Eight useful tips for writing nonfiction like a pro

Cell House 1 at Old Montana Prison with 1950s-era yard towers.

Cell House 1 at Old Montana Prison with 1950s-era yard towers.

By Kevin S. Giles

Writing nonfiction can be fulfilling, even fun, but it’s not for everyone. Serious nonfiction writing depends on serious research. You don’t want to put your name to something that’s riddled with errors and mistaken assumptions. The more you research, the better you will write.

1. Know what you’re after. Are you writing a book, a family memoir, or something else? If you’ve chosen an event you want to examine, will you write from a personal point of view or take the journalistic “disinterested observer” approach? (I used both in Jerry’s Riot.)

2. Know your audience. How will your nonfiction work differ from other stories and books? if you can’t find a new angle to an old story, maybe you should choose a new subject. (I knew for a long time before I started researching Jerry’s Riot that so little had been written about the 1959 riot — and some of it wrong — that I could write the definitive book. And I did.)

3. Know that in nonfiction writing, research comes first. Accuracy will become your best friend. The more you know, the better you write. (I worked part time for 10 years to research and write Jerry’s Riot.)

4. Interview sources who have first-hand knowledge of the event or person in your story. (I found about 100 of them for Jerry’s Riot. Most were cooperative, some weren’t.)

5. Corroborate what you learn in interviews with written sources such as police and court records, journals, newspaper accounts and other records. People’s memories fade over time. Sometimes they confuse first-hand observations with hearsay. (For Jerry’s Riot, I wrote the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for the federal file on Jerry Myles, the prisoner central to my book. It ran more than 700 pages.)

6. Look for drama. Nonfiction accounts become dry as dust when writers fail to tell personal stories. (I was able to piece together personal accounts and court transcripts to document the entire prison takeover, event by event, in Jerry’s Riot.)

7. Write chronologically. Nothing kills a nonfiction work faster than a writer’s desire to skip around through time by mixing dates and circumstances. Readers become confused, say your work is “hard to follow,” and share their frustration with other prospective readers. (I learned the hard way in early drafts of Jerry’s Riot.)

8. Be prepared to write and rewrite and rewrite even more. Amateur writers finish the first draft and think they’re done. Accomplished writers know they’ve got miles to travel before they sleep.

Good luck!

 

 

Best location for writing? Find that magical quiet place in your mind

photo

By Kevin S. Giles

So there’s this cabin in the woods, a quaint place where I can write my heart out. I won’t write a sentence before I arrive there because I want to save all that inspiration for when the time is right.

I see some problems with this fantasy. I don’t own a cabin in the woods. People I know who own cabins occupy them in summer and board the windows for winter. Most don’t have electricity, either. I’m not Henry David Thoreau, working with pen and paper, but a modern writer who needs juice for a laptop. For those browsing inspirations, I would appreciate an Internet connection, too.

I know the cliche. Great writers need special places to deliver their books. Places secluded from everyday distraction. Cabins. Seashore vistas. Special writing cottages for the imaginatively impaired. No kids howling, no ringing phones, no neighbors mowing the lawn in their underwear. When we’ve purged all the noise and trappings of our modern world, no small feat when you think about it, our minds open in relief and the great book spills onto the pages.

Something like that.

A few years ago I began reading everything by Stephen King, a prolific novelist by any measurement. He describes in On Writing how he wrote his first novels in the laundry room on a typewriter he balanced on his knees. Hardly idyllic, is it? Many other successful writers did their best work with trains rattling past, with the house full of relatives, often in spare minutes and hours between other obligations. F. Scott Fitzgerald pinned sheets of paper to his curtains in St. Paul, showing the makings of This Side of Paradise in a series of scenes, to help him construct his narrative. Lord help writers who lack curtains.

For me, I’ve always known the writing life through the prism of newsrooms where people are noisy, and guess what? They don’t care! Newspaper writing was a race to deadlines, always, but these days online postings make the newspaper experience a virtual deadline. The scene typically looks like this: some people writing, others interviewing on the phone, some badgering each other over stories they wrote and sometimes in good humor. Whether in newsrooms, laundry rooms or living rooms, writers have a story to complete. Most of them don’t have a cabin in the woods.

