True Stories Make The Best Stories

Recently, I saw the film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of the African-American women who worked as mathematicians and engineers for NASA during the 1960s. These women were an integral part of the space program from the earliest days of the Mercury program, and on up through the Apollo moon landings, but remained largely unknown to the general public even to this day.

As good as the movie was, I was even more excited to learn that it was based on a book of the same title, written by Margo Lee Shetterly. When a movie says, “based on a true story,” it often means more along the lines of “one or two true elements with a whole lotta fiction thrown in for dramatic purposes.” And while I understand why films take some measure of dramatic license in telling a true story, it always saddens me a little to learn how far many of them have drifted away from the source material.

the-future-belongs-to-those-who-believe

Because I’ve always believed that true stories make the best stories. True stories not only tell us things we may not have known about history, but also things about ourselves and our time. Being a published non-fiction author myself, I’ve always gravitated towards true stories told well. And in that spirit, here are ten true stories that get it right.

A Night To Remember / The Night Lives On, by Walter Lord. First published in 1955, A Night To Remember is still the definitive book on the sinking of the Titanic. I first read it when I was in the fifth grade, and it turned me into a bona fide, rivet-counting, Titanic junkie. Lord’s narrative is filled with first hand accounts from survivors, and is so compelling and engaging, that the book reads like a novel rather than a dusty history. The Night Lives On was published in 1986, following the rediscovery of the ship, and continues the story by shedding light on the new research that followed. Both books are essential reads for anyone interested in the most famous of all shipwrecks (as well as anyone who needs their palate cleansed after James Cameron got through shoving Jack and Rose down their throats).

In Harm’s Way, by Doug Stanton. On the heels of the most famous shipwreck ever, comes the story of a lesser known, but equally compelling disaster involving the USS Indianapolis. Anyone who has seen the film Jaws will remember Robert Shaw’s chilling monologue about the ship, which was sunk in the final days of World War II, just after a top secret mission to deliver the atomic bomb components to the island of Tinian. For several days, the surviving sailors and Marines floated in the open ocean, dealing with hunger, thirst, hypothermia, and the worst shark attack in recorded history. Stanton’s book is even more chilling, adding new dimensions to the tragedy, many of which followed the survivors for the rest of their lives.

Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose. This book tells the story of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, as they come together in training, land in Normandy on D-Day, through the Battle of the Bulge, and to the end of the war in Hitler’s private mountaintop retreat. HBO’s miniseries is based on this book, and I highly recommend both as a study of how ordinary men came together in a crucial moment in history to save the world. The men of Easy Company feel like personal friends to me, to the point where I keep tabs on the 14 last survivors. The Greatest Generation, indeed.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cancer in 1951, but whose cells were harvested by doctors, and have become the basis for all genetic research in the world today. This book gives a human face to the woman to whom everyone in the world owes a debt of gratitude. The medical knowledge and developments that have come about because of her cells have benefitted millions without even realizing it. The book also asks important questions about identity and privacy that resonate today.

The Hot Zone, By Richard Preston. Speaking of medicine, this book chronicles the history and rise of dangerous diseases such as the Hanta and Ebola viruses. Written in the early 1990s, this book not only inspired films like Outbreak, but inspired a generation of people to stock up on hand sanitizer.

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptopgraphy, Simon Singh. I know what you’re thinking: books with super long subtitles are bound to be boring, and this one looks like a college text that will cost upward of ninety bucks in the university bookstore. But trust me—it’s fascinating. If you like history, you’ll like this book. If you haven’t the foggiest idea about cryptography, you’ll like this book. It’s geared towards the average reader, and is a fast and compelling read. It also feels very relevant today because of the heightened public awareness of cyber security.

Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell, with Patrick Robinson. This is the story of a Navy SEAL team who went on an ill-fated secret mission to capture a high-ranking Taliban member in the mountains of Afghanistan. Luttrell is the titular lone survivor, and his story is both tragic and inspiring as he pays homage to his fallen comrades. (This book was made into a film with Mark Wahlberg, and is a powerful, but difficult film to watch).

Connections, by James Burke. In the late 1970s, PBS ran a documentary series called Connections, which was written and presented by British historian James Burke. In each episode, Burke took one of the technological breakthroughs of the 20th century—such as the internal combustion engine, the assembly line, the computer, or the rocket—and showed the unusual—and often surprising—twists and turns throughout history that led to its development. Burke showed that nothing exists in isolation, and that everything—and everyone—are, in fact, connected. This book was the companion volume to the show, and is a brilliant read for anyone who loves history and science.

Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson. Larson is one of those non-fiction writers who approaches his subjects as though he were writing a novel. Indeed, The Devil in the White City reads like a horror story, and is arguably his most well known work. But I have chosen to recommend Thunderstruck, in which Larson again takes two seemingly disparate historical events—in this case, the development of the wireless telegraph by Marconi, and the lurid tale of murderer Dr. Hawley Crippen—and weaves them together to their ultimate and inevitable intersection in history. In 1910, Crippen became the first criminal apprehended primarily through the use of a modern technology.

So there you have it: ten true tales that would enhance anyone’s reading list. I hope you’ll take the time to explore these stories and expand your view of history, as well as our world today. Next month, I’ll share some of my favorite fiction titles that came as complete surprises to me. In the meantime, happy reading!

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Well-Rounded Readers Make Well-Rounded Writers

I’m pretty sure you all know the importance, as writers, of reading books within the genres you write, yes? Obviously, this is a given. How are you to know the trends and meet the expectations of your genre’s audience if you aren’t also a member of your genre’s audience?

By reading within your genre, you learn which tropes to include, and which tropes to avoid. You learn your genre’s average pacing and plot structure, what’s been done and what hasn’t, and how to skirt that line between providing unique characters and a unique plot, while still adhering to the qualities and characteristics of your particular genre that will keep readers coming back for more.

But there’s something to be said for reading outside your genre as well. I used to be timid about doing this. For the longest time, I nearly exclusively read SFF books because that’s what I was drawn to. That’s why I chose to write within that genre, after all. I love SFF. I can relate to it, and at the same time, it transports me away from normal, everyday life.

Lately, however, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more widely. And you know what? Not only have I found that I enjoy a much larger selection of stories than I thought I would, my writing has improved as well. Tremendously. I know it’s improved, because I now find myself looking at my characters differently, and being more creative about the situations I put them in, as well as how I have them react to those situations. I’ve also honed my writing voice more—with different genres comes different ways of wording things, and my exposure to this is coming out in my own style of writing.

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As mentioned above, I mostly write SFF. More specifically, I write urban and contemporary fantasy. However, so far this year, I’ve read mysteries, historical fiction, magical realism, contemporary romance, and dark, twisty thrillers with unreliable narrators. Each one of these books has influenced my writing for the better.

Mystery has helped me figure out what information I should (and shouldn’t) reveal to the reader, and when. Historical fiction has taught me the importance of understanding the socio-political landscape in which my characters have been placed. Magical realism has influenced me to slow down during certain moments throughout my stories and really focus on the sensory details, drawing the reader into my character’s experience as far as I can. Contemporary romance has been a terrific study on the push and pull that takes place in character relationships, and how to add delicious tension. And thrillers with unreliable narrators have helped to remind me that every character is the hero within their own story, and they’re all going to want to portray themselves that way, whether their portrayal is accurate or not.

I have books in other genres waiting on my to-be-read list as well. Horror, for instance. And comedy. And I read plenty of non-fiction as well.

“Wait . . . non-fiction? You mean besides books about writing?”

Heck yes, you should read non-fiction! And not just for story research, either. Right now, for instance, I’m reading (well, actually listening to) a book about the quirky ways in which the brain works.* How is that helpful? Well, in understanding how the human brain works, I can better understand why my characters do what they do. I’ve also been reading biographies, which make great character studies, books on time-management, which are helpful for managing my writing life, and of course (since I have a degree in the subject) history books. History is the ultimate plot bunny source, let me tell you. Even if you’re writing a contemporary book, or a book set in the future.

So I challenge you now, if you’re hesitant about reading outside your writing genre, to go do exactly that. Ask trusted friends for recommendations, scroll through Goodreads, or take yourself down to your local library or bookstore and walk past your favorite shelves, over to new, unexplored territory. You can thank me later. No, seriously, after you’re done reading. Pretend I’m not here. I don’t want to interrupt you.

. . . Puts finger to lips and tiptoes away. . . .

 

*THE IDIOT BRAIN, by Dean Burnett
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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

So, you want to write articles

I’m not sure I am adequate to tell anyone how to write an article, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. Writing articles is for every writer. Even if you’re an established author, writing articles is a good way to supplement your income in between royalty checks. As fulfilling as writing may be, we still have to pay the bills (right?!).

When I started out writing articles nearly three years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. Really. But, I started to improve by reading other people’s work, studying the proper formats, compiling more ideas to write about, and, of course, practicing, revising, and practicing some more.

My high school government teacher had an acronym he made up that I still remember and use in my writing : UBTIC WEAE SYT. It’s weird and it doesn’t really mean anything until you know the words:

Use Buzz Terms In Context With Evidence And Examples Supporting Your Thesis.

Knowing this formula seems to make it all easier. This can be applied to more than just articles, but for this post, we’ll look at how to put this acronym to work for short-article writing.

