On Being a NaNo Rebel – NaNo and Nonfiction

Pardon me for a moment while I paraphrase one of Washington’s lines from Hamilton:  “Writing fiction is easy, young man; writing nonfiction is harder.”

This year, for NaNoWriMo, I decided to become what’s called a NaNo Rebel, and finally start writing on my long-talked about, long-thought about, long-pushed-away-because-I-know-how-bloody-hard-this-will-be book about George Kimmel.

It’s Day Five. I am about 8,000 words in.*

I am drowning. 

When I said, a few days ago, that I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t kidding. More to the point, I didn’t realize just how unprepared I really was. Pulling together term papers did not prepare me for this. Researching this case, off and on, for ten years, did not prepare me for this. I repeat – I am drowning. 

Actually starting this process has shown me one thing:  I severely underestimated how organized I needed to be. But one thing about this task that has always made me quake in my Skechers is the sheer volume of information I have. It’s thousands of pages, none of it indexed, none of it color-coded, none of it available anywhere other than my laptop – or my work computer (again, not both!).

I know this sounds like it should be common sense, but you’re talking to the person who just came home, discovered her cat on the roof of her garage, and then proceeded, IN THE DARK, to find the ladder, climb the ladder, retrieve the cat, and then climb back down. With the cat. In short, I’m not the right person to talk to about common sense. Sometimes I have it in spades, sometimes not.

Also, organization is not my gig. You know how everyone has those dirty little secrets we don’t ever want anyone else to know? Well, here’s mine:  everyone thinks I’m the most organized person in the world, and I’m not. Right now, on my desk, are three vintage handkerchiefs, receipts, old copies of manuscripts, a jewelry inventory, various papers and note pads, two calculators, and about eight books. None of it should be there. But it is. So asking me to organize information is like asking an anteater to crack the Enigma Code.

soapboxSo, if you think you want to tackle a nonfiction project of any kind, that involves any sort of research, here’s my best, sagest, most profound advice:  GET ORGANIZED. 

Now, having said that . . . Here’s the thing. I don’t think I would have realized how much the organization was necessary if I hadn’t gone ahead and started writing.

I thought I knew the material. But as I’ve found out in just the last few days, knowing it, and putting it on paper in a coherent, logical, factual manner, are two very different things. Again, I keep thinking back to all those term papers I used to write in school, and how easily that came to me. And they were easy – at least, they were far less complicated than an entire book. Knowing the material isn’t enough; I have to remember how to find it, cite it, quote it, use it.

Truthfully, what all this means is that I wasn’t ready to start on this project.

Writing fiction may be easier, because you get to play in the sandbox of your imagination. Do you want extra-fine sand? Brand-new buckets and shovels? Toy trucks and dolls? Well, you can! To an extent, you get to create the rules. You work in tandem with the characters. You know the characters, the plot, the setting, the problems. But when you work with nonfiction, particularly historical nonfiction, the sandbox is already built for you. The depth of the sand, the perimeters, the size, the number of shovels and buckets and toy trucks you get – it’s all handed to you. Try to change one thing, and the whole will dissolve. Unless you are very lucky indeed, the sandbox of history cannot be changed. And that, I think, makes it infinitely more difficult to work with.

It’s even more difficult when you don’t fully understand the people you’re writing about. They’re not characters; they’re not invented. To get it right, you have to get them. And when you’re dealing with a case where every single person had a vested interest in hiding the truth, you never truly understand them.

So now the question you’re probably asking is:  So? Are you going to quit?

Uh . . . no.

Instead, what I have re-focused on is not so much the writing of the book itself, but the organizational process. What does that process look like, you ask? Good question. When I know, I’ll let you know!

Mostly, it has meant going back through the testimonies and reacquainting myself with what was said and done. Trying to piece together what happened on that July weekend in 1898, from multiple viewpoints, told by people who were testifying ten years after the fact, is nearly impossible. The basic facts remain the same – but then again, are they facts? Or memories? Are the memories faulty? Only time, and a great deal of comparing testimonies from three cases across a decade, can tell.

I need to bring together the tiny pieces of the whole. Who were these people? Who was George Kimmel? I need to gather everything I can about everyone involved, and I need to literally stick those tidbits in a file folder, where they are available, in hard copy, when I need them. I don’t want to print over 3,000 pages of testimony – Brazil’s asshole president may be intent on destroying the rain forests, but I’ll be damned if I’ll aid and abet him in that – so I have to go through them page by page, on the computer, and type those notes instead. (It occurs to me that this is where a graduate assistant would come in hand, but as I don’t work at a university, I haven’t got one of those handy.)

And there is another aspect to this, which I have to keep reminding myself of:  this is a draft. Only a draft. Knowing how I write, knowing my process and my penchant for perfection, it will – when done – be only the first in a long line of drafts. (Of course, it isn’t going to get done if I don’t get going on it!) Still, as any good scholar knows, a good first draft can save you the misery of several bad ones later on. That is one thing I used to excel at, good first drafts of research papers. Get it right the first time, and you’re saved a lot of red ink on the other side of the thing.

