Conference Presentation 2

The is one of two presentations made at
the CIC4 Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Other presentations are here.


A few years ago I was asked by my editor at Scholastic if I would be interested in writing a collection of true stories about heroic animals—animals who had saved peoples’ lives. She thought it would be a hoot if I did this because I had actually almost drowned while trying to save my Golden Retriever’s life a few years earlier. The irony of it appealed to her, I guess.

Anyway, I accepted with alacrity. What would be more fun, I thought. I love animals and writing stories is my business. Piece of cake, I thought.

Then I started to work on the project and found out that I had bitten off a whole new kind of loaf to chew. I had written non-fiction articles, even a non-fiction book, but I had never attempted to write true stories. The closest I had come was with my historical novels. That should have warned me. I had found the major difficulty with writing them was keeping to the time line of what actually had happened. My characters were fictitious, the story was of my own making, but I had to follow events as they really happened and make my novel fit into them. I couldn’t arrange things in the order that I wanted them to happen. I had to make the structure fit the real events, but still support and put forward the action and theme of my story.

How much more difficult, I was to discover, would be trying to make a coherent, well-structured, exciting non-fiction story out of something that had really happened. Something that, no matter how thrilling,, stubbornly refused to unfold itself in the way a story should.

Katherine Paterson, the award-winning and noted American writer for children, once said that writing fiction for children was telling the truth, but telling it slant. I was to find out that writing true stories would involve telling the truth, but telling it straight, and having to find a way to tell it straight so that it would emerge as a coherent, well-structured and still inspiring story.

And telling it straight, in a story for young people, is essential. The facts had to be true, the research accurate. It’s so hard for a novelist not to succumb to the temptation to embellish—just a little bit? This incident would be so much more dramatic if just a few bits of it were changed? But a true story for kids is a true story. I had to stick to the facts. Reminds me a bit of what Mr. Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ novel, HARD TIMES, said:

“Now what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can form the minds of reasoning animals only upon facts. Nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Not really a recipe for a story that would grip the imagination of a young person. And “The facts, ma’am, just the facts,” to quote an old TV show, are not enough, no matter how exciting they may be. So I had to start with the facts, stick to the facts, and create a good story around them.

I will be talking in more detail about the mechanics of the stories later on—how I found them, how I set up and carried out the interviews—but for now I would like to concentrate on this aspect of creating and shaping the story. Creative non-fiction, I suppose, is the word for it.

“Writing nonfiction is like putting together a puzzle,” Margaret Springer quotes Margery Facklam, a noted science writer, in THE CANADIAN WRITERS’ GUIDE. “When you dump all the pieces on the table, it seems impossible to fit them together at first. But then you begin to sort and select, and once the border is locked in place, once it is defined and enclosed, the fun begins.” This meant that I had to use detailed outlines for my stories. In my works of fiction I sometimes use outlines, sometimes not. For non-fiction I had to. I had to get all the pieces of the puzzle together and figure out the right order for them before I could start the actual writing.

Let’s start with beginnings. You have to hook your reader in the first few pages or paragraphs just the same as you do with fiction. Perhaps more important here, though are the 5 “w’s”: who, what, why, when, where. You have to introduce your characters—the human and the animal hero and establish the setting. In some stories I started off with the actual act of heroism and then filled in the details, in others I led up to it and used the details as the means of suspense leading up to the climax of the story. Each story required a different approach and I had to write and rewrite until I had found the proper way to do it.

In my book, ANIMAL HEROES, I tell the story of Nago, the Akita. In that case I began with the story of how the Fawcett family had got Nago as a pup. He was the centre of attention until their first baby arrived and they were worried about how he would react to this little threat to his place in the family. I went on to describe how he had loved the baby from the first, licking her and taking first her and then her sisters into his charge. I established that he had a special bond with the girls and felt very protective towards them. All this built up to the moment when he saved Alaina Fawcett’s life by hurling himself at her and knocking her out of the way of an out-of-control truck. Because Akita’s are not well-known dogs, I also included an insert at the beginning of the story giving a detailed description of them, adding the fact that they have been named a “National Treasure” in Japan, and were once widely used as babysitters in that country.

In the sequel to ANIMAL HEROES, MORE ANIMAL HEROES, I used a different approach for the story of Lindy. I jumped right into the incident itself when David Downie set out for a walk with Lindy, suddenly suffered an attack of angina and fell, unconscious, into the snow. I tell how Lindy, leash trailing, set out for help and blocked a man and woman in a car backing out of their driveway, barking and running back and forth behind them until they got out and followed her back to her master. (The clever dog had even picked a registered nurse for the rescue!) Then I flashbacked into the story of how the Downies had saved Lindy from an abusive home, restored her to good health and helped her to regain her trust in people.

