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Gathering Facts

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March 2010
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The literary journalistic essay requires that the writer gather facts that are external to his/her own life. For instance, suppose the writer is writing an article that took place in 2000. To give the story context, a specific mood, and to make it more believable, the writer could incorporate important facts of that year, such as the top-selling books, popular songs and movies, and significant events. Where would the writer go to find this information? How would the writer gather this information? This article answers these questions.

Before writing the creative nonfiction piece, the writer needs to determine what information he/she needs and  where to find this information. To gather information, the writer has several methods:

  1. Library. The writer can conduct research by reading and taking notes from books, magazines, articles, and microfilm.
  2. Internet. The writer can conduct research by using Google, the most popular search engine in the world. Not only can the writer discover what has been written, he/she can also find leads to new sources of information, such as subject matter experts. And the writer can locate facts and details for the essay.
  3. Public Records. Property records will tell writer what properties a person owned. Criminal records will tell the writer whether a person has been charged with a crime and what crime. Court records will tell the writer about marriage licenses, divorce, name changes, criminal records.
  4. Private Records. Diaries, personal journals, family videos, Facebook, and other social networking sites can be good sources of factual information.
  5. Immersion. The writer can become a participant in the story. For instance, before writing Paper Lion, writer George Plimpton joined the training camp of the 1963 Detroit Lions on a tryout basis, so that he could write a creative nonfiction book about NFL football. Suppose the writer wanted to write about hockey, the best way to start would be to put on the equipment and participate in a practise or scrimmage. The experience would provide the writer with a sense of how the game is played and what it feels like to play.
  6. Interview. To write a literary journalistic essay, the writer will need quotes and from subject matter experts, eye witnesses, or people who took part in the story. To obtain this information, the writer can conduct an interview. To do this, the writer needs a pen and note pad, or a tape recorder. The writer also needs to prepare for the interview. He/she should have a list of prepared questions to ask.
  7. Travel. The writer’s goal is to gather not just any facts, but facts that will be interesting, surprising, and curious to the reader. To write a good creative nonfiction piece, the writer will need to recreate the scene. The scene creates a context and mood for the story. To gather the facts, the writer will need to revisit the place. This is especially true for travel writing. Often, the writer will need to play the role of the tourist. Sometimes the writer will need to travel to visit the location where the event or experience took place, to get a feel for the place. Or the writer might need to conduct an interview with a person who is living in another city or town.
  8. Observation. Sometimes the writer can observe the story. For instance, suppose the writer was gathering information about the joys of cooking. He/she could observe a chef in his kitchen. Suppose the writer wanted to write about film making. The best way would be to observe the director on the setting, making a film. While observing the experience or events, the writer can make notes or record his/her thoughts in a tape recorder.
  9. Reading. A good writer is continuously conducting research by reading widely and deeply for next topic. By reading biographies, essays, articles, newspapers, the writer can discover and gather information for the next story. A good creative nonfiction writer is always reading about different subjects and topics. A good writer is always learning, and reading enables the writer to learn new things.

Creative nonfiction is the literature of fact. The writer will need to gather the facts by conducting research. The type of research the writer will need to complete depends on the types of facts the writer requires.  The writer will often need to use different methods of research. The writer needs to gather facts that make the true story believable, interesting, and surprising.

For more information, you can read the chapter on “Finding the Facts” in Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blog, or you can send an email to me at .

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