But again – this is different, and this first draft will be my first foray into writing historical nonfiction that isn’t just 10 pages long and focused on a very narrow topic. Hence, of course, the reason I have put it off for so long.

Still. Nothing has ever just written itself. And in that respect, at least, this project is no different.

*(Obviously, this was written earlier than it was posted!) 

NaNoWriMo 2019 – You Ready for This?

Oh, yes! Did the date sneak up on you? Never fear, here’s your annual reminder – IT’S NANOWRIMO! 

If you are one of the five people who don’t know what NaNoWriMo is – this is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days – that’s about 1600 – 1700 words per day on average. The goal is NOT to necessarily finish a novel (though if you do that, great!). The goal is simply to get people writing. Here’s the website:  https://www.nanowrimo.org/

nanoWhen you go to the website, you can set up a profile, find other NaNo writers in your area for ‘write-ins’ (where you meet up at a library or coffee shop for a few hours to write) – or, if you don’t live near a group, you can even do virtual write-ins. You can track your progress, chat with other writers . . . for some, it’s not so much a way to get the words down on paper as a chance to be with a community of writers.

I try to participate every year, because . . . why not? It’s a challenge. I do wish it was some other month – May or June, when I’m less busy – but if I’m supposed to be writing anyway, then I may as well challenge myself to do a little more, right? Besides, it’s dark early in November. I’m not outside doing yard work or going for long walks. I’m stuck inside. I can watch TV, or write. (Or, as it turns out, I can do both at the same time!)

There is no right or wrong way to do NaNo, and I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about it – any writing counts! Sure, it’s called National Novel Writing Month, but as I’ve said before, 50,000 words isn’t a novel. If you need to do a total rewrite on an existing novel, go for it! If you need to finish a novel you put down a long time ago, go for it! There are even – gasp! – NaNo Rebels, who write short stories, blog posts, fanfic, and other things.

Usual, I spend this month working on fiction projects – the first 50,000 words of Nicky came pouring out of me during NaNo 2014, after all. Some years its an assemblage of random projects; other years, I concentrate on just one.

But this year, I decided – at the last minute – that I was going to do something different.

This year, I’m focusing on nonfiction. 

Obviously, to do this thing properly, I should have started the prep work about three months ago. Because I decided, literally yesterday, to start writing my book about George Kimmel. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Or, maybe more accurately, into everyone’s world a little cray-cray must fall.

I should definitely have started the prep work earlier. I am working with half-assed notes and half-remembered quotes, and all my files are either on my laptop or in my office, but are not in both places. I should have had notes about everyone all ready to go, to start drafting their bios. I should have sketched out what the chapters would look like ahead of time, and started slotting testimonies and depositions into those. I should have gathered up my research into Ark City’s history so I could write an accurate description of it in 1898. You know, basic stuff like that.

Give me a break, though; I’ve never tackled something this big before! The papers I wrote in grad school were often written on the fly; I could rely on my writing talent and research ability to pull them off. (The most famous example of this, which I often share with my students as an example of what not to do, is the term paper I started at 11pm, finished at 5am, and submitted at 8:30am. Yes, I got an A. Let me reiterate:  DO NOT DO THIS.). This? This is not that. This is real. And frankly, that’s why I keep pushing it away – because not only do I get completely obsessed with it, to the point where I drive everyone around me batcrap crazy, but I get overwhelmed by the thousands of pages I already have – and the unknown amount of information I still need.

But. I was going to have to do that anyway.

Today I sat down at my favorite coffee shop, opened a blank document in Word, and started typing. I thought I knew how I would start George’s story:  it would start with him leaving town on the train. I even had the first line running through my head:  On July 31, 1898, George Kimmel waved goodbye to his friends ,and boarded the train for Topeka. They never saw him again. 

Instead . . . the first line from my keyboard was:  How do people disappear without a trace? 

It was an intriguing opening, and I hadn’t expected it at all. So I went with it. I talked about the number of cold cases in America right now, and the number of cases that go unsolved every year (the numbers, according to the US Justice Department, are 250,000 and 6,000, in case you’re curious). I wrote, very generally, about the uses of DNA and the difficulties in using it to solve these cold cases (NONE of which will ever make it into the final draft because it’s totally fluff and filler gleaned from years of watching Forensic Files). And then I asked another question:  if it’s this difficult today, to solve a case in which a person appears to have disappeared without a trace, how much more difficult would it have been in 1898?

In truth, what I started out writing was not so much a first chapter as a prologue, my reasons for researching Kimmel, and for ultimately writing this book. But that idea – How do people disappear without a trace? – has intrigued me.

How did Kimmel walk out of the Midland Hotel and into oblivion? How did he disappear, so completely that no trace of him was ever found?

I wrote almost 1800 words today. It’s not good – but then again, that’s not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is simply to write. 

Which, when it comes to this project, is the thing I’ve needed to do all along.


Want to write nonfiction but don’t want to do it via NaNoWriMo? Check this out! https://writenonfictionnow.com/about-write-nonfiction-in-november/wnfinnanonfiwrimo/