6 Tools for Writing Nonfiction That Breathes

Nonfiction author Liz Heinecke gives her top 6 tips for crafting a nonfiction book that will really capture your subject.
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Although I love good narrative nonfiction, if given the choice, I generally reach for the novel on my nightstand. From the moment I decided to write a book about the intersecting lives of Marie Curie and Loie Fuller, my head was filled with visions of Loie swirling on a stage and Marie waltzing through a radium-lit laboratory.

(Liz Heinecke: On Writing Creative Nonfiction)

To construct my colorful idea for the narrative while accurately relating events in the lives of the dancer and the scientist, I turned to creative nonfiction. While I was not able to find any evidence of Marie dancing in her lab and had to abandon that idea, the technique allowed me to write parallel biographies, based on extensive research, that read like a novel.

Here are some of the tools and resources I used to bring Radiant: The Dancer, The Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light to life while sticking to the facts.

6 Tools for Writing Nonfiction That Breathes

6 Tools for Writing Nonfiction That Breathes

A Timeline

One of the first things I did was draw an awkwardly large timeline on the back of an old poster board, laying out the major events in Marie and Loie’s lives. Because the book was centered around the friendship of the two women and the radioactive element radium, I highlighted their interactions with one another, along with Loie’s experiences with science and invention.

The timeline allowed me to discover interesting events, such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, that intersected with their stories. It also helped me decide which years and events to focus on. Before long, the poster board was filled with scribbles and I had a vague map for my book.

Libraries

Naturally, I read every book about Loie and Marie I could get my hands on, bookmarking every mention of their meetings and correspondence. To glean more insight into the dancer, I visited the New York Public Library of Performing Arts to document their extensive Loie Fuller collection.

(Jeff Guinn: Conducting Field Research for More Authentic Nonfiction & Historic Fiction)

By the time I sat down to write the first chapter of Radiant, I had months of reading and research under my belt. Loie and Marie were living, breathing characters in my mind. I knew how they dressed, who they loved, and how they took their coffee or tea.

With three teenagers at home and limited time and resources, I also learned that librarians often have contact information for local researchers who can be hired to help track down and photograph research documents.

Newspapers

There is a treasure trove of old newspapers available online. I subscribed to a website that gave me access to thousands of old papers, and it was worth every penny. Besides learning about my subjects, I could see what was happening in different cities on any given day— weather, cultural events, politics, and news.

Although the facts are sometimes skewed in old newspapers, the journalism gives a unique insight into historical trends and attitudes. Newspapers are also great places to find interesting quotes.

Postcards and Letters

It is relatively simple to find old postcards, magazines, and journals for sale online. Frequently, they are not expensive and offer a unique peek into history. Marie Curie is so famous that all her notes and letters are in libraries and museums, but Loie Fuller is less known and wrote thousands of letters during her lifetime.

Radiant

Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light by Liz Heinecke

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By frequently checking online auction sites, I was able to purchase a few of Loie’s old handwritten notes, including one penned from her home on rue Cortambert around 1900, which helped me imitate the dancer’s awkward French/English wording to recreate the well-documented letter that she had written to Marie, asking for some radium.

Photographs, Music, Films, and Maps

Audio and visual resources helped me immerse myself in the worlds of Marie and Loie. Some days, I listened to the music Loie danced to, while I wrote. A video clip at the Curie Museum in Paris allowed me to hear Marie’s voice and observe her mannerisms, including a tick she had with her fingers, which I had read about but was difficult to imagine.

Antique maps, guides, and films of the Paris Exposition of 1900, which I found online, took me on a tour of the world fair. I spent several days tracking down the exact location of Loie’s theater and exploring every attraction on that street. Old movies from the exposition took me up the Eiffel tower and let me ride on the fair’s famous moving sidewalk.

Travel

If possible, experiencing a place firsthand is the best way to write about it. The September before the pandemic hit, I was fortunate enough to visit Paris for a week, to visit libraries, museums, and the places Loie and Marie had lived and worked.

At the Folies-Bergère, it was thrilling to sit in the balcony where Loie sat, watch a performance on the stage where she danced, and see with my own eyes how the burlesque club was laid out, which had been difficult to discern from online photos and written description. I wandered in silence through the sunlit Rodin museum at Meudon, where Loie took the Curies to meet the sculptor.

At the Curie Museum, I peered into Marie’s lab and sat in the courtyard garden beside trees she had planted with her own hands. The streets of Paris were covered with chestnuts and I laughed at fat, glossy pigeons taking baths in the streets of Montmartre—details which eventually made it into the manuscript.

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

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