Over the years, whether writing daily stories in the newsroom or books at home, I’ve become accustomed to tuning out the world around me. If I allow distractions, nothing gets written or at least gets written coherently. Make sense?

Every writer has to find a comfortable place to write. I would love to try a cabin in the woods, although all that quiet and solitude might prove a greater distraction. Writing is a job. It doesn’t stand up well against nature’s appeal.

Rather than finding a place in the environment to write, try a place in the mind. That’s really what writing is all about anyway. The word travels from mind to paper, and if a writer can’t make that happen, all the fancy scenic views in the world won’t make a difference.

 

Mary’s Joy: A new play examines Puritans and a woman’s outrage

Writer and actor Jeanmarie Simpson.

Writer and actor Jeanmarie Simpson.

Mary's Joy art

By Kevin S. Giles

One of the enduring myths in American history is that we somehow serve
the greater public good by blending religion and government. To the
contrary, experience shows that imposing a restrictive moral code in the
guise of governing leads to ugly truths. So much for freedom of religion.
When a specific religion, or any religion at all, acquires the power to force
people of different beliefs to comply, what’s the predictable result?

Intolerance and persecution, as writer and actor Jeanmarie Simpson starkly
portrays in “Mary’s Joy,” her new stage play that reaches deep into a Quaker
woman’s spiritual pain.

Simpson, a Quaker herself, confronts Puritan America in the 1600s for what it was — a noxious merging of religious extremism with public policy.
Interior dialogue tells the story in this one-woman play. Simpson acts all
the parts, drawing us into a family crisis driven by Mary Dyer’s civil
disobedience of Puritan laws.

Mary Dyer was a real person, one of four Quakers known as “Boston Martyrs”
who went to the gallows for their beliefs. Simpson, a practiced and
disciplined playwright, quickly guides us away from any expectation that
Mary will resist confrontation with cranky Puritan leaders who
practiced a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. Instead, she
beckons us into Mary’s tortured inner life where even the lure of family
can’t save her from a higher calling.

Mary, through her neighbor Anne Hutchinson, learned “salvation by grace,” a
kinder spiritual peace. Men and women were equals. God was infinitely good
and loving.

Early in her new American life, the English immigrant Mary loathed the cruel
ways of the Puritan leaders who ran Boston with an iron hand. She reeled at
seeing poor wretches in stocks, their backs laid open with a whip. Offenses
included even laughing on the Sabbath, and punishments for violating the
Puritan way would mean banishment, even death.

Mary gives birth to Joy, a hideously deformed child. The girl mercifully
dies on arrival, leaving Mary fearful that Puritan leaders will find out and
interpret Joy’s malformation as God’s punishment of a heretic.

They do, and what happens next reveals Simpson’s convictions that so
eloquently draw the Puritans out of their darkness. “Mary’s Joy” leaves us
hurting in a personal way for Mary and her estranged husband William and
their children, but beneath the emotional foundation it’s a study of free thought and freedom to worship vs. servitude and perpetual obedience.

Religious bias leaves a stain, often bloody, and through Mary’s eyes Simpson
leaves little doubt of the consequences.

Kevin S. Giles and Jeanmarie Simpson share a mutual interest in Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. Simpson has portrayed Rankin on stage and film.

Through the lens of Mark Mesenko: Western Montana’s striking beauty

If Mark Mesenko ever leaves home without his camera, he's missing the next remarkable photograph.

If Mark Mesenko ever leaves home without his camera, he’s missing the next remarkable photograph.

Beautiful scenic photographs shown on www.skybluewaterspress.com were taken by Mark Mesenko. More of Mark’s stunning images of Western Montana are available on his website. I know he would appreciate a visit.

Mark Mesenko is an award-winning photographer and a fourth-generation Montanan with roots in Anaconda and the Bitterroot Valley. He is firmly bound to the landscapes he captures in his photographs.

