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On Creativity, Nonfiction, and Making Dough by Deborah Kops


What does nonfiction have to do with creativity, you may wonder. (We’ll get to the dough later.) A nonfiction writer doesn’t make up her story. She can’t even change the ending. Let’s say you were writing about the Boston Tea Party and in your version the men who were dressed as Native Americans sold the English tea to pirates instead of dumping the tea in Boston Harbor. Your version of the story, with its interesting plot twist, would no longer be considered a nonfiction account of the Boston Tea Party.

Even though you can’t change the arc of history when you’re writing nonfiction, there is still plenty of room for creativity. When I wrote The Great Molasses Flood, I had to decide how to tell my readers about this weird disaster. I knew that I would describe that moment on January 15, 1919, when a giant tank burst open, and more than 2 million gallons of molasses rushed out in a huge wave, flooding a small seaside neighborhood of Boston. And I knew I would talk about lives lost, property damaged, and the big, sticky cleanup. But how could I make my account of the disaster into a good read?

I needed some interesting characters—real people who had experienced the disaster. If I could tell the story of the flood from their points of view, the reader would get pulled in. So I spent weeks in downtown Boston reading the court transcript of the molasses flood hearings. The people who lost loved ones or property during the molasses flood sued the owner of the molasses tank. And they told their stories in court. Every word that anyone said in court was recorded. The transcript was 25,000 pages long!

I decided to focus on a handful of people from the time of the flood until the molasses hearings finally ended. I recounted nine-year-old Antonio DiStasio’s story from his terrifying ride on a sea of molasses to his day in court. I described seventy-eight-year-old Mrs. O’Brien’s experience getting knocked over senseless by the giant wave of molasses, which tore off half of her apartment.  

In addition to finding characters, and writing from their points of view, there was another important element of the book that I had to work out creatively. How was I going to built a strong narrative arc? The most exciting part of my nonfiction tale—the explosion of the molasses tank—occurred at the beginning. I had to introduce enough tension to keep the reader turning the page until he or she reached the end of the book. I decided I would keep returning to one central question that everyone was asking after the disaster. Whose fault was the explosion? Was it the fault of the company that owned the tank, or did someone plant a bomb in it?  (The bomb theory wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. There were people called anarchists who really did set off bombs in Boston at the time of the disaster.) I did not tell the reader the answer to this mystery until the end of the court hearings, when the acting judge decided who was at fault. The result, I hope, is a dramatic nonfiction narrative that makes readers feel as if they have been through the Great Molasses Flood themselves.

Writing nonfiction can be a creative and deeply satisfying process. After you’ve chosen  your subject and done the research, you need to find a quiet space in your home and in your life so the writing magic can happen. (That might mean leaving your phone in another room!) The writing isn’t always magical, of course. You may find yourself with pages of notes and a rough outline, wondering how you’re going to transform them into a book. I think of this as the bread dough stage. When you make bread from scratch, you usually start with flour, water, yeast, and salt. At first, when you stir them together in a bowl, the mixture looks like a hopelessly lumpy mess, which no intelligent person would want to eat. But it’s important to have faith in that mess-in-the-bowl, and keep stirring it, then knead the dough with your hands and knead it some more. Because eventually you will have a lovely round of bread dough that you just know will rise and bake into something delicious. And if you keep at your nonfiction work, rethinking the lumpy chapters and rewriting the sticky sentences, you will have a shapely manuscript that you can be proud of.

About Deborah: She has written more than twenty books for children and young adults, including a biography of Abraham Lincoln and Were Potato Chips Really Invented by an Angry Chef? She lives with her husband and son in Greater Boston and enjoys exploring old towns and neighborhoods on the Atlantic  coast, including the North End, where the Great Molasses Flood occurred. Look for her at her website and on Twitter (@deborahkops). 

Meet Arlo, Deborah's 9-week-old Portuguese Water Dog. He takes nice long naps, so she can write.



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    I gave your book a shout out! Can't wait to read it!
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    Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook - Creativity Blog - On Creativity, Nonfiction, and Making Dough by Deborah Kops

Reader Comments (47)

That's a very good way to put it!! I've never been able to write nonfiction for that sole purpose: it seems to lack a creative plot to keep the readers reading. But I like how Deborah explained that. Thanks for the post! Oh and sorry about posting too much before. I totally understand the safety aspect.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSamantha

hi sam!
sorry. getting chatty.
tha is amazing! so cool! i agree withnsamantha... inspiring. nonfiction was soooo hard for me.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternewperson

grea post! thats really cool! im gonna look for that book.
guyz.... lost rawr new person etc... check last post for a goodbyeto you guyz

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersomeone

awesome post!
i will now shut myself up so i don't start writing blabs (NO thats NOT a tear in my eye)

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterscribbles

anne and ellen isit alright if we dont chat... but... post the ocasional story atater just as a writers block stopper? we wont post the actual story... just starter so we can look at them and write it in our own time if we like it. but no coversations and stuff.
love the post... just started a story on pioneer true stories!

