That inventor was 16 year-old Hanson Gregory, who became the youngest sea captain from Maine.The Washington Post interviewed him, then retired, on March 26, 1916. My first manuscript had a child questioning the captain, with his fellow mariners adding facts and humor to the story. It became historical fiction, and I imagined wacky illustrations by David Catrow.
I continued to dig. As I unearthed more facts, I realized my first approach was too cavalier. True, Hanson Gregory impulsively created the doughnut while serving on-board as a 16 year-old cook’s assistant. He later married but left his wife and children for months while commanding fast sailing ships. His cargo was dangerous; it caught fire when wet! Gregory even earned a medal from the Queen of Spain for saving the lives of her sailors. In the next version, I revealed Gregory’s life in a chronology that involved sidebars about the lime trade, tall ships and sea disasters, on-board cooking, and more. I got caught up in the period and the book became unwieldy.
A new tack was needed. Census records, death certificates, newspaper archives, letters, and public libraries revealed emotions and tragedies long forgotten. Four of Gregory’s nieces and nephews, all under age five, were killed by yellow fever in the same week. Two of the captain’s young children disappeared from census records and his grandchildren all died tragically. Finally, Captain Gregory was driven from the sea by the dominance of steam-power. I felt bound to bring this man back to life. But how to write about so much determination in the face of towering grief? What about the doughnut? This version was too bleak.
Next I uncovered a strong connection between this 19th century sea captain and modern day Dunkin’ Donuts. What about a book that developed that relationship? And what about the connection with the doughnut girls of World War I? Several attempts to write that version of events fizzled out when the emotional depth was lost.
After six months and 22 rewrites, my 200 pages of research were whittled to 1,071 words about this sea captain and his amazing career. That version did not sell.
I wrote yet another selection of facts with just 716 words, centered on Gregory’s invention of the doughnut. For all the rest, I had to choose just five short author notes. This version sold.
One burden of writing nonfiction is choosing what goes in the work (and gets read), and what remains in one’s research. Captain Gregory outlived most of his family and his story died with him. I grieved as I let the life I had discovered slip back into the soup of history.
Your charge, as you research and write, will be which facts to reveal. And which to leave out. In so doing, you may not change history, but you could alter your readers’ perception of the events.
This is why research is a blessing, and a burden. Choose your facts carefully.
by Nancy Churnin
A nonfiction ninja needs detective skills. So, put on your Sherlock Holmes cap, and track down your subject. If your subject is dead, contact that person’s descendants or those who knew the person well.
What you learn can make the difference in unearthing details that will bring your story to vivid life or correct errors made in previous biographies.
How do you find these people?
Newspapers and magazine articles. If the person is alive, articles will probably tell you where that person was living as well as where the person was working at the time the article was written. Look up the place of work and if your subject is no longer working there, ask where the subject might be. If dead, obituaries will tell you the survivors or where the person donated records. Your subject’s alma mater can help track down heirs.
Universities and publishers. If the person and heirs are impossible to reach, look up experts on your subject. Often that person can be found teaching at a university where emails are easy to find. The expert may also point you to resources that can get you going on your own original research.
Travel. If you can, go to the actual place where your subject lives or lived and walk the streets that person walked, go to places that person might have frequented and talk to people who know or knew your subject.
What if the subject or the family WON’T support the book?
While it’s your legal right to write about people who are famous without their consent, I have always opted against that. It is hard to get a story right even with all the resources at your disposal. It’s also hard to market the best of stories. It’s a big help to go out there with support.
If your hunt leads to putting your manuscript aside, remember that even for the best of detectives, not all cases get solved. But with these tips, the percentage that you do solve should go up. Happy sleuthing!
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