Mark’s love for photography began at 10, when his grandmother bought him a Kodak Instamatic 110, a couple of boxes of flashcubes, and a photo album. He joined an after-school photography club and learned the basics of darkroom processing. Most of his early photos were of family pets and Hot Wheels cars, but Mark was also intrigued by trick photography. An appreciation for rural life came during summers spent on the family ranches and farms in the Bitterroot Valley, which remain a favorite subject today.

Here’s what Mark says of his photography:

I love to chase the light on Montana’s ever-changing landscapes. My camera lives in my lap, and I experience anxiety when I leave home without it. I need to capture and share the fleeting moments that command my attention—and that means I often careen onto the shoulder of the highway or make instant U-turns when I’m driving. (You must sign a release to ride with me.)

Early on I focused on shooting photos of wildlife, especially birds, and that evolved into a greater appreciation for the environment around them. But I still can’t explain the desire that wakes me at 5 am and trudges me out on finger-numbing mornings or marches me to mountaintops just before dark or leads me on seemingly aimless journeys that ultimately reward me with an image.

I credit my mom with my love of old barns—in my younger days, she asked me often if I was born in one. Now I feel compelled to preserve these structures with this wonderful medium. Someone must do it.

I think of my images as windows on a world that most people aren’t fortunate enough to see. I’m grateful for these glimpses into inspiring beauty. Gazing into one of these images—or even through one—can evoke a Zen moment. I thank you for sharing these moments with me.

And thanks, Mark, for sharing your talent with us.

 

New! ‘Winter Lake,’ a clever novel of music and adventure in Wisconsin

Craig J. Hansen’s bold new sequel to “The Skeleton Train.”

By Kevin S. Giles

My friend Craig Hansen has done it again.

This talented Minnesota author has published a sequel to his popular first novel, The Skeleton Train. Craig’s new book, Winter Lake, continues the story of protagonist Jason Audley. It is now seven years later and Jason is still a seeker, someone who wanders in and out of the mainstream trying to find his place. Although these years have brought him losses, he’s kept his wry humor, and looks for the best in others while expecting the worst for himself. Hoping to work on a tree farm, he ends up as a drummer in the Chess Chalmers Band. Each summer, Chess and his band wander a circuit of bars, casinos, resorts and strip clubs in northern Wisconsin, playing anywhere they can. Jason wanders with them, meeting the eccentrics, misfits and just plain regular people of the north woods. His journey eventually takes him to Winter Lake and adventure, where his aimlessness doesn’t work, where others grow to depend on him, and where he finds that he must confront his past in order to reveal his future.

You can also read a free excerpt of Winter Lake here. Here’s some insight into Craig:

His friends know him as a prolific artist. When he’s not writing he’s playing guitar in one of three bands. When he’s not playing guitar he’s writing yet another book. His motto: “Writing in the morning, music at night.”

It’s apparent that these two creative pursuits share more similarities than some folks might think. Good writing plays like a song to the ear. A skilled guitar carries in its lilt a writer’s voice. Precision. Tight construction. Quest.

Either discipline, done well, shares a message that strikes the emotions.

Craig J. Hansen is a Minnesota author and a university writing professor.

Craig does both well. His novel, published under Sky Blue Waters Press, will be available soon. I’ll update this post when that happens. Meanwhile, The Skeleton Train remains for sale here and at all major online bookstores. It’s now available in e-book format also.

This is what Craig has written for the book:

Craig J. Hansen earned his doctorate from the University Of Minnesota and is a professor in the Department of Communication, Writing, and the Arts at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He has published short stories and a variety of academic works, and has played guitar in various bands for many years.  He has deep family roots in northern Wisconsin and now lives with his wife Karen in Stillwater, Minnesota. This is his second novel.

Craig plays lead guitar for the More-Tishans, a 1960s garage band that has seen a popular revival in recent years. He’s shown at a recent practice session. (Kevin S. Giles photo)

 

 

A case for simple (not simple-minded) writing

Here’s evidence that what our English teachers told us made sense.

