Preparing to write: Research and the art of narrative nonfiction

The role of research in narrative nonfiction.

Though I was trained as a fiction writer, by the time I was in my late 30s, I was interested in branching out into narrative nonfiction. Some of the books that most moved me were written as narrative nonfiction – that is, as narratives specifically employing the techniques of fiction to present a factual story. Among those books I found myself returning to again and again were Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, and most of all Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.

What intrigued me about narrative nonfiction? That’s an easy question. I felt the seduction of history, the belief that through research and writing I was touching important materials of the past, materials that mattered not only to me but to others as well. I felt the intrigue of language, that through well-chosen words I could lower readers down into the fabric of history. I also felt the hope that a book of narrative nonfiction – assuming the subject was carefully selected – would easily find an audience.

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By 2007, I’d published two books of fiction and had already started in on my first book of narrative nonfiction, a book that would eventually be published under the title Three Years in Wonderland. My topic, I thought, was one that would easily interest readers – or, more accurately, interest at least enough readers to satisfy a publisher. When I was a boy, my grandmother had worked for the Walt Disney Company, and through her, I’d met many of the men and women who’d helped develop and open Disneyland. One of the stories that – in hazy snippets – I’d stumbled across when I was young was this: When the Disney brothers were building Disneyland in the mid-1950s, they had inadvertently hired a brilliant con man as the park’s first general manager, a man who essentially oversaw construction and opening, with the outcome so troubling that the company, in later years, buried the story. Though I didn’t yet have all of the details, I sensed that this story had the potential to make strong narrative nonfiction. That is, I assumed that the story would have many of the following elements:

A story arc strong enough to shape the entire book. (If I understood the story correctly, it would likely have strong elements of narrative, with a conflict at its center, and also with touches of a historic mystery.)

Materials that gestured toward larger cultural concerns. (The story likely could be arranged to showcase significant trends in American culture: in this case, the story was set against Walt Disney’s monumental efforts to build the world’s first cinematic amusement park. That is, an amusement park where guests were immersed in richly detailed filmic environments.)

Details that explored pervasive American appetites. (I believed that the story – if arranged correctly – could also speak to a compelling discussion of mid-century culture: The story could explore how, during the economic boom of the 1950s, the American public began to connect with Hollywood in new ways, with a desire to consume large amounts of entertainment as it related to film and TV.)

After arriving at the point where I could see the elements of a well-structured book of nonfiction, I started in on my research – research that would eventually lead me down the rabbit hole to three books, not just one.

 

Plan the research

Initially, when I launched into my project about Walt Disney and the brilliant con man – his name, by the way, was C.V. Wood – I believed that I would mainly function as a traditional researcher, reviewing material from published and archived interviews, then assembling my notes into the story.

Indeed, by 2007, many interviews had been conducted with the men and women who’d worked with Walt Disney. On my laptop, in an isolated folder, I combined those interviews into a single document. That document was exactly 5,535 pages long. Those interviews helped me create a framework for the story I wanted to tell. Those interviews also gave me many compelling details that I would use in my final draft. Yet those interviews – all 5,000 pages of them – didn’t give me all the information I needed to write a 300-page work of narrative nonfiction. After spending months reading and taking notes, I still had many questions.

In part, some of the questions were obvious: I needed to know why Walt Disney had hired C.V. Wood in the first place. I needed to know how and why C.V. Wood was fired. I needed to know about Wood’s childhood, his parents, and his experiences at college.

But some of the questions, in nature, were less straightforward. Much of the existing research was anecdotal and idiosyncratic in nature: artists telling their own life stories; engineers explaining the finer points of their craft, and managers relating the details of their success. I needed rich details out of which to create narrative nonfiction, details to factually recreate history so that my book was as handsomely textured as a good novel.

With the archival work finished, I could finally see how to plan my remaining research, how to create a practical list of the materials I still needed to find. Though I’d imagined that most of my research would involve reading, I discovered that, like many writers, I would actually need to go out in the field and conduct new research to get the material to complete my manuscript. The list of “what I still needed” – perhaps the most important document I created during the early stages of research – would guide my work for the following two years. Those elements that I needed to find – in fact, that most narrative nonfiction writers need to find – included rich details to create robust scenes, narrative materials to build engaging set pieces, and perspectives to construct accurate points-of-view.

Here are the three crucial elements of narrative nonfiction research:

 

Rich details to create robust scenes

One goal I had for my book was that readers would have the sensation of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the men and women who designed and built Walt’s park, that they’d feel that they were walking through the emotionally tense construction site as Disneyland was being developed. To create this type of reading experience, I needed details…and lots of them. What did these places look like? Smell like? How were various people dressed? What were their mannerisms and gestures?

Beyond published and archival interviews, such details came largely from four sources:

Newspapers

One of the richest sources of information came from newspaper accounts. In present-day newspapers, a feature article might be as short as 500 words. Or it might stretch to 2,000. But feature articles in papers before the 1980s were often much longer. With the additional space, journalists not only related a more complex presentation of their material but often included many lines of observational detail as well (what people were wearing, specific mannerisms, etc.). Though when I started my research, many historic newspapers sources were available only on microfilm, many newspapers (in some cases dating back to the 1800s) have been digitized and placed online in the past decade.