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternewperson

Thank-you all for reading this post and commenting. The post was nonfiction, too, of course. It was a little lumpy at first, and I did have to knead it a bit!

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Kops

No problem! I loved this post.... Nonfiction was as hard and scary as revising... At least revising was before I read spilling ink! I NEED to read that book! I've never heard of the molasses flood. iNCOMPLETE EDUCATION!!! ;). Thanks a billion Mrs. Mops and Anne and Ellen.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNew person

Thanks for all these wonderful comments, everyone!

Hi Newperson.To answer your question about Story Starters . . . .well, we had an idea! How about you (and anyone else who'd like to contribute) e-mail us your Story Starters and we will post them on our blog in a few weeks--or when we collect enough of them. You can use the Contact page to send them to us. Remember to include your name and age if you'd like us to post that as well.
We can't wait to see what you dream up!

July 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterAnne & Ellen

What a great post! You fooled me on the "making dough", Deborah! Can't wait to read your fascinating book.

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIza Trapani

Sorry, Iza! I hope you weren't too disappointed that I did not provide a recipe for how to get rich writing children's books. I have not come across that recipe ; ) Thanks for the kind words.

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Kops

Oh my goodness. I guess it tis the end of blabs and interesting conversations! Alas! I shall miss you all, I'll never forget y'all. Please don't forget me! :)

@ Someone. Thank you for your amazing heartfelt conversations and funny blabs! I love your lil gerbils! <3 Keep writing and believe in yourself and know, that YOU are an amazing person. Never forget it. Ever :)

@ Lost and Looking for Coffee. Farewell my fellow NeverShoutNever fan!!!! I will deeply miss your sweet comments and beautiful writing! Maybe someday we shall meet! And I shall shuffle and shout "yee-haw!" like some cow girl or something. Haha. Untill that awkward day, farewell!

@ Newperson. Thank you for getting the blabs going! I shall miss them! And you! Alas! My heart is sad! </3 Farewell my dear!

@ the Samanthas. I shall check out that singer dude! Goodbye! Keep writing! I just met someone named Samantha at me ol' swimming class. o.O

@Scribbles! Keep scribbling! Loved your written emotions haha. ~ Sighs a breath of sad defeat~ Farwell my sister.

@OBC hey. I don't know you. you'll think I'm crazy! But here's meh numbray so call me MAYBE........haha idk. :)

@ Everyone keep writing and sharing your love of it! Widen out and make new friends! Keep writing! I'll read your books when published ;) As long as ya read mine haha! :P If we get that far... BUT WE SHALL! YEAH!!!!

Farewell my dear writer family! Maybe when we're all old and stuff we'll drive to some Starbucks restraunt or whatever and ya know....WRITE!!!! I hope I have a VW beetle ^-^ That's an epic color. SO IF YOUSEE A VW BEETLE IN AN EPIC COLOR WHEN YOUR OLD ENOUGH TO DRIVE HONK 5 TIMES AND IF THE PERSON HONKS 5 TIMES BAKC IT'S ME! :) Or just some random person that decided to honk back. Haha!

anyway, yeah, sooooo. Goodbye my loves! I await to see your books published! Farewell!

Peace love and sadly farwells,


Hayley D.

July 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRawr

Dear Deborah, Your book sounds pretty cool! I've never heard of that before! I shall definately check it out as soon as I can :) Keep kneading that dough ;) Very interesting....must look up your book and see if it's at my library :)

July 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRawr

thanks hayley. sorry anne and ellen, i swear this is my last post, its just i wanna thank hayley for being so awsome.
thanks hayley! i hope to meet you someday. i will travel to texas and aska very person "do you know a hayley d? kinda random, a bit stalkerish, a pinch of nuttiness?"
just dont do a cowgirl dance for me.
thanks for your advice, i included one f your possible city in the sky beginings in my story, so nwhen i publish it, ill have you in the acknowledgments AND dedicate the book to ALL you guys, and anne and ellen of couse, without them i never would have found the courage tp write.
ok, one more thing, youre gonna scream at. i sorta met newperson. honest. summer camp, met a girl named inez, and i hoped i didnt sound stalkerish, but, i asked, "you dont by any chance have the code name newperson on spilling inks blog?" i expected to her to look atr me like im insane and run away, but her eyes got wide, and she said yes, i then jumped up and down saying "I"M SOMEONE!" it was insanely crazy!!!!!!!!!!!!!! we talked and totally hit it off!
may this prove we can and WILL meet some day!
love you guyz... and goodbye for the LAST TIME anne and ellen, SORRY! oh, btw, im sending my story starters, but inez said she wont be able to.
peace love and meeting a writer!