Writing tips from successful authors, many of them long dead, echo the marching orders heard in classrooms for generations. Write in simple declarative sentences. Kill adverbs. Write in active voice, not passive. Avoid cliches. Write to communicate, not to impress.

Haven’t most of us broken all those rules? Or didn’t listen in the first place? I know I did.

I’m getting better at accepting that writing simple is better. Some of my earlier work gives me a start. The Thesaurus was my best friend because I was in love with big words. I still get a little dizzy over the ring of words such as “dichotomy” and “quintessential,” but how many people talk like that? A love affair with big words preoccupies a writer with the dictionary instead of telling a good story. I’ve been there. I admit it.

Take the last piece you wrote. Strike every possible adverb, meaning every “very” and every word ending in “ly,” to see what remains. Turn passive verbs into active ones. Throw out foreign language phrases unless you’re writing for an audience that understands them. There’s a time and place for everything, but a successful writer won’t encumber readers with such distractions unless he knows his audience and the language fits the story. It’s not the writer’s job to confuse readers, but to tell them a story.

One of my favorite authors, Jack Kerouac, wrote in a tangled tongue. His book The Subterraneans reads like a single 111-page sentence. “A book of new power and awesome beauty,” the San Francisco Examiner concluded when it was published in 1958.

We have plenty of room in the writing world for Kerouac and other accomplished “stream of consciousness” authors like William Faulkner and Tom Wolfe who found literary niches. I doubt the rest of us will succeed in today’s competitive market if we skip the basics.

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip,” said Elmore Leonard, who started his writing career with westerns 50 years ago and then moved into crime fiction and suspense thrillers.

His writing advice, and that of several other successful authors, appears on the BuzzFeed website. Here is a sampling. You might hear your English teacher talking:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway

“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” George Orwell

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Stephen King

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Mark Twain

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” Edgar Allen Poe

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place …. Something more will arise for later, something better.” Annie Dillard

“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” Ray Bradbury

“Start as close to the end as possible.” Kurt Vonnegut

Posted by Kevin S. Giles

 

 

Amy Lee Felix: Wife of a hostage reflects on Montana’s deadly 1959 prison riot

Recently I discovered that Amy Lee Felix had passed away. In reading her obituary I remembered in some detail sitting at her kitchen table in the mid-1990s in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. I was there to interview Amy’s husband, Everett “Guff” Felix, who had a remarkable story to tell about being held hostage during the 1959 prison riot in Deer Lodge.

Guff would be remembered as the highest-ranking officer taken hostage when the riot began on April 16. He was a captain then, just a few years after he closed his restaurant and began looking for work, hardly prepared by his own admittance to deal with rioting prisoners.

I took the following from a letter Amy wrote me in 1996. It shows what Guff faced as the prison’s new captain:

“We did feel Guff was being tested in the beginning, probably by both the officers and the inmates. When he became captain one of the first things that happened was the peace of our evening was shattered by the ringing of the telephone. This would be repeated and repeated. One of the officers had called Guff on behalf of the inmates. ‘Could they set up an extra thirty minutes to see the end of a TV program they were watching?’ … Guff asked the caller what the rules were. There was a pause as the caller answered his question. Then Guff, before hanging up, gave his answer: “Then follow them.”

Sitting at his kitchen table that day of the interview, his arms crossed, Guff bowed his head and cried. I might have dug too deep with my questions about the riot. He described hostages being packed into cells for 36 hours, fearful death would come any minute. The rioting prisoners led by Jerry Myles and Lee Smart threatened death by gunshots, firebombs, knives, fists and hangings from the metal railing along the catwalk that ran along the cells. Much of what Guff told me went into my book, Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.

Amy sat beside him quietly. Arthritis wracked her body that day, as it had most of her adult life. It had twisted her wrists and turned her fingers sideways. And then she, too, remembered.

