Friday, December 9, 2011

Serendipity in Nonfiction

Jackie asked a while back if there was a key idea that resonated from the NCTE Orbis Pictus panel on nonfiction writing…for me it was the importance of serendipity.

When writing fiction, we talk about a writer getting out of his or her own way to let a story or character take its own lead. Nonfiction isn’t exactly the same because at the end of the day, your story is beholden to the facts. Yet there’s a lot of wiggle room for serendipity to shine a spotlight on what might become a story priority.

Authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan knew they wanted to write a book about revered modern sculptor Isamo Noguchi, but they also knew they didn’t want to write a soup-to-nuts biography. They went to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, NY, to see what ideas would spark. There they learned of Noguchi’s 40-year collaboration with Martha Graham, during which he designed 20 sets for her ballets. A short film and display in the museum spoke to them and they knew they had found the heart of their book, Appalachian Spring: A Ballet for Martha.

Michael O. Tunnell just happened to hear retired Col. Gail Halvorsen speak at a church about how a small act of kindness grew into a fondly celebrated initiative to bring joy to Berlin children in the aftermath of WWII. In 1948, Halvorsen was a pilot airlifting humanitarian supplies into West Berlin. After noticing how much joy two sticks of gum gave to German children near the airport, Halvorsen convinced his fellow soldiers to pool their candy rations to add to the air drops. Soon the U.S. Air Force formalized the effort. Tunnell wasn’t necessarily looking for a book topic when Halvorsen began speaking. But before Halverson finished, the seed was planted for Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot”.

Fiction or nonfiction, you never know when or where a story will grab you and where it might lead.


  1. Thanks for sharing those stories, Cheryl. They are just a reminder that stories can often come to us, tap us on the shoulder.

  2. Sometimes those story ideas have to get filed away, if we are in the middle of deep work on another project. But by taking notes and filing away, they will be waiting