1. Come up with a thesis. 

Find something you already know about or something you would like to know more about. This will be your main topic of discussion. For instance, “Writers are the coolest people ever.” (This example is lame and awesome at the same time, right?) Start thinking about possible reasons this is true and research supporting information.

2. Find your key discussion points. 

Why are writers the coolest people ever? These points will be proving your thesis true. We need 2-5 points (or more depending on the audience) with evidence and examples that support your idea. Some of the many (we can be biased in our hypothetical example, right?) reasons we could explore are:

  1. Writers create worlds in their minds and bring them to life in books. 
  2. Writers create life through their characters. 
  3. Using words that inspire empathy, writers build bridges between different races, religions, and genders. 
  4. Writers are healers who whisper peace to aching souls and mend broken hearts. 

Then, you’ll need to find the buzz terms, evidence, and examples to support these points.

3. Buzz terms. 

“Buzz terms” is another way of saying vocabulary words. In a non-school setting, these will be important key words that apply to your subject matter. For the cool writers thesis, this may include something like books, plot, characters, best-seller, writing retreats, writer’s conference, reviews, pens/pencils, paper, laptop, or names of popular writer software. Some terms may need to be defined or further explained depending on the subject.

4. Supporting evidence and examples. 

For this, you’ll want to find historical or scientific evidence to support your points. Find books, quotes, articles, or scholarly journals with this evidence and include it in your article with the proper citation. Examples are similarly found, but can also include specific instances or stories that go along with what you are saying. For instance, you may find stories about famous cool authors or instances of books changing lives in the coolest ways. Quotes from authors or examples of authors’ work would be great sources for our hypothetical article. This one would fit: “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” –Anais Nin

The other part of writing articles is getting published. I’m not an expert on knowing reputable platforms for articles, but I recommend looking into online magazines, journals, newspapers, or other similar formats that fit your targeted audience/what you want to write about. If you write on motherhood and children, find a family-oriented site. If you love investigative reporting, you’ll want to seek out a newspaper. Look into the sites that you find yourself reading articles from over and over and see if you could be a match to work with them.
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Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 300 articles—book reviews as well as family-oriented articles on familyshare.com . She somehow manages to do that with 6 spirited children ranging in age from 4 to 13 under toe. In the throes of writing her first book, she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading YA or other fiction. She loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.

Non-Fiction Is Not Boring

We are excited to welcome our newest contributor, Wendy Jessen!

When most of us hear “non-fiction” we probably think “booo-rrriinngg!!”

OK, maybe it’s just me. I think I gave it that stigma because throughout school non-fiction was largely textbooks or biographies we had to read for a book report.

Fast forward too many years to count (mostly because we’re writers, not mathematicians!), and I find myself writing non-fiction. Lots of it. And, the worst part is….I like it! Maybe even love it.

You remember those five-paragraph essays we had to write for English and history classes? It turns out, that skill really does come in handy. Most of my current writing happens to be 500-1000 word articles for a family-oriented website. Just like we learned in school, I basically have an intro, some main points, and then a concluding paragraph. It seems too easy, and it almost is.

The trick is to write something that people, who aren’t necessarily scholars, will actually want to read. Here are a few of my ideas to make the “booo-rrriinngg” into something interesting and fun to read, while still teaching or inspiring others.

  • Make it interesting by using personal stories or finding other ways to illustrate your point creatively.
  • Write about topics that appeal to a wide-range of people. In my articles, for instance, topics on marriage seem to do really well.
  • Find your own voice. Just because it’s non-fiction doesn’t mean it has to be dryly written. Make it funny. Add in some snark and sarcasm. Use beautiful and poetic sentence structure. Draw your readers in with the way you write.
  • Use bullet points, numbers, or bold headings to break up the information into easy-to-glance-at “take-aways.” So often, people are more likely to scan an article before they commit to actually reading the whole thing. It’s the same with a table of contents for a book.
  • Write what you know something about, or something you really want to know about. It helps if YOU are interested in what you write.
  • When it applies, find quotes, research, or other sources to support or back-up the point you are trying to make. Sometimes, the quote or research can also be the jumping off point for your writing. 

The biggest advantage to writing non-fiction is that when you tell people you do, they’ll look at you like you’re super smart. We don’t have to tell them otherwise. 😉

Sometimes, as a non-fiction writer, it feels like you’re on an island by yourself while all the fiction writers are enjoying a beach party with loud music, food, and laughter. But, there’s a lot we can learn from each other, I’m realizing. And, the two really aren’t all that different. Unless you write boring stuff. 😉

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Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 300 articles—book reviews as well as family-oriented articles on familyshare.com . She somehow manages to do that with 6 spirited children ranging in age from 4 to 13 under toe. In the throes of writing her first book, she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading YA or other fiction. She loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.