Today we kick off a series of posts about writing nonfiction for older readers. In her book Nonfiction Matters (Stenhouse, 1998), Stephanie Harvey explores nonfiction reading and writing in the classroom with an emphasis on the process of discovery. She writes:
“As we studied, we saw the best nonfiction writing emerges from topics the writer knows, cares, and wonders about and wants to pursue.”
This week, you’ll find that care and wonder reflected by the writers we’ll feature.
What Harvey has to say is also helpful in thinking about how older readers interact with nonfiction books. Are the books they’re selecting about topics they also care and wonder about? For writers of nonfiction, it’s critical to examine how that care and wonder make its way onto the page. You’ll find the writers we highlight respect their audience and that their passion for their subjects is often contagious.
I am thrilled to welcome award winning Gail Jarrow to Cynsations to talk about her nonfiction writing process.
Your most recent nonfiction title for young adult readers, Ambushed!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield (Calkins Creek Books, 2021), won the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Congratulations! Tell us about what drew you to your subject.
Ambushed! is the second book in my Medical Fiascoes series. This series focuses on tragic situations from the history of medicine that led to progress in American medical care. I was looking for a follow-up to the first book, Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease (Calkins Creek, 2020), when I recalled an article in an old American Heritage magazine that I’d inherited from my mother. Published soon after the 1963 John Kennedy assassination, the article discussed James Garfield’s 1881 assassination in a Washington railroad station. I realized that this forgotten story had strong connections to Civil War medicine.
Garfield was shot sixteen years after the war ended. His doctors had been army surgeons and were considered gunshot-wound experts because of their wartime experience. But they hadn’t kept up with advancements in medical thinking. Joseph Lister, a surgeon in Scotland, had shown the value of antiseptic care. He had even traveled to the U.S. to prove to skeptical American surgeons that microbes cause infection and that antiseptic methods prevent it. The president’s doctors remained unconvinced. This doomed James Garfield.
His well-publicized ordeal during the summer of 1881 was a medical fiasco. Yet it raised awareness about the importance of washing hands and disinfecting instruments. That pushed the American medical community from the Civil War era into the twentieth century.
What is your favorite part about writing nonfiction?
I love learning all I can about a new subject. By the time I finish a project, I’ve investigated the material so thoroughly that I’ve become a bit of an expert on it. The most exciting part is finding a hidden gem buried in a library archive.
Although I always uncover much more than I can possibly add to my book, it all helps make the writing as accurate and engaging as possible.
Because I’m fascinated by medicine, I really enjoy the scientific part. But at the heart of every true story are the people who drive the narrative. I learn about them by relying heavily on primary documents: diaries, letters, personal accounts, trial testimony, medical case reports.
For Ambushed!, I discovered the details of James Garfield’s life and his rise to the presidency. I found out about his assassin, too. Why was he obsessed with killing the president, and what brought him to that point in his life?
Real characters also play a significant role in the third book in my Medical Fiascoes series, American Murderer: The Parasite That Haunted the South (Calkins Creek, September 2022). This medical mystery concerns a parasite (hookworm) that drained the energy and life from millions of southerners in the early years of the twentieth century. I tell the stories of the victims who suffered and the scientists and doctors who worked to end the hookworm epidemic.
What’s the most challenging part?
Without question, it’s the constant fact-checking. Errors are often repeated so many times that they’re accepted as true.
Sometimes after I’ve tracked a cited statement in an academic book or journal article to its primary source, I spot a glaring error. A quote might be inaccurate or taken out of context. Later, I see the same mistake repeated by other academicians who apparently hadn’t checked the primary source themselves. I owe it to my young readers to get the facts right. That takes time and effort.
How do you choose which nonfiction subjects to pursue?
I ask myself several questions.
- Am I curious and passionate enough about the topic to stay excited throughout the months and months of research and writing?
- Will this subject grab my audience?
- Can I present the material in an intriguing way? Can I make it a page-turner?
- Does the topic matter, and is it relevant to today’s world?
- Are sufficient reference materials available, particularly primary sources?
- Because I’m writing books for older readers–not picture books, can I locate photographs and archival illustrations?
What advice would you give to writers looking to tackle nonfiction project?
No matter whether you’re writing how-to, informational, memoir, or narrative nonfiction, I’d give the same advice. Always remember the age of your reader. Tell the truth and explain the complicated, but don’t write down to your audience. Be prepared to revise and rewrite.
If you hope to have your work published, study the genre, read similar books, and familiarize yourself with the current market.
When researching nonfiction projects, what are the most important things for a writer to remember?
Don’t settle for the easy-to-find information; follow bibliographies and dig deeper.
Keep in mind the viewpoint of your sources. For example, are you interviewing someone with an agenda? Does an autobiography omit key details because they aren’t flattering to the author? What is the relationship between the sender of a letter and the recipient?
Finally, take excellent notes so that you can quickly locate the source of any fact when your editor questions it.
Did you consult with subject matter experts? If so, at what point in the process did you contact them?
I always consult with experts. The timing depends on the project. From the beginning, I maintain a running list of questions that I have and that I think readers will have. I cross off each one as my research continues and I find the answers. When I speak with the experts, I ask about the remaining questions. Before interviewing someone, I do enough reading to avoid asking for information that I could have easily found elsewhere. That wastes the expert’s time.
For Ambushed!, I spoke to an expert about Garfield’s life and family early in my project. Another expert was an infectious disease physician with a special interest in nineteenth-century medicine. He suggested additional resources and, later, gave me feedback on my manuscript. I always appreciate the willingness of people to share their knowledge.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about nonfiction writing!
Educator resources for Gail’s books:
- Educator Guide for Ambushed!
- Educator Guide for Blood and Germs
- Meet-the-Author Recording and Transcript about the Backstory of Ambushed!
Gail Jarrow is the author of books about medical mysteries, deadly diseases, and other intriguing stories from history. Her work has received many distinctions, including the YALSA Award for Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction for Ambushed!; the Sibert Honor Book medal for Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America; Orbis Pictus Honor and Recommended Books; the Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award; an NSTA Best STEM Book and Outstanding Science Trade Book; and Junior Library Guild Selections. She lives in Ithaca, New York. Visit her at her website.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency. Connect with her at stephanimartinelleaton.com.