As I began to write, I found a major difference between telling a non-fiction story and creating a work of fiction. In a work of fiction I usually use a single point of view, quite often that of the main character. When telling the true story, however, I found that I was using an omniscient author point of view. I, the author, was the one telling the story and I knew what was going to happen and how each one of the characters felt about it.

Endings were out of my control, of course. The stories ended the way they ended. (But I had chosen them for their dramatic outcomes, so I had control in that sense.) What I had to do was find the best way of telling the story and work up to the necessary ending. One aspect of suspense was missing because the readers of my books knew that all the stories had happy endings, so I had to work up suspense in other ways. In the story of Tuk, the polar bear, (also in MORE ANIMAL HEROES), I always have a roomfull of wide-eyed kids staring at me with huge eyes as I read how a young man ran past the polar bear grotto in the Stanley Park Zoo, pulled a tiny kitten out of his jacket, and threw it into the polar bear pool. As I describe how Tuk lazily stood up, stretched, and then slid into the pool, there isn’t a sound in the room. As I go on to tell how he surfaced with the kitten grasped between his front teeth, just as a mother cat carries her babies, I can swear no one is even breathing. Then, when Tuk lies down at the side of the pool, holds the kitten protectively between his huge paws, and begins to lick it dry, there is always an explosive outpouring of relief—even a cheer or two.

One thing I have found is that I have to be as excited about the stories that I am telling as I want the children who are reading them or listening to them to be. Luckily, with my animal hero stories, and being as much as a pushover for animals as I am, this was not difficult.

In non-fiction for children it is essential to talk to children in their own terms. For example, when describing Floyd, the German Shepherd guide dog, I did not give his measurements in centimeters, (or even inches), but described him as being just about as tall and as long as a bicycle. Which he was! (By the way, I had German Shepherd stories coming out my ears. “Find some other kind of heroic dog,” my editor implored me. “We can’t have so many German Shepherds here!” It did seem as if German Shepherds spend their whole lives going around saving people. In fact, after I had finished my two animal hero books, I went out and bought a German Shepherd. And he’s the best dog I’ve ever owned.)

Setting is just as important in non-fiction as it is in fiction. You have to set up your story, let your reader know how the setting impacts the story and influences what happens. When telling the story of Sam (you guessed it, another German Shepherd), who had pulled his owner out of an icy river, I began by describing the area where Phyllis McLeod was walking her dog.

“They usually walked along the edges of a golf course. The Credit River runs through the course and that year, when the river froze, ice floes had formed. Chunks of ice had pushed up out of the river onto the golf course and gouged their way across the fairways. Then, heavy snowfalls had blanketed the whole area and the river was buried, running somewhere underneath it all.

“‘I wonder where that river is flowing today,’ Phyllis said to Sam as they started out.”

Of course, the reader knows absolutely that they are going to find out. And not in any comfortable way.

It would be easy to fall into the trap of just telling the story and letting the “facts” speak for themselves. I found, though, that it made for much more interesting reading if I delved as much as I could into the families and individual people involved in the stories. The more background I could provide about them, the more alive and real the stories became. A fine line, here, between good interviewing techniques and being plain pushy.

Another way to let the people themselves come vividly alive to the reader was to include as many quotes as I could in the story—let them tell the story in their own words as much as possible. I used a tape recorder for all the interviews—more about that coming up—and made certain that the quotes were accurate. Quoting people in their own words gave an individual flavour to each story. Just listen to the mom from Newfoundland telling about their (I’m sorry!) German Shepherd, Bruno, who raced for help after her son Donnie had been thrown off his bike into a ditch and lay bleeding and unconscious:

“Some people think dogs are stunned,” she says. “They think they’re just dumb animals, but they’re not.”

Listen to Lauren describing her cat, Cali, as she sat up on the podium at the Ralston Purina Award ceremony—a ceremony they hold every year to honour heroic animals: (Cali had woken her and alerted her to the fact that an intruder was trying to get into the house, giving Lauren the time to call the police)

“She looked so small up there, beside those two big dogs,” Lauren said. “And they’d done such brave things to save their masters—fight off coyotes and pull a boat to shore...” (A Labrador Retriever and a mutt, I hasten to add.) Lauren laughed but her voice was full of pride. “Maybe cats can’t do the things dogs can do, but they are very aware. The instinct is there. She knew those footsteps weren’t normal for that time of night and she knew she had to wake me up. Mind you,” she added, giving a whole new sparkle to the story, “once she knew I was awake, that was it. I mean, she wasn’t going to stand around and bare her teeth at anybody!” (The cat had sensibly retreated under the bed once she had woken Lauren.)

