I have a writing coach—in fact, I have a number of them. Some work on retainer for an $18 one-time payment; many of them work for free. They are available day or night, weekday or weekend, holiday or workday. I hire my coaches at the bookstore or library. They live between the covers of carefully scrutinized children's books. My coaches are also called mentor texts.
A mentor text is a well-written book that gives you the structure, the language, the arc that you could use for your own work. It is especially useful when you hit a wall. I have a fat folder of research on an unsung, feisty American woman with lots of kid appeal. But where to start? What to put in and what to leave out? Should I use chronological, flash-back, anecdotal structure? I was stuck.
Then I came across Kathleen Krull’s Dolley Madison: Parties Can Be Patriotic! (Bloomsbury, 2015) at my library. A quick scan of the first page and I wanted to yell, “EUREKA!” I had found the coach to lead me out of my literary dead end. Kathleen Krull readily came home with me and has stayed for the last couple of weeks.
Dolley Madison is part of Krull’s series on Women Who Broke the Rules. That’s also an apt description of the heroine of my current work-in-progress. Studying the way Krull skillfully wrote Dolley Madison is like having her seated beside my desk, patiently tutoring me. Here are some of the things Kathleen Krull has taught me so far:
1. Use a topic sentence with details--but not always. Note how this topic sentence is followed by the quick fire of four telling details.
All the rules in the new country of America were stacked against women. They were like property, first belonging to their fathers, then their husbands. They couldn’t attend college. No respectable jobs were open to them. They couldn’t vote or have any role in government.
2. Use a relevant quotation to hammer home your point. The paragraph above ended with “In fact America’s FF (Founding Fathers) believed women in politics would be unnatural— ‘the world turned upside down.’”
3. When facts are skimpy, frame them with period details you know to be true. Instead of stating the bare bones fact that Dolley’s first husband and her child died of yellow fever in 1793, Krull fleshes it out this way:
Then the deadly yellow fever reached town in 1793. Spread by mosquitoes, the horrible disease killed one of every five people in Philadelphia. The victims, alas, included Dolley’s new baby and her husband.
4. Know your theme before you start and refer to it often. Krull’s first sentence is “Dolley Payne was born with extra zip.” The last two sentences of the first chapter are: “Good thing she had a third secret weapon working for her. That extra zip.” In another chapter, “Would Dolley come to the president’s house…and help? Would she! Dolley jumped in with her usual zest.” The last chapter tells us that in retirement at Montpelier, after a tumultuous and popular reign as First Lady, Dolley “was still the hostess with the mostest.”
5. Use emotional details. Emotion is what makes us connect to characters, even historical ones. With deft strokes, Krull includes heart touching details that bring Dolley, an 18th century woman to 21st century life. Here are three of them:
Any of Kathleen Krull’s many titles are a master class in nonfiction writing. Stop by your library or bookstore and invite her over. She may be just the coach you need.
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