Get Started: Writing Narrative Nonfiction

Not too long ago I was asked to lead a workshop with a daunting title: "What You Need to Know to Write Nonfiction." I've written 11 narrative nonfiction books, with number 12 (Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash) off to the copyeditor and set for publication in 2012, and I must be honest here: I’m still trying to figure out just what I need to know to write nonfiction.

The Big Question: For me, the starting place for any narrative long or short is not what I should know, but what I don't know. That’s what drives the story forward: that tantalizing question about a murder trial, or that biographical subject, or that disaster, or that burning public policy dilemma. Why do writers write about a certain topic, why are we passionate about a particular idea -- so passionate we'll invest weeks or months or years in it? Why does an idea, event, or character give us goose bumps, or become that mental piece of gum we just can't scrape off our shoes? Is it because we know the subject inside and out? No, just the opposite. It's because we want to get to the bottom of something, we want to enter and explore a strange world, culture, place, or community -- and then bring readers along for the ride. That's what the narrative nonfiction writer must bring into focus before writing the first word, then keep it in focus throughout the journey.

Each of my books, all character-driven narratives, has started with and revolved around a big question. How did a former nurse take on the Dixie Mafia and solve her own parents’ murder when the police could not or would not do either? Why does juvenile court so often fail to protect kids in danger while also failing to protect the rest of us from dangerous kids? Why does the science of evolution arouse so much fear and loathing in America 80-plus years after the Scopes Monkey Trial ended? Why would a notoriously bottom-line, red-state company like Wal-Mart suddenly attempt to tackle some of our worst environmental problems?

What’s your big question? That's what you need to figure out. There will be important subsidiary questions, of course, but this first step is simply about identifying that big-picture question, the one that animates your narrative and becomes its theme and backbone. It's Tracy Kidder asking, What drives Paul Farmer to such heights of selflessness in Mountains Beyond Mountains, or Walter Isaacson asking, Who is the real Steve Jobs? Then the real work begins -- finding the new and original answers to that big question to engage a reader's (or an editor's or a publisher's) imagination, to make them feel your goose bumps, too.

Getting started: This is an exercise I use with my students (and myself): In 50 words or less, lay out your big question -- the one at the heart of the story you want to reveal. Try it.

Next Monday, Part II: How great research trumps great writing (and also enables it).