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Researching nonfiction in an age of social distancing
My windows are open. The temperature is inching upwards. Things are still nowhere near normal, but they are just that little tiny bit better.
Craft: Desk duty
How do you report in a pandemic? This isn’t necessarily a question referring to writing about the pandemic, though it could be. It’s a question about how nonfiction feature and book writers can do what they do, when they can’t do much of what they would normally do: follow interviewees through their days, visit people in their offices and homes, travel to locations to absorb the specific details of a place so that those places can be captured on the page, spend days immersed in documents in libraries and archives. How do you report from your desk?
It’s a question that students in the King’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction have raised with their mentors, a question I’ve been asking myself as I work on a project that, in normal times, would involve travel and face-to-face interviewing. The terrain—reporting on something you can’t see in person—isn’t completely unfamiliar to any writer who has been faced with reconstructing scenes they haven’t personally witnessed. One of my earliest pieces for Chatelaine more than twenty years ago was called “Borderline Babies,” about the medical dilemmas faced in saving premature babies. I interviewed the family and doctors at the heart of the story more than two years after the events I was writing about occurred, but was still able to craft the story as if observing it in real time.
And what I managed on a small scale—a few thousand words—others have done on much larger projects. Lauren Hillenbrand, author of the bestselling nonfiction books Seabiscuit and Unbroken, has debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome. She did the research for both books largely without leaving her home. (Read more about Hillenbrand in Wil Hylton’s 2014 profile of her in The New York Times Magazine, a beautifully written piece that is more traditionally reported, with Hylton visiting Hillenbrand and interviewing her in person.) Hillenbrand interviews subjects by phone, buys old newspapers on eBay rather than viewing them on vertigo-inducing microfilm, and yes, even convinces experts to bring WWII airplane equipment to her home so that she can look at it in person (probably not possible during a pandemic).
So how do you do it?
Interview differently: When we interview someone in person, we’re gathering at least two or three levels of information: the actual content of the interview, but also details about how the person presents and expresses themselves, as well as information gathered from the environment in which you’re interviewing (books they read, the ephemera in their home or office, the décor and furnishings, etc). Interviewing remotely still gives you the interview content, but you have to work harder for the rest. That might mean asking someone to describe their surroundings, or take snapshots of it to send to you—or, in the age of a web cam in every laptop and smart phone, to simply show you around via Zoom or Skype or Facetime.
Consider too what kind of interviewing might work best for your particular interviewee. I was fortunate on my current project: I had a chance to spend a couple of big chunks of time doing some in-person interviews before the pandemic shut things down. That helped enormously in building rapport and trust. If that hadn’t been possible, I might have opted for video calls, so that we could at least see each other, though there have been other situations in which traditional telephone calls with voice only have been terrific for building intimacy: as Hillenbrand says in the Hylton profile, sometimes it’s easier to ask tough questions or share emotionally difficult information when you’re not eye to eye.
Another interviewing technique I learned from my radio-doc producer sister Tina Pittaway (and I think I’ve mentioned in past newsletters): when asking someone to describe a scene from the past, ask them to do it in present tense rather than past tense. Why? Especially when someone has told a story a number of times, they fall into a habit of describing it the same way. Asking them to shift to present tense can break that habitual telling and reveal fresh insights or details. Also, shifting to present tense can help put your interviewee back into the memory of the scene more vividly, and again unlock details they might not otherwise think to share. So, “I walked down the hallway” becomes “I’m walking down the hallway. The light is flickering over my head and I can hear a dripping sound off to my right side.”
Picture it: What does the oceanside bar of a particular hotel in West Africa look like? First stop: hotel website. Hmm. Just a homepage with contact info. Next stop: TripAdvisor. Yup: dozens of photos, and there it is.
A basic photo search is straightforward: type in what you’re looking for and select “images” from the search engine result options. Don’t take what you find at face value. Seek confirmation that it is in fact what the photo label says it is by checking with other sources or looking for multiple views of the same item or place. Roam a neighbourhood using Google Street View, check out what homes and apartments in the area look like with AirBnB and real estate listings, “visit” restaurants through Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews. Don’t forget local tourism, government and chamber of commerce websites. Looking for people from the past? Ancestry.com has rich photo resources (though you may need a subscription to dig deep).
Tip: Type “then and now” with a place name and you’ll often get side-by-side comparisons of current locations with how they looked in the past.
Take a trip to the (virtual) museum: In-person museum and archival research is a must in normal times, but while most have shut their physical doors to visitors, many are also expanding what they make available online.