The day the riot began, she knew Guff was in trouble. First came eyewitness reports that Deputy Warden Ted Rothe was shot dead. Then Guff didn’t come home and Amy knew why. Amy and several other wives of men held hostage feared the killing would continue.

When, on the third day of the disturbance, the National Guard fired rockets at the prison cell house to scare the rioting prisoners, the booms were heard all over town. Amy raced out of her apartment in her stocking feet. She tore down the gravel alley toward the prison. She ran most of the way before realizing she wore no shoes.

Amy and Guff had led a quiet life before the riot. Guff never went back inside those imposing gray walls. They returned to Corvallis in the Bitterroot Valley, leaving Deer Lodge after hardly more than a year of that strange prison experience back.

Guff died in 1998. He was no stranger to violence, having participated in the D-Day invasion of Germany-held Europe in 1945.

Amy died Jan. 25, 2012, in Hillsboro, Oregon, where she had gone to live with her daughter after Guff died. Amy was nationally recognized for her volunteer contributions in education and health care. To Amy, like Guff, the riot would leave a lifelong impression.

 

 

The Rebel (Nick Adams) writes about his friend The King (Elvis Presley) with a little help from daughter Allyson

Allyson Adams

For Allyson Adams, publishing her father’s book was a journey into the past.

A remarkable new book, The Rebel & the King, will go to publication in August. It was written in 1956 by Hollywood actor Nick Adams to document his friendship with rock and roll phenomenon Elvis Presley.

Adams, you might remember, played Johnny Yuma in The Rebel television series in 1959-60. Presley, “The King,” met Adams on a movie lot in Hollywood. They became fast friends.

My friend and colleague Allyson Adams, Nick’s daughter, discovered the typewritten manuscript in a trunk of her dad’s belongings. Nick died in 1968, when Allyson was 7 years old, and she hadn’t opened the box until a few years ago.

When Allyson asked me to read the manuscript, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Nick had written a homespun tale of the “other Elvis,” an acutely polite young superstar who doted on his parents and tried never to offend his fans. Nick devoted much of his book to eight days he spent with Elvis in Memphis and Tupelo, Mississippi. Nick’s charming tale recalls those days of comparative innocence for two ambitious celebrities destined to die young. It’s a diary of encounters. Nick talks about introducing Elvis to actress Natalie Wood. He covers in some detail how Elvis bought new furniture for his parents. It’s also a walk through the emotion of life. To Elvis, Nick revealed his fear that he wouldn’t make it big in movies. To Nick, Elvis shared his regret that fame was pushing him much too hard.

Allyson hurts even today over her dad’s untimely and mysterious death at age 36. She and I became acquainted several years ago after discovering a common connection. I’m a Montana native who had written a biography of Jeannette Rankin, the nation’s first congresswoman. Allyson, who had lived in Montana for many years, had read my book. It became an inspiration for her stage career in single-woman productions of Jeannette Rankin’s life. Allyson also produced a movie, Peace Is a Woman’s Job, in which she played Rankin. It’s a whimsical portrayal of Rankin as an icon for pacifism.

I know it was tough for Allyson to pull her father’s memories out of the trunk. In doing so, she’s given voice to what he couldn’t, or least didn’t.

I admit to being a bit star struck when I read Nick’s original manuscript. Johnny Yuma was one of my favorite TV heroes when I was a young boy watching The Rebel weekly on television with my own dad. It’s all the more exciting that 50-some years after the last episode of that series, Allyson has brought her father’s unfiltered portrayal of the legendary Elvis to life.

Nick wrote the story on a typewriter borrowed from actor friend James Dean. Yes, Nick ran in a fast celebrity crowd and savored the big time, but his book makes clear that he valued respect, honesty and compassion. Much like the gentler Elvis he reveals, Nick comes across as a regular guy, just telling it like it was.

Update: Allyson has found radio interviews with Nick Adams and Elvis Presley and rare footage of their appearance during that legendary homecoming to Tupelo, Mississippi.

