I am often asked about writing narrative nonfiction. Some of the questions are broad such as What is it? How do I Choose a Topic? Others are more specific like How long should my story be? I have attempted to answer the most common questions and offer insights in this blog. However, it is important to remember nothing is written in stone. Publishing, like any creative endeavor is highly subjective and there will always be exceptions to the rule.
What is Narrative Nonfiction?
Simply put, narrative nonfiction is a nonfiction story told with fiction-writing techniques. These techniques include character and plot development, point of view options, dialogue (if applicable), and decorative language such as similes and metaphors which can be used to enhance the setting, time, and place of your story. Like many educators, narrative nonfiction picture book writers have an opportunity to introduce children to topics and inspire them to want to learn more!
How do I Choose My Topic?
There are two routes people usually take when choosing a topic. The first is that they write what they are most interested in or excited about. The second, is that they see gaps in particular subjects and write about them such as the story of Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures. I have heard that it is hard to go wrong with writing about something you love or are genuinely interested in. More often than not, that excitement carries over into the manuscript in an engaging way.
How Long (or Short) Can it Be?
Depending on your targeted age group picture books can range from 400-900 words for PK-2nd grade. For grades 3-8, they can run up to 900-1300 words. Remember, these are just guidelines. I have read picture books that were closer to 1700 words. This is not as common, but I share it with you to show you that the final say on wordcount truly depends on your story and your publisher.
How do I Research?
Personally, when I have a new subject I will read as many children’s books related to my topic that I can. Not only does it help me see what is out there, but it also gives me a chance to compare my ideas to others. I also utilize online resources. But I try to fact check and validate the information from blogs, podcasts, websites, and articles and consider it with the information found in the books I’ve read, museums I’ve visited, and experts I’ve spoken with.
When I can, I travel to the locations where my story takes place. For instance, I visited Baltimore while writing Bread for Words and walked along the same streets Frederick Douglass had! I toured the Frederick Douglass – Isaac Myers Maritime Park and museum and learned in great detail what life on the docks was like and what his job entailed. I did the same for Ticktock Banneker’s Clock. I visited Ellicott City, Maryland, and saw the land Benjamin Banneker lived on and farmed. I was also able to tour a recreated cabin Benjamin Banneker lived in. I talked to some of his collateral descendants and learned some very cool things otherwise not found in books. Even if you can’t make a trip to a specific museum or special library, be sure to check out their webpage. A lot of museums these days offer online resources including virtual tours.
Many writers are aware of the tried and true tips like joining groups (such as SCBWI of which I am a member), attending workshops, and finding a good writing group or critique partner.
In addition to these, the best tool(s) we as writers have out there are other books. Reading as many books as you can help you stay in touch with the latest releases, understand your audience, learn more about the publishers and their interests, and give you a chance to see the ‘finished product’ of what started out as a simple manuscript.
Shana Keller writes books for children. She is the author of Ticktock Banneker’s Clock; Fly, Firefly!; and Bread for Words, A Frederick Douglass Story. You can visit her online at www.shanakeller.com, on Twitter @shanakkeller, or on Instagram @theshanakeller.