Non-Fiction Writing: Lessons from Erik Larson

Dead WakeI struggle with bridging the gap between writing dry informational biography and creating captivating non-fiction when writing about my ancestors.  I don’t want to add creative flourish if it is not completely accurate and based on some historical evidence.  There are so many challenges to finding the right atmospheric background that gives a story texture and mood that we can also footnote. Let’s face it, sometimes we don’t even have a physical description of our ancestor.  Did he have red or brown hair? Was she short or tall? Who knows? How do we make the reader fall into the story of our ancestor and get to know their character when we have so few illustrations of it in the documents they left behind. Urgh. That is why I read a lot of non-fiction writing and try to learn from the authors on how they make facts rich, exciting and weave them into the overall narrative.

the devil in the white cityLast week, Erik Larson came to Knoxville to speak about his latest book Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  I was able to support Knox County Library’s fundraising efforts and hear the author of the brilliant Devil in the White City discuss his writing process.  Larson is an entertaining speaker and he amused the audience with stories and a few thinly veiled political innuendos.

Here are some things I learned about how Larson writes:

  • He sees himself as “animator of history”.  It is not his goal to inform, but to create a rich experience of the past.
  • He uses very few photos because “it takes the reader away from the text.” There is one picture of the Lusitania and a map of Southwest Great Britain in 1914 in his latest book.
  • In the Garden of the BeastsHe likes to “find historical details that will light the reader’s imagination.” Ex. Carl Sandburg’s lock of hair that Larson found at the Library of Congress that proved the affair between the Ambassador’s daughter, Martha Dodd and Carl Sandburg (In the Garden of the Beasts).
  • He believes that if you tell a story properly with compelling characters, you will get lost in the story.  Ex. The story of Nellie in Dead Wake. Her diary was found floating on the water after the Lusitania sank, but Nellie perished.
  • In selecting the correct story to tell, he looks for 1) an interesting idea to begin with 2) a very powerful narrative arc and 3) rich archival materials.  He says, “it’s a lot like looking for a spouse”!
  • He spends 2 years to research a story and 2 years to write it, with a little bleed over in the middle. (Yikes…that explains what is taking so long with my book on Rev. McNair…even though I am half way done with writing, I am still researching when I find gaps.)
  • He has shelved ideas after doing some research.  What helps to make his decision if a subject will work is by doing a draft book proposal that includes 1) a sample chapter 2) a summary of the book 3) an outline of what will be included.

Writing genealogical history is not quite the same as writing the biography of a famous person or the history of a well-known event.  We will have won the lottery if we have “rich archival materials” for most of our ancestors, but we can dig deep for the historical context of the events that surrounded them and write about those.  Pick up one of Larson’s books and you will have an excellent example of how to it.

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2 Responses to Non-Fiction Writing: Lessons from Erik Larson

  1. Elizabeth H says:

    All three of these books by Erik Larson are fabulous and real page-turners. How exciting to hear about how he writes!

    • Rachelle says:

      Yes, I am looking forward to reading Dead Wake. They gave away a copy with the lecture ticket. Nothing like giving a bibliophile a book!

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