Kevin S. Giles, author of Jerry’s Riot

Nick Adams and Elvis Presley

Close friends: Nick Adams and Elvis Presley

 

How to write a nonfiction book

By Kevin S. Giles

Want to write a book about an event? A good story you want to share with other people?

The first step is thinking about your audience. Who will read the book? Who will pay for it? How will you tell your prospective readers about your book? What similar books can you find already on the market?

If you think you have a reasonable chance of selling your book, begin your research. Because you’re writing about an event that might have hit the news, hunt for all the documents that contain facts and clues that will help you tell a clear, accurate story. Stories in newspapers and on broadcast stations, if reported in depth, will supply names of witnesses and references to records and reports. Court documents, such as affidavits, vital records and trial testimony are mostly open to the public. Letters, emails, diaries and other personal correspondence can provide important insight into events and the people involved.

When I wrote ‘Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance,’ I read all the court files I could find. The federal prison file for Jerry Myles, the longtime convict who instigated the riot, ran about 700 pages. I contacted surviving relatives of guards and inmates to ask for letters and other documents. As much as possible you’ll want primary sources, meaning documents written from the actual event or people who were involved in it.

You’ll also want to interview everyone you can find who has first-hand knowledge of the event. Some of them will want to talk. Others won’t. If the event was traumatic, such as the riot I investigated, people will be wary. Be persistent but not overbearing. Sources are less inclined to talk when they’re being hounded and pushed. Be careful of people who claim to have knowledge of an event because they read it someplace or falsely claim they were involved in the event. (Yes, it happens.) Corroborate everything you hear. Primary sources are always the best, but even people with first-hand knowledge of an event sometimes forget key facts.

Once you’ve collected a sizable body of information, outline your book. What key points do you want to make? What would interest readers more? What would put them to sleep? When you begin writing, prepare for long hours alone in a room where you can concentrate. Writing will take months. Often it can take years. Your first draft is only a start. You’ll find new angles to research. I put Jerry’s Riot through at least 15 revisions before I considered it publishable, and I’m a journalist with years of experience. It took me 10 years to complete the book from the first research to the last proof.

Many people who want to write their first book underestimate the skill, commitment, sacrifice and devotion necessary to write and publish. That discovery can be awakening to some folks, discouraging to others. Occasionally, though, first-time authors will leap all the hurdles to successfully put a book into print. That’s an achievement to celebrate.

Writing Jerry’s Riot

Readers often ask how I found the high level of detail that appears in Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.

The short answer is this: from people who were there. The longer answer is a bit more complicated.

Calamities yield personal stories big and small. In major influential tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the resulting impressions, reactions and eyewitness accounts might stretch to infinity. And what older American today can’t remember exactly what he or she was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated?

The riot happened 49 years ago this April. To people who were involved, inside or outside the walls at Montana State Prison in downtown Deer Lodge, the riot happened yesterday. That’s how clearly they remember it. But like in any calamity, people remember best what was right in front of them. It’s the author’s responsibility to assemble the memory fragments into whole cloth.

In researching Jerry’s Riot I conducted hundreds of interviews. Almost all of those people remembered details that emotion had branded to their brain. Guards remembered dripping water, the warden recalled being served slices of cake after being taken hostage, and women described watching the prison for hours on end for sign of their husbands. Inmates gave me first-hand accounts of the takeover.

I corroborated the personal stories with legal documents such as affidavits taken from inmates in the weeks after the riot. It became easier to see the total picture, especially as details brought history to life. While many people involved in the riot had died long before I started my research, many others remained. In some cases relatives of people who had died remembered critical detail. Most of it turned out to be credible and accurate, to the extent that an author can determine such things more than 40 years afterwards. I discarded some of what was described to me as fiction.

Capturing genuine detail is a race against time. Several people I interviewed for the book are now gone as well, including some of the guards held hostage, wives of hostages and a National Guard commander involved in the rescue efforts. But since 2005 when the first edition of Jerry’s Riot was published, more people with personal stories have stepped forward to offer even greater detail.

As I concluded in the acknowledgements portion of the book:

In some interviews, tears told the story when words failed.