Research is just as necessary for non-fiction stories as for historical tales. Whether I was writing about a Japanese Akita dog or a trained police search and rescue dog, there was always a fount of background information to be dipped into. The added details that this research could give me made the stories themselves richer and more detailed.

I’ve found, by the way, that when writing for children and needing to do research, it is very useful to go to the children’s section of the library first. Non-fiction for children tends to zero in on the basics. It gives you the information clearly and attractively and highlights things that are particularly interesting. You can go to adult sources next, of course, but this is a good place to start.

Again, I stress accuracy. Reseach your material thoroughly. If you make a mistake you can be certain that some teacher or librarian—or kid—somewhere, will pick it up and let you know about it. Very embarrassing!

I’ll finish this section off with a quote from one of my favourite writers, Jane Yolen, taken from her book, WRITING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN:

“Creative research is made up of four parts: intuitive guesses, detective work, chutzpah and just plain luck. The first three you can cultivate, the last, somehow, always follows after, like the tail on one of Bo-Peep’s sheep.”

Intuitive guesses: When you’re talking to people, listen to what they’re not saying. If you have a feeling there’s more there that they’re not saying, either because they’re shy or they’ve forgotten, ask questions around the subject, sit back, just listen and let them talk.

Detective work is the research necessary to establish background and give all the necessary information.

Chutzpah, the Yiddish word for gall or just plain guts is what you need in tracking down another source of background material—individuals who can help you. Sometimes this takes a lot of courage.

Luck will follow. One of my favourite quotes is from our own Canadian humourist, Stephen Leacock. I saw it once on a poster in a school library. (I really wanted that poster, offered to take it instead of my fee, but they wouldn’t give it to me. I guess they knew a good thing when they saw it.) Anyway, it went like this:

“I’m a great believer in luck and I find that the harder I work the more I have of it.”

Dig and look for the small things that will make your story come alive, be more interesting, and you will find them in the most unexpected places. They will actually seem to come looking for you. Synchronicity, that’s called.

Synchronicity also comes into play when you are looking for your stories in the first place. At first I despaired at finding enough stories to fill a book. I needn’t have worried. I started looking for them and before long stories about heroic animals were looking for me. I had begun by combing newspapers, appropriate newsletters, and organizations that had to do with animals, but soon the word spread and people were calling me up to tell me about their own story or one that had happened to someone they knew. The story of Patsy, a cat who saved a kitten from the wheels of a bus, came from a young girl in one of my writing workshops. She had read my first animal heroes book and volunteered shyly that she had a cat that had done something heroic. Another friend raises Bernese Mountain dogs—she put me onto the story of Balloo and Jessie. A dog-walking acquaintance introduced me to Jiggs, a Bouvier des Flandres who was a trained search and rescue dog. (And who once rescued a German Shepherd—how’s that for a turnaround?)

I keep my research notes in a looseleaf notebook. File cards are handy, too, or a folder on your computer. I also keep a record of all my references. All footnotes and quotes are, of course, attributed to their original source. But watch out that you don’t spend so much time shuffling your notes around and organizing that you don’t get down to doing the actual writing—always a danger for me when I get immersed in research.

Interviewing Techniques

Just after I contracted to write my first animal heroes book I was fortunate enough to attend a session on how to conduct an interview, given by a reporter from The Ottawa Citizen. He told us that he taped everything. With the permission of the person being interviewed, of course. He showed us his tape recorder, and as soon as the session was over I was out the door and over to Radio Shack to buy one. One of the best investments I’ve ever made. It’s small, compact and unobtrusive. I will start it up, (checking, of course to make sure it’s working—I learned that the hard way and lost about a half hour of valuable interview) place it on a table or chair close to the person I’m interviewing, and let it turn away. Usually the interviewee will forget all about it within a few minutes.

Then I take it home and transcribe the interview just as it took place, typing out everything that’s on the tape. Except, of course, for the occasional “woof” and once the gurgly sound of Nago licking it. He would have eaten it, actually, if I hadn’t rescued it.

It’s after I read the transcription that I settle down to make sense of it and make my outline. That’s where I get my quotes from, and how I can check that I really heard what I thought I heard. I keep the tapes, too, just in case there’s any question about accuracy afterwards.

