According to Barbara Lounsberry in The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction, all good creative nonfiction shares these four essential characteristics: (1) documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to events imagined in the writer’s mind; (2) exhaustive research which permits authors to “establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts;” (3) vibrant, well-developed scenes that are the building blocks of the work; and (4) a pleasing literary style. Certainly, these were characteristics I had to keep in mind as I developed the three narrative biographies in Unbroken Spirits: Three Extraordinary Southern Colorado Women.
A couple years of perusing dozens of primary and secondary sources and extensive use of endnotes in the final product helped me meet the first two criteria. However, the last two proved far more challenging. I wanted each of the three biographies to feel like a short story unified by a suspenseful plot. Yet each also had to be historically accurate.
I began by listing in chronological order all the significant events in the main character’s life and using the list to develop a storyline. By this method, I could decide which events on the real person’s timeline to build into scenes within the story; which to place inside endnotes; and which to eliminate altogether. Then came the hard work—converting a simple event on a storyboard into an exciting, sensory-laden scene that would catch the reader’s interest. The three examples included in the rest of this essay illustrate straightforward techniques for developing a factually accurate but dramatic scene for creative nonfiction.
Example One—Hook the reader. Immediately grab the reader’s attention while liberally employing figurative language and juxtaposing short statements next to longer sentences in order to add structural variety. These aspects of good writing must be obvious within the first page of the work.
Here’s how I transformed a single event on Chipeta’s storyline into the opening sentences of her biography. Basic Fact: Chipeta, wife of the famous Uncompahgre Ute, Chief Ouray, was actually a Kiowa Apache orphaned at an early age. The Opening Sentences of the Narrative Biography: Sinister, bloody, and unnerving—that’s what the Ute hunters thought of the place they had just stumbled upon. They were staring at a village of teepees nestled into a grove of cottonwood where nothing seemed to be stirring. No dogs barked. No horses neighed. No humans called out to each other. These few lines provide a suspenseful beginning to the first scene while simultaneously leading into the first event on Chipeta’s timeline.
Example Two—Enhance character development through use of dialogue. Because I could not interview my characters, I had to turn to history books, legal proceedings, courthouse records, old newspapers, and other archives to discover useful quotations. In Marion Sloan Russell’s case, her own autobiography was not the best place to find material on her family’s twenty-year legal struggle against the Maxwell Land Grant Company. Luckily, other sources dedicated far more space to detailing this conflict, and I could employ quotations found in these other sources to develop dialogue for the rising action in my own story of Ms. Russell.
“Shoot him,” cried someone standing inside the picket fence who had probably overheard at least some of the conversation.
“They’re here to seize our property!” exclaimed another homesteader. “We can’t allow them to do it!”
“Kill ‘um,” screamed a third voice. “Kill ‘um all!”
By then Deputy Hunn had reached the hotel lobby and slammed the front door shut. Some of the settlers could see that his cronies had already barricaded bay windows with mattresses and were presently pointing Winchester rifles through broken glass panes…
“Keep your head down!” yelled Frenchy, who dived for cover behind a veranda column. Richard pressed his back up against a wall, his eyes on the front door.
“Surround the building!” screamed O.P. McMains, as he ran toward the crowd.
Ms. Russell’s husband played a key role in the gunfight at Stonewall, Colorado, and this shootout also happened to be a culminating event adding fuel to Ms. Russell’s legal proceedings. Therefore, I felt comfortable in using documentable details and quotations I’d gathered when researching this event as I built toward the climax of my own version of Ms. Russell’s story. Why make something up when historical events provide realistic conclusions at least as dramatic as any contrived in an author’s imagination?
Example Three—Show rather than tell. Authors of creative nonfiction must utilize sensory detail to show rather than tell important character traits. Within Pearl Jolly’s biography, I developed sympathy for the strike organizer Louis Tikas by showing that he was brave and willing to stand up to tyrants. The following scene also employs foreshadowing because the word “someday” will eventually resurface many pages later in the climax of the story.
The handsome Greek remained cool-headed but defiant, evidencing the fact that he too was a veteran of foreign wars. “Someday,” he whispered, glaring into the face of his bullying opponent. The rest of the sentence was left unsaid, but Linderfelt had heard it before, heard it from strikers walking the streets of Trinidad, heard it from the striker’s wives ridiculing him behind his back, heard it from the Greeks, including Louis Tikas, who had made a show of pointing imaginary guns at him with their index and middle fingers.
When he heard Louis Tikas’ implied threat, Linderfelt’s reddening face puffed up like a big toad's.” Hold him, boys,” he barked as he motioned to two of his subordinates. They pulled Louis outside the train depot, pinned him against the wall, and watched as Linderfelt drew his pistol and prepared to beat Louis over the head with it.
Critics tell us to render a true story more entertaining by creating a literary style that is enjoyable, enlightening, and freshly original. Thus, we are challenged to use strong imagery while remaining grounded in fact. In What is Creative Nonfiction? Lee Gutkind compares creative nonfiction to jazz because “it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself.” We are not allowed “to make stuff up,” but we are compelled to use literary techniques to connect our readers to our subject matter in a meaningful, poignant way.
Kay Beth Faris Avery is a southern Colorado writer specializing in Colorado history, southwestern historical fiction, and creative biographies. Avery’s second book, Tales from the Trappers’ Trail, was a finalist in the 2010 New Mexico Book Awards. Her short story, Homesteaders, from the book entitled Warriors, Widows, and Orphans, earned third place in Contest 13 of the Tom Howard International Short Story Contest. Her collection of narrative biographies, Unbroken Spirits: Three Extraordinary Southern Colorado Women, garnered a Silver Award in the High School Creative Nonfiction category of the 2017 Literary Classics Book Awards. Before turning to writing as a full-time profession, Avery served as a teacher for more than thirty years in such diverse settings as a small rural high school in northwestern Kansas, a middle school on the island of Guam, and a technical education center in Kissimmee, Florida.