Take a novel approach: Trying to get a sense of a place or era? Don’t limit yourself to works of nonfiction—dip into novels as well. While you don’t want to rely on novels for facts, they can yield insights that enrich your sense of a time or place—and give you ideas for questions you might not have thought of otherwise.
Ask an expert: When Hillenbrand was writing Unbroken, she wanted to understand how a particular piece of bomber equipment worked—so she found an expert who could describe it. OK, she actually found an expert willing to bring the equipment to her house and set it up so that she could try it out… probably not advisable in social-distancing circumstances. But people who are passionate about their subjects are often passionate about sharing their passion for their subjects—so even if they can’t drop in, as Hillenbrand’s expert did, you can still ask questions via phone or email, and perhaps get a video tour or some snapshots in the mix as well.
Watch a video: When it comes to understanding how a piece of equipment works, or a particular task is done, don’t forget to check YouTube. Instructional videos—homemade and professional—abound. Wondering how that stacked stone fence at the edge of a farm property was built? There’s a video.
Lots of them.
Want to know how pleats are made in haute couture fashion? There’s a video.
Need to understand how a hydraulic jack works? Soooo many videos.
And of course, videos aren’t just for how-to’s: news, film and amateur videos are all rich sources of information—and description—on locations and events.
Give it a listen: Don’t forget audio archives as well. This tip sheet from NPR has some great sources listed.
Buy it on eBay: Hillenbrand bought newspapers from the 1930s on eBay. But old newspapers aren’t your only potential source of information: postcards, maps, guidebooks, letters, photographs, diaries, magazines and more all show up for sale on eBay and other auction and shopping sites. Heck, so do the actual implements and items you might be trying to describe.
So, can you write your nonfiction book without leaving your desk?
Lauren Hillenbrand did. Twice.
Year and place: Choose a year in the past and select a location. Now, spend 45 minutes online seeing what you can come up with to help describe what that place was like then. Tip: Want to know what people were eating? Look for cookbooks, restaurant menus and food advertising in magazines from the year you’re exploring.
How do I… Choose a task: Tying a bow tie. Making a meringue. Changing a tire. Harvesting honey from a hive. Or something else you’ve always wondered how to do. Spend an hour online. Finished your research? You’ve got 300 words to describe how it’s done. Go!
What I’m reading now: Brightspace FAQs. Still.
See last issue. Still doing that. (Mom’s reading Erik Larson’s latest, The Vile and the Splendid, and highly recommends it, so that may be next on the list—if for no other reason than that reading about the first year of the Second World War offers a bit of perspective on the “hardships” of locking down.)
Other good stuff
Read Attention span still shorter than usual? Here’s a list of 50 great novels all under 200 pages long. Great…now I have about 10,000 pages of reading to add to my list…
Watch In my journey around the internet, I happened upon the Pathé videos archive, a rich source of mid-20th century British “cinematic journalism”—news reel content shown at movie theatres. This video on “glamourous turbans” seemed particularly useful, given the current state of my hair.
Listen I’m always delighted to find another podcast series focused on writing. I’ve added a number of episodes from LitHub’s First Draft podcast to my queue: Leslie Jamison, Jenny Offill, Amitav Ghosh, Deborah Levy, David Quammen…
Book industry stuff
Bookstores are opening, slowly: And many are still focusing on curbside and online sales.
At Home with HarperCollins Canada: The book publisher launches a hub to keep authors and readers connected during the pandemic.
What’s it like to work in books? Quill & Quire magazine answers that question with its workplace survey.
Book club strategies: This recommendation comes from Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed newsletter (you should really subscribe—it’s free): author Amy Stewart on her strategies for promoting her book with book club chats, gleaned from more than 250 chats she’s done for her fiction and nonfiction titles.
Course, communities & stuff
Corporeal Writing: I haven’t taken any of the courses offered by Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal Writing, but I am intrigued.
The Center for Fiction: So much on offer, from online reading groups, author interviews, courses and more.
Wordfest: A weekly online happy hour about books? Yes please!
Tweets & stuff
I wish my Zoom meetings had more dogs…
This cat hates Sam Neill.
Magnolias. A good dog. And King’s.
Obligatory picture of Buddy
Buddy needs a hair cut.
The stuff at the bottom
I’m a writer, editor and teacher. This is my personal e-newsletter on the craft of writing nonfiction, sprinkled with occasional feminism and social justice. You can find out more about me on my website at kimpittaway.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter. I’m the executive director of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction limited residency program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. If you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, you should check our program out!
Share your online course and community recommendations, links to cool things writers and others are doing to get through all of this and whatever else strikes you in the comments section of the web version of this post.