Late on a Friday in Montreal, 1974, Art Williams, a National League umpire, is pacing the floor of his hotel room, sleepless and worried. During a game that evening, a player had pushed him, and Mr. Williams had pushed back — inappropriate behavior for those charged with enforcing the rules. It was personally troublesome for Mr. Williams, who, as the first black umpire in the National League, felt extra pressure to perform.
Mr. Williams worries through the night, repeatedly trying to compose the right words to explain the incident to the National League president, Chub Feeney, to whom he is obliged to report. After an early breakfast, Mr. Williams dials Mr. Feeney’s number. When the umpire identifies himself, the president does not sound happy.
“Well, what do you want?”“I wanted to explain to you, I mean, I wanted to tell you about what happened in last night’s game.”“Do you know what time it is?” Feeney demanded.Williams glanced at his watch and, at the same time, felt a sinking, queasy, bottomless feeling in his stomach. “Why, it is nine o’clock, Chub.”“It may be 9:00 in Montreal, young man,” said Feeney loudly, “but in California it is still the middle of the night!”
This scene is recounted in one of my first books, “The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand: The Game as Umpires See It.” This is a nonfiction book, but obviously, I wasn’t pacing behind the umpire on that anxiety-filled evening. So how could I describe the phone call or, for that matter, detail what Mr. Williams was thinking with any kind of authority? This is a legitimate question, one narrative or creative nonfiction writers must be prepared to answer when readers and editors want reassurance about scenes we’ve reconstructed. In our fervor to be cinematic and provide readers with compelling characters, how do we avoid crossing the murky line between fact and fiction?
Nonfiction means that our stories are as true and accurate as possible. Readers expect — demand — diligence. I won’t say that nonfiction writers don’t on occasion make mistakes or even knowingly make stuff up, as for example Jonah Lehrer did in his recent book, “Imagine,” or James Frey did in his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.” (Yes, truth in memoir is often a matter of memory and perception, but that doesn’t mean that the writer shouldn’t strive for accuracy at every opportunity, even when ideas and information are presented in scenes, as in the Williams-Feeney encounter.) As I explained in my previous article for Draft, all creative or narrative nonfiction books or articles are fundamentally collections of scenes that together make one big story.
But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.
In a recent interview in Creative Nonfiction, the magazine I edit, the writer Erik Larson explained his approach to portraying characters’ inner states of mind. “I will only propose what somebody is thinking or not thinking if I have something concrete in hand that makes that clear,” he says in the interview. “But you absolutely cannot make that stuff up out of whole cloth because then you pass into another realm entirely.” That realm is fiction.
Most writers separate research into two interwoven phases. They begin with archival information, meaning what’s already been written or collected. The Internet may be a starting point, but it’s important to then go to direct sources. Letters, diaries, papers, interview transcripts will often reveal defining and intimate details of your subject. Story lines you had never imagined may also present themselves. In researching “In the Garden of Beasts,” Mr. Larson searched documents, letters and writings related to his primary character, Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. Among the files were two locks of hair from the poet Carl Sandburg, with whom Martha had had an affair.
After the archives comes real-world research. Interview the people involved in the scenes — not just the primary characters, but the bystanders, as well, who may provide different perspectives. Visit the places where the action occurred and seek telling details, like the locks of Sandburg’s hair, that will surprise readers. This is the stuff that stands out and makes your work unique, memorable and three-dimensional.
More often than not, the responsible writer combines both methods of research not just to make scenes enticing, but also to assure accuracy. Nailing down the facts and maintaining dramatic impact is a process that requires patience, persistence and a commitment to not cut corners. Examples of how to do it right can be found in Rebecca Skloot’s excellent book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” In one scene, Stanley Gartler, a relatively unknown geneticist, speaks at a conference of more than 700 academics and industry leaders in Bedford, Penn., in 1966. He steps up to the podium, leans into the microphone and begins a talk that disrupts the entire field of study related to the culturing of cells. When Gartler finished, “the room sat silent, dumbfounded,” Ms. Skloot writes, until T.C. Hsu, the chairman of the conference session, spoke: “So I am happy about the paper by Dr. Gartler and am also sure he has made many people unhappy.”
Ms. Skloot then recounts the ensuing dialogue in the meeting, as well as the heated debate that flows into other sessions and continues through informal lunches — and six pages of the book.
Ms. Skloot was able to describe and document the debate so thoroughly because she unearthed a detailed transcript of the proceedings, which included the discussions that followed presentations. But what about the narrative details: how Dr. Gartler stood at the podium and leaned into the microphone — and then the deafening silence following his talk? Ms. Skloot tracked down and interviewed people who were there, she explained in an e-mail to me. She located letters about the conference written by participants who’d since died. She also examined photographs from the sessions.
As a final step, a writer must conduct a fact-checking review, the final ‘R’ in this equation. This is important, even when the story is based on archival material and reinforced through personal conversations.
In an ideal situation, research, real world and review all come together perfectly. But of course, this isn’t always the case. When I was reconstructing Mr. Williams’s nervous night and his embarrassing phone call to Mr. Feeney, no written documentation existed. In piecing together the story, I interviewed both Mr. Williams and Mr. Feeney, as well as two of the umpires that Mr. Williams had been working with who had heard the story from both men. I confirmed it all with Mr. Williams before the book went to press.
In the end, thorough research and real world exploration followed by fact-checking review shapes and sharpens the story, ensures writer credibility and allows for fair and equitable treatment of the characters involved. And by carefully following the three R process, writers of nonfiction will be prepared to answer the inevitable question: “How do you know?”
Lee Gutkind is founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University and a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. His new book is “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism to Everything in Between.”