By: Susan Bartoletti
Spalding MFA Faculty
For me, a nonfiction book doesn’t begin with a fact or a subject. It begins with the feeling I get about the fact or subject. If the subject makes my heart turn over, that’s when I know I’m on to something.
A book begins with my heart, but then my head takes over. I read around to ensure that that the idea has enough substance to become a book. I’ll examine the competing books on the subject. I’ll consider whether the subject has a place in school curriculum. Then I’ll send a formal proposal to my editor.
In the proposal, I’ll summarize the story I intend to tell and discuss the competition and the need. (Here, it helps to have a distinctive take or point of view on the subject, especially if the subject has been done before.)
I’ll also discuss my connection to the subject. Sometimes the connection is purely intellectual. For example, my interest in Mary Mallon, the subject of my most recent nonfiction book, Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, began with a newspaper article. As I immersed myself in the research, I was drawn to the story of her human and civil rights violations. This approach hadn’t been done before in a book for young readers.
Other times, the connection is personal. For example, my first nonfiction book, Growing Up in Coal Country, grew out of the stories that my husband’s grandfather told: how at age 11 he quit school to work in the anthracite coal mines and how he continued to work in the mines for the next forty-five years.
Sometimes the connection is a slow reveal. For example, after I published They Called Themselves the KKK, my stepfather told me that his grandfather had belonged to a Pennsylvania Klan in the 1940s. As a child, he remembered seeing his grandfather in his “get-up.”
I’m presently elbows-deep in researching the Salem Witch trials. It’s a subject I’ve felt drawn to write about for many years.
On a whim several weeks ago, I unrolled the family tree that my paternal grandfather had painstakingly drawn up decades ago.
I looked at the names of my paternal ancestors who had settled in Essex County, Massachusetts. In the second half of the 17th century, they lived in villages such as Marblehead, Topsfield, and Beverly.
I found myself wondering: What were my ancestors doing during the 1692 witch trials?
I took a few days off from my book to investigate. First I found a great-grandmother who had been an accuser during the trial of Sarah Wilde, who was later hanged. Then I found another great grandmother who was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to hang.
Sena Jeter Naslund often challenges us with this advice: It’s not what you can write about; it’s what you should write about. Molly Peacock has urged us to consider the things – the images, the themes, the subjects – that hound us.
What about you? What emotional, personal, or intellectual connections lead you – or have led you – to your subjects?
Susan Campbell Bartoletti is the author of award-winning nonfiction, fiction, and picture books for young readers.