Once upon a time, Andrew Karre and I took a fiction writing class together. From time to time, someone in the class would criticize part of a classmate’s story for containing events or details that were unbelievable. Inevitably, when the writer had a chance to respond to the critique, he or she would say, “But it really happened!” However, just because something really happened doesn’t mean it’s believable if the writer hasn’t done a good job of making readers believe in the story being told.
Good writing—whether fiction or nonfiction—has a lot to do with details. Two fiction writers could take the same basic plot (e.g. “a stranger comes to town”) and come up with utterly different stories. Two nonfiction writers could take the same event or topic and likewise come up with very different ways to present it.
A good nonfiction writer needs to be just as discerning about details as a good fiction writer. Just because we know a certain detail about an event doesn’t mean it should necessarily be included. For example, take a look at this 1902 newspaper article about Enrique Esparza and his memories of the battle of the Alamo. Enrique mentions that he distinctly remembers seeing a woman with an umbrella just after his family took refuge in the fort. Huh? Enrique was eight years old at the time, and this detail tells you something about the way that a child’s mind worked.
When Susan Taylor Brown told Enrique’s story for our History Speaks: Picture Books Plus Reader’s Theater series, she and I ultimately decided not to include the detail about the umbrella. The overall mood of the story is somber—it’s a tale of war, freedom, death, and survival. In another telling of Enrique’s story with a different tone or for a different audience, perhaps the umbrella detail would seem interesting rather than distracting. It’s up to each writer to find the right details for the story he or she is telling and find a way to make them feel believable—whether or not the story really happened.
Andrew now spends much of his time editing fiction and I spend much of my time editing nonfiction, but I suspect that the way we think about detail isn’t all that different.