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersomeone

hi, anne and ellen, this is my last one to, just wanted to confirm what someone said so no one doubts her. we did meet! it was amazing! sorry i cant send mine, i dont have an email YET and mum and dad said no to letting me use theirs, but i DID give mine to someone so she can include them with hers. you dont need to adress me, im not sure how mum and dad will react, not that they dont want me to, just not my name, i asked., just say , Mariesa and a friend came up with theese! thanks!
goodbye for good, unless ane and ellen adress me expecting a reply, which i doubt.

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternew person

holy shish kebabs!!!!!!!!!!! O.o
miricales do happen!!!!
i saw an epically colored vw beetle 2day!
got insanely excited. couldn't pressure mom to honk 5 times so just waved madly at person in it, who stared at me like i should be in an insane asylum. i probably should be, but that's beside the point.
allrighty i better shut myself up before i reach chatty mode.
(realizes she is always in chatty mode)
aw, crud.
peace love and lime green jeans,

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterscribbles

@Rawr, call me maybe too! :D bye everyone!

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOBC

Dear Mrs. Mazer and Potter.
I am having a case of "Writers Block".
Do you think that it is okay to work on another story in order to get my "Writing Juices" flowing?
Thank you very much.
Monica Quimby

August 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMonica Q.

Hi Monica, Writer's Block is no fun. Do whatever you need to get out of it - like working on another story, or writing nonsense rhymes, or writing lists - it doesn't matter. If you find a method that works for you, use it. The important thing is to keep writing. Good luck! -- Anne

P.S. Don't throw out what you're working on now. Maybe in a week or a month you'll feel differently about it. If you're stuck somewhere, you might figure out the solution later.

August 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterAnne & Ellen

hi monica, i have writers block to, and its INSANLY ANNOYING!!!!! on the comment section on the story winners, we had some great ideas scattered throughout, if anne and ellen turn the comments back on... we promise not to comment there again! if not, i can remember some of the ideas, but i gotta be careful to not be too chsatty.
when im like that, i do takee a break from it for a while having frequant visits to see i im good.
take a break, put it aside. go eat a cookie. do anything.
alright, signing off...

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternewperson

agh... sorry... last post i said when im like that i... etc etc... but i meant when im in writers block, not when im chatty! i didnt clarify...

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternewperson

yeah i was sorta wanting to get the comments back too...not to chat but to look back on the story starters and stuff :)
thanks anne and ellen!
Peace Love and Tie-Dyed Everything,

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterscribbles

Dear New Person, Mrs. Mazer, and Mrs. Potter,
Thank-You very much for the advice.
And New Person, it is nice to know that some one else also gets "Writers Block".
Monica Quimby.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterscribbles

scribbles? do you have a secret identity as Monica Quimby???????????? is that youre way of asking a question witout using ask us anything or chatting???????????????monicas answers have your name on them................. when you comment, it saves your name thing... and you must have forgotten o change it! or... did monica accidently use your name...
onica Quimby is sucha cool name! i think it IS you, because i was lazy and put newperson instead of my usual New Person... and only you would know thatys how i say it! unless... it is all a mistae... i wont jump 2 conclusions.wow.
Love peace and turquise scissors on my desk
New Person

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternew person

hi... im a firend of Someones, she told me about the blog... AND I LOVE IT!!!!!!! thanks for your awspome posts... i was wondering... when are you going to post the story starters? NOT rushing you, i wouldnt ever want to rush the best authors ever, pleas, take your time, but, id love to see them, especially since someones is on there.
this blog is splendid! thanks so much! i wont get chatty, someone told me about the accidental "Chattiness"
i will sign out like everyone seems to do,
Love Peace and Sloppy Jos

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna L.

LOL you found me out newperson!!!!!!
i have this bad habit of resuming false identities online :)
cuz i am also someone, rawr, AND Anna L!

(Long pause)

but i WAS Monica Quimby for a while...she's kinda stuffy
hope no one is mad at me :P
Peace Love and Didgeridoos,
Scribbles (NOT Monica :)

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterscribbles

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