I have a neat little device that I also got from Radio Shack that records phone interviews. And it’s legal, too, as long as you ask permission from the other person to use it.

Whether it’s an interview in person or over the phone, be prepared before you start. Have as much knowledge as possible about your subject and have some basic questions available beforehand. Set up your equipment quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. If it’s a telephone interview, have everything prepared beforehand and check to make sure its all working so the person on the other end doesn’t have to wait while you fumble around. Check that the tape recorder is working shortly after starting the interview and, if you have call waiting, disable it. Even if you don’t take a call that may come in while you’re doing your interview, the interference can mess up the line. This happened to me once. I didn’t check the tape until the interview was over and much to my chagrin about half way through there was a burst of interference and from then on nothing but static. I had to call back and shamefacedly ask to repeat the interview. Again, embarrassing, but even worse, the second time was much less spontaneous and much more abbreviated.

For a live interview, try to conduct it in a room or place where there are no noisy distractions. Except, of course, in my case, where the hero animal was usually present and often made its views known as well. If someone is nervous about the tape recorder, hit the pause button and just chat for a while until they lighten up, then turn it back on.

Sometimes people prefer a one on one interview, but I found that it was more interesting to have all the people involved interviewed at the same time, especially when there were kids involved. The interaction between the people often led to amusing and interesting things coming out that might otherwise not have happened.

I learned a lot about interviewing techniques “on the job” as it were. One of the most valuable things I learned was not to be afraid of silences. Not to jump in as soon as my interviewee stopped talking. It is hard to keep quiet and let a silence lengthen without being panicked into saying something yourself but often, if you can do it, the person will suddenly recall some additional bit of information or amusing incident and start talking again.

If they are talking away enthusiastically, however, and something they say triggers another question, jot it down rather than interrupting them and stopping the flow. Sometimes, however, occasional interruptions will allow you to ask your subject to elaborate on a specific topic and show them that you are really interested in their story.

When you think all has been said that there is to say, sit back and ask: “Is there anything else you think might be interesting for this story?” And then give the person a chance to mull it over. It’s amazing what can come out of this.

“Oh, no,” they might say. “That’s just about all.” Then they pause for a moment and add something like, “Of course there was the time when...” and off they go into a delightful story that might make all the difference to what you are writing.

Make sure you understand what is being said. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to have to ask people to repeat themselves, or explain something, but if you don’t get it while your subject is saying it, you probably won’t when you transcribe it. This often requires tact. At one point I was interviewing an elderly man who mumbled, and my hearing is not as young as it used to be, and I was embarrassed to have to keep asking him to repeat himself. I knew I was missing a lot, however, if I didn’t, and it was important. Luckily he didn’t mind—was probably used to it—and it didn’t interfere with the interview.

It takes courage to pick up the phone and ask someone for an interview. Especially if you are not a well-known journalist with a guaranteed piece in an elite magazine. You feel, why would someone want to waste their time on you? In fact, most people are delighted to be interviewed. They will ply you will coffee and cookies and talk as long as you want. Sometimes longer.

This shouldn’t have to be said, but unfortunately it does. Pay attention. Listen. Sometimes a person you are interviewing is boring, but make yourself pay attention to every word he is saying, even if he’s rambling away interminably. If you don’t, if you start woolgathering, you may miss the one little kernel of information that you need to make your story exceptional. It would be very frustrating to get back home and pick it up while you’re transcribing the tape and realize that this is what you should have followed up on. You could always call him back, but you might not be able to get in touch again, or he might not recall just what he was thinking about at the time.

Ask people to spell names and write them down during the interview. Check place names against an atlas or road map. If you are taking pictures be sure and keep a log with the number of each picture and a brief description of who and where it is, time taken, etc. If you use photos taken by others be sure and give them credit. You can also buy slides and photos and use them with permission and giving the appropriate credits. Historical societies, museums, local newspapers and other organizations will often be able to provide you with slides. Of course you will respect copyright and again, obtain permission and give copyright owners credit.

Give your subject credit for any information she gives you that you didn’t previously know. For example: “According to Jan Smith...” Or, “Few people are as knowledgeable as Jan Smith about...”

If you hear yourself talking a lot, or if the chatting gets away off topic, hit the pause button. Otherwise you will find yourself listening to a lot of filler and unimportant stuff when you are transcribing the tape.

Writing the true story is a challenge and might well call upon you to learn new techniques and new ways of presenting a story, but in the long run it is very satisfying. At the very least, you’ve met a whole bunch of new and interesting people and in my case, animals, heard a lot of interesting stories and probably made a few new friends.

They sell well, too.