doesn’t mean that it is indexed or searchable.  Someday, someone may stumble across it but you haven’t managed to find it yet.

When I can’t find the information needed to answer my editor’s question, that’s what I tell her.  “Wow. I’d love to be able to answer that but I can’t find the information.”  Fortunately, that has never been the case for a critical fact.  It has always been something she was just curious about or thought would make a nice addition.

But what do you do if the fact is essential?  The problem with writing nonfiction is that you need to find the facts.  If the information you find says “we talked about how to spend the money” but doesn’t quote any specific dialogue, you can’t write out anything in quotation marks.  You may know that a soldier or a student did X, but have no idea what that person’s name was which means that in your telling, they must remain nameless.

If your story doesn’t work with only facts that you can find, try writing it as fiction.  In your author’s note, you can always explain which information is factual and which was cooked up in the author’s brain.  Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you have to be able to create a solid story.  Which way you choose to go with it depends on your idea, the facts that you can find, and your inclinations as a writer.



Nonfiction vs. Informational: Do you know the difference?

Information, Questions, Help, Request, SolutionAs a nonfiction writer, I tend to have fairly firm opinions on fiction vs nonfiction.  Because of this, I sometimes find myself at odds with people who want to alter timelines or create dialogue.  Sorry folks, that’s fiction!

But what do you call a book like Brian Floca’s Locomotive?  It doesn’t have a fictional plot and characters but Floca has created a typical train taking a typical journey.

Or fact filled books with a fictional narrative like In the Canyon by Liz Garton Scanlon?  Yes, there is a ton of information about the flora and fauna of the Grand Canyon but the narrator is entirely fictional.  What do you call a book like that?

I recently read a post that called these books informational books.  They teach but they also contain fictional elements.

Other ideas that I would consider informational include an animal narrator teaching about his ecosystem, a named child taking you through a typical school day in her home country, or a named child helping a grandparent put in a garden.  Do these named children’s actually exist?  Nope.  They are 100% fictional.  Has a coyote ever taken me on a walking tour of his homeland?  Not when I was a awake, thank you.

I don’t think that this term is accepted as an industry standard.  When I did a quick Google search I saw it used to describe straight-up nonfiction, such as The World Almanac for Kids or Anne Schreiber’s Penguins, as well as this wonky in-between books, including We The Kids by David Catrow.

Why am I so interested in this?  Because I am working on a preschool astronomy text that includes 4 fictional characters who drive the story.  The information about the movement of the Earth, Sun and Moon are 100% factual but the four characters who drive the story are entirely figments of my fevered imagination.  I have to admit that I will be much more comfortable pitching this as an informational book than I would be pitching it as nonfiction.