Imagination in Nonfiction

May 24, 2013
Lola Schaefer is a children's book author

I've been reading quite a bit lately. It always feels good to curl up with a book and lose yourself in someone else's words. Two weeks ago I read two works of nonfiction - BOMB by Steve Sheinkin and INVINCIBLE MICROBES by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank. Both were amazing in content and presentation.

I know that just about everyone else has already read BOMB since it won so many prestigious awards earlier this year. Sometimes it just takes me a while to get to every book in the stack. BOMB read like a novel. I learned so much that I didn't know about the work at Los Alamos, the network of spies and why and how they operated, and the emotions felt by those who played any role in the creation of the first atomic bomb, both during and after Hiroshima.
The author didn't just do research and write facts, although everything he wrote was factual and documented well. He used his imagination. Don't get me wrong, he didn't "make-up" information or characters. No, of course not. He imagined what information was necessary and what wasn't. He imagined what pace would hold his readers' attention. He imagined that his readers could handle the complexities that surrounded the bomb's development, tests, and launch. You can't write good nonfiction without imagination.

In INVINCIBLE MICROBES, the authors had a completely different topic and range of development. Whereas Sheinkin could focus on a much smaller time period with urgency and intrigue, Murphy and Blank examined Tuberculosis from its origin until today. Can you imagine doing that in 122 pages? They did. Not only that, they told a story. Just like Steve Sheinkin told us a story about the creation and efforts to steal the plans for the bomb, these authors told us the story about TB and the people who suffered from this deadly disease for 500,000 years. WOW! They imagined that their readers would want to know how the cause eluded health professional for hundreds of years. They imagined that readers would want to know all of the ridiculous, non-documented "cures" and "treatments" that were offered to people suffering with tuberculosis. They imagined that readers would be interested in knowing how desperate people were and what they would subject themselves to in hopes of a cure, or even a few good months or years. But even while they worked hard to shape and structure their information, NEVER did they invent facts for the story's sake.

These two books are important. Students need to be examining them for all of the features of strong nonfiction. I'm not just talking about impeccable documentation, but how authors mold accurate information to make it appealing to a wide range of readers. All three of these authors are pros.

One of my writing buddies posted on fb this week that she was struggling with writing nonfiction. She was questioning if it should be as difficult as it was for her on that day. YES! Even though the research provides so much of the content, that's just the beginning. That information needs to be culled and only those facts that push the telling forward in a compelling way can be chosen. Then there's the challenge of finding just the right tone and style for the subject matter. Tuberculosis has killed millions of people. What tone could convey the impact of that without frightening the readers? And what about structuring the information? Where does a writer begin? Where does he end?

Thousands of choices come into play with nonfiction. If the author is skilled in what he/she does, the information will flow easily from paragraph to paragraph, page to page. It won't seem as if there was ever a struggle, but believe me . . . there was. Nothing as good as these two books happens without careful research, hard work, and lots of imagination.