Two excellent sources to explore historic newspapers are ProQuest and Newspapers.com. Both require a subscription. I’ve found that the Newspapers.com subscription rate (under $100/year) is manageable for many writers, while a ProQuest subscription is not, as its rates are primarily directed at institutions. That said, you may find that a local library (especially a university library) may have a ProQuest subscription that the public can access, often free of charge, on its computers.

Photo, film, and video

For my project, set in the 1950s, I was fortunate to find that many archives kept photographic and filmic records of events that interested me. Photos and film gave me many details that I was able to translate into language: (a) they created a visual record, with dates, as to how construction on the park progressed; (b) they allowed me to see exactly how people appeared – specifically what they wore and how they presented themselves – during the days on which my narrative was focused; and (c) they allowed me to physically see the landscape, helping me create the establishing details that framed introductory sections of many chapters.

Site visits

I had known many of the locations in my story, particularly those in Southern California, all my life. I knew the ins-and-outs of Burbank and Anaheim – that is, the location of the Disney Studio and the Disney theme park – and had a fair sense of how those cities had developed. I’d also spent some time on the Disney lot and understood how the buildings had been arranged in the 1950s. But other areas – particularly Amarillo, Texas, the setting for almost an entire chapter – were outside my realm of personal experience. I visited Amarillo twice while writing the book. With the help of C.V. Wood’s extended family and friends, as well as a local historian, I came to understand how the town looked decades ago, when the main character in my narrative lived there. These trips to Amarillo were essential because they gave me a clarity of vision as well as the personal experience to write about Texas with confidence. The trips were also crucial because they helped me understand the social, financial, and ethical environments that shaped the man who was at the center of my story.

Personal interviews

By the time I started interviewing the men and women who had designed and built the park, I had finished reviewing most of the archival and published materials on my topic, and thus knew exactly what I needed to ask. As I talked with them in a series of interviews, I looked for the little details. I asked how their co-workers acted and what motivated them. I wanted to know what it “felt” like to go to work in the morning. I asked if they could describe the challenges of their job in detail – as much detail as they could remember.

I also asked if they kept materials from their work 50 years earlier on the park. Specifically, I asked if they kept:

  • Letters
  • Memos
  • Meeting notes
  • Design materials
  • Photos
  • Sections of a diary they would be willing to share
  • A scrapbook or newspaper clippings

About half of the people I interviewed kept – and were willing to share – some type of physical item from the past. Photos were very common, as were diaries and work notes. One person kept reel-to-reel audiotapes on which, decades earlier, he’d interviewed people with whom he’d worked. Another kept funeral programs for departed friends, many of which contained helpful biographies. I was often pleasantly surprised when I asked my interviewees if they kept any materials from their experience building and/or opening the park; in fact, this step was probably just as fruitful and important as the interviewing process itself.

 

Narrative materials to build engaging set pieces

My book, once I had a handle on the research, was largely focused on three years: 1953 through 1956, a little over 1,000 days. Narrative nonfiction, like a novel, expands and constricts time depending on its significance. From the start, I understood that some days would be more important to the book than others. Once I had a general framework for my narrative, I identified those days that would be arranged as “set pieces.”

A set piece is an isolated section in a book or film with many overlapping scenes that explore an important moment of tension, desire, or conflict. A set piece is also a section of narrative that readers are most likely to remember after finishing the book. So in a James Bond movie, a car chase sequence would be a set piece. In a romantic comedy, the events leading up to a marriage proposal would also likely be a set piece.

In my project, I realized that I would have a number of set pieces: the day the Disney brothers hired C.V. Wood, the day the Disney brothers announced their plans to build Disneyland, the day C.V. Wood participated in burning down a house, the night before the park opened, and the grand opening itself.

In my experience, the main story arc in a work of narrative nonfiction allows little space for general digressions. Overall, my story arc was focused on (a) the deteriorating relationship between the Disney brothers and C.V. Wood and (b) the development of the park.

But within the set pieces, I found space to include interesting tangents. For example, in my chapter that details the events leading up to the park opening, I found it possible to include tangents that added richness to the narrative even if they didn’t directly address the main story, because the narrative tension surrounding the opening was already clear, localized, and highly identifiable. I included details about the work of painters, electricians, and set dressers who had been called in to ornament the park with red-white-and-blue bunting (in part to hide areas that were unfinished). In other words, because my set pieces allowed me to highly focus tension through an extended sequence, I felt the ability to open the narrative in those stretches to add color, additional details, and more material from those I interviewed without boring the reader.

In practical terms, once I identified my set pieces, I arranged some of my interview questions to gather more details about those specific events. During interviews, I often described my process as a writer: For example, I explained to interviewees that the hours leading up to the park’s opening would be a significant section of the book and, as such, I was hoping that they would relate whatever details they could recall about those hours.

