One key element that makes narrative nonfiction so compelling is the sensory details you weave into the story.
The reader feels part of the scene when they can hear the rattle of buggy wheels on cobblestone, or smell the putrefying flesh at a crime scene. The best way to collect those sensory details is to personally experience your subject. For example, I know that the skin of a beluga whale feels like a peeled hardboiled egg because I went to Sea World and touched one. But when a deadline’s looming, or travel isn’t in the budget (and you can’t time travel) there are still plenty of ways to sniff out those details.
3. Maps – When writing about Lincoln, I kept a map of D.C. on my wall so I could trace his travels through the city. From the White House could he smell bread baking at the Capitol, or hear the cattle grazing beneath the Washington Monument? And using a map of the White House I could ascertain Jefferson’s view from his office window. It faced west, so I could safely say, “Through the geraniums growing on the windowsill (a detail from a letter), Thomas could watch the cattle graze in the distant meadow. How many times did his imagination look even further west across an entire continent…?”
4. Google Maps Street View – It’s the next best thing to being there. When writing about George Washington Carver I viewed several of the houses he stayed in, and determined how close a lynch mob came to his doorstep. Now Street View also features the Grand Canyon, Eiffel Tower and the International Space Station.
5. YouTube – You can find everything from a video of a praying mantis laying eggs to a 1940 first full color newsreel of The Tournament of Roses. Your senses will be delighted with these sites, and you can pass those details to your reader.
What sites do you rely on to give your stories that whiff of reality?
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The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.
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