Fingerprints (Hyperion, May), by Colin Beavan, is a narrative nonfiction book detailing the evolution of fingerprinting, its place in the criminal justice system, and the many men who claimed credit for its discovery. Beavan's work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Esquire, George, Atlantic Monthly, Men's Health and Men's Journal. He currently is researching topics for his next book.
Writer's Digest: I understand you got your start by freelancing for a number of magazines. Did that experience help you as you worked on the book?
Colin Beavan: Well, my education wasn't in English or anything like that. I actually did my undergraduate and graduate work in applied physics. And then I decided I hated that, and I was a PR guy for awhile because I secretly wanted to be a writer but didn't think that I could pull it off. And then finally, six years ago, I decided to be a writer, and I moved to New York, and I was like 'I'm here. Can I write for you?' And I basically just started calling up magazines and asking if I could write for them, and learning the whole business.
I mean, I had no idea what I was doing. The important thing about writing for magazines—at least for me—was that for one, it taught me my craft, at least my nonfiction craft, taught me something about the whole editorial process, and I guess most importantly, it gave me confidence. But, having said that, writing a book and writing for magazines are very, very different things.
I remember one time I got commissioned to write a story for Details—this was very, very early on—and I sent my editor like an outline, which was kind of like those outlines that they teach you to do in the ninth grade, with introduction, 1A, 2A. I mean it wasn't that bad, but it definitely had the 1s and 1As in it. And so I wrote this outline, and I faxed it to the editor after he commissioned me, and he was clearly like 'What on earth is this?' And I was like, 'Well doesn't everybody do that?' And he was like, 'No.'
WD: How did you get the idea for such a unique book?
CB: Basically, my agent and I were sitting around his office one rainy day, and I was having trouble coming up with some ideas. And he said, 'Well OK, I have this idea.' So I kind of left his office feeling obliged to do some research because he was my agent, and he'd kindly offered me [the] idea, but I was like, 'Oh God, the history of fingerprints?'
I went to the library, and it was like synchronicity because one of the first books I came across talked about this kind of unsung hero of fingerprinting who had basically had his idea stolen from him. And then all of a sudden, it wasn't this ungodly dry subject to me, but a real human story about justice and giving credit where credit is due.
WD: How did you approach the extensive research needed for a topic such as this one?
CB: For me, research was the easy part because you know you're getting results. And so you procrastinate the scary part, which is the actual sitting down and writing the story by convincing yourself that you're being productive by doing more research ... I researched for seven months. On the other hand, if you do a lot of research it makes you feel really confident when you are writing.
WD: Seven months of research must have produced quite a lot of information. How did you decide what ultimately made it into the book?
CB: It's a really organic process. I had a basic idea of how the book was going to look. I knew it was going start with the murder case, and I knew it was kind of going to finish with the murder trial. And I knew that the rest of it was basically going to be a flashback. So I knew what the story was going to be, and I knew I had to find out everything on Henry Faulds, which was in some ways the most problematic because nobody's every really written about him. So, I knew the subject areas I needed to find out about, and I tried to find out everything I could.
And when I was pretty much finished with my research, I took a couple of weeks and completely read through all my notes and material and just kind of indexed. And I just made notes on everything I had, and then I outlined the book in detail, and then I started writing. So what happened then was I had an idea of how the story was going to be, I had the research, I refined my idea of how the story was going to work according to the research, and then I started writing. And what got pulled into the story was all the research that advanced the story. And then when I went from the first draft to the second—the first draft was much drier and had a lot more quotes and facts—I had to start pairing it way because I need to leave the narrative.
So deciding what goes in is ... I imagine it's like how a sculptor working in clay works. He or she starts with a big pile of clay and the art is in taking the clay away. So I started with a big pile of research and the art was in taking the research away and leaving behind what made a good shape. I'm like so fascinated with my own process.
WD: You said you used outlines?
CB: My own experience as a writer is that that question for me or questions like that, mechanistic questions, were all ways to actually avoid writing. It's like instead of going on a diet, you buy a book about dieting. And for a long time, instead of sitting down and writing, I worried about writing the pitch letter instead of just calling the editor up.
In terms of outlining, I think that each writer has to look at his own process and at what makes him comfortable. I mean, everybody you talk to has a different way of approaching it. But for me, what I do is like throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks. I get a general idea of what I want to do and what I want to write about. I research like crazy until I know the subject really well. And then it's like throwing mud—what sticks is the research that's worth keeping.
Once I know what my facts are and see what's really interesting, then the question is finding the narrative. The narrative is like the sugar that makes the medicine go down—you have a bunch of interesting facts that the reader actually wants to know, and your service as a nonfiction writer is to find a way to let the reader absorb the facts without even knowing he or she is doing that. So it's like a pleasant experience instead of a school experience. That's kind of what narrative nonfiction does. So there I am with all this research and the question becomes how can I tie it together to make it into a story. What's the interesting story behind the research. So the story's the spine and then the outlines start coming. For me, the reason it's important to outline a book is because there's just so much information that it's just not possible to remember everything that you have. So you could leave out really important anecdotes and interesting things with out ever realizing that you did it.
WD: Can you expand on your thoughts about narrative nonfiction?
CB: In narrative nonfiction, the key is to find a story. If you want to write good narrative nonfiction, what you have to realize is that, just like fiction, it's about people—all stories are about people. And just like in fiction, in narrative nonfiction—although you're more constrained by the facts—what you're looking for are stories that intrigue people and characters that are interesting. What I do—and what I'm doing right now—is I find a topic that I'm interested in and that I think readers will be interested in, and I look for sympathetic characters that are involved in stories behind that particular topic.