Often I would bring photos as a way to help lower interviewees down into their memories. Sometimes I would play short sections of previous interviews I’d conducted, hoping that the voice of an old friend would help call forth their experiences. Both of these strategies helped interviewees find details they hadn’t considered in years.

 

Perspectives to construct accurate points-of-view

If you’ve ever taken a fiction workshop, you know that point-of-view is one of the central design strategies of the novel. Point-of-view is simply the character perspective that frames the narrative. In Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Catch 22, for example, readers perceive the world through the perspective of John Yossarian, the central character. The novel follows Yossarian from scene to scene; it limits all information to that of Yossarian; and it shows us events from his vantage point. This strategy allows readers to better know Yossarian, because the narration stays focused clearly on him.

The following passage, taken from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, demonstrates this same strategy in narrative nonfiction. Here the writing occupies the perspective of Tom Smith, a horse trainer, and allows readers to experience the narrative from his bias:

He believed with complete conviction that no animal was permanently ruined. Every horse could be improved. He lived by a single maxim: “Learn your horse. Each one is an individual, and once you penetrate his mind and heart, you can often work wonders with an otherwise intractable beast.” The cow ponies, the broncos, the show horses and the weary racers: all had helped to craft Smith into the complete horseman. He was waiting for the right horse.

This passage doesn’t simply relate the events from an objective standpoint, as an academic historian might. Nor does this passage relate the details from a position of personal reporting, as a journalist might. Rather, the passage assembles the events as they would’ve been perceived by one of the central figures in the book, Tom Smith.

I found the meaningful construction of point-of-view to be the most difficult task in preparing to write narrative nonfiction. In large part, constructions of interiority are always open to subjectivity. Yet a great deal of that subjectivity can be managed through conscientious research.

Visualizing a point-of-view strategy allowed me to define the following goals for my own project:

I wanted readers to understand the interior motivation of the two central characters, Walt Disney and C.V. Wood.

I wanted readers to feel as though they were following historic figures from scene to scene. That is, I wanted readers to feel that they were spending substantial time with each of these legendary individuals.

Lastly, I wanted readers to understand how these two individuals perceived the important events as they unfolded.

To achieve these goals, I arranged my research agenda yet again to uncover another layer of information. Half of this research was relatively easy to complete: I found three substantial biographies on Walt Disney, as well as dozens of published interviews in which he discussed his motivation and desires concerning Disneyland. But the other half presented many challenges.

C.V. Wood, who died in 1992, left behind only one lengthy interview on his work with Disney, as well as a handful of shorter or partial interviews on the subject. However, as I moved into my project, I met many of his lifelong friends, family members, and co-workers. From them, I needed to understand the psychological intricacies of Wood’s interior life.

I returned to my interview questions once more. Building the interior perspective for a historic figure is a daunting task: you, as researcher, need to absorb all of the information available and then carefully construct the pillars of personal perception. It can take years to accurately understand a historical figure with depth. With this task in mind, I developed interview questions I felt would help me better understand Wood as a person.

My questions to his friends and associates focused largely on developmental issues, motivation, fears, and pleasure. Their wording, for the most part, was arranged in the following way:

Can you help me understand how C.V. Wood’s childhood (that of Depression-era poverty) helped shape his adult personality?

Can you explain what motivated Wood? What drove him toward large accomplishments (such as the development of Disneyland or, later, the development of Lake Havasu City in Arizona)?

Can you help me understand Wood’s fears? What scared him? What did he want to avoid? How would he define the terms “personal success” and “personal failure”?

How would you describe Wood’s personal sense of ethics (those values that shaped his actions)?

Along with these abstract questions, I always asked interviewees for personal stories or memories to help illustrate their ideas, as stories and concrete memories are extremely useful in developing a nonfiction narrative.

 

Pulling it all together

No book-length project is ever easy.

After years of research – and also years of writing – I think I was able to create a unique work in which readers were able to experience the development of an American icon through the perspective of its two main architects (Walt Disney and C.V. Wood), men whose relationship ended in a knock-down, anger-fueled fight. I also think I was able to create scenes and set pieces that engaged readers with a moment-to-moment account of the park’s development. Perhaps most importantly, I taught myself how to adapt the principles of novel writing into the realm of nonfiction. Since the publication of Three Years in Wonderland, I’ve since finished a second book and am well into research for a third.

In my experience, the most important elements of research inquiry – that is, the materials you’ll need to uncover through reading, visits to archives, personal experience, and interviews – are those listed above. If you can develop a robust list of historical details, establish meaningful set pieces, and construct accurate points-of-view, you will end up with a narrative that does more than simply relate historic information; you’ll have a manuscript that allows readers the vicarious sensation of experiencing the past. Such books use language and research to transport readers to another place, to another time, to a realm where history opens in miraculous and memorable ways.

 

Todd James Pierce is the author of a half dozen books, most recently Three Years in Wonderland. His short story collection, Newsworld, won the 2006 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and he is the co-author of Behind the Short Story, a creative writing textbook. Web: toddjamespierce.com

 

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