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.