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Building a House of Fiction on a Foundation of Nonfiction

Author Spotlight
Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a copy of Lester Laminack’s new book, The King of Bees.

Perhaps you have been on a tour of homes and admired all the beauty of the craftsmanship, the detail in the architecture, or the layout of the interior.  Chances are that for all you did notice you gave little or no thought to the foundation or the invisible structural supports that made those homes solid and sturdy.  I suspect that is true for what we notice about story as well.  Many readers connect with the character(s), or have an affinity for the setting, or even admire the writing, but I suspect that few give thought to the foundation upon which the story is built.

The King of Bees is a house of fiction built upon a solid foundation of nonfiction.  I knew from the first moment this story would have to be built upon a solid footing of facts.  The story is built on the relationship between Henry and his aunt Lilla, but all the action centers around the beehives on their property.   When I began writing I knew only surface information about honey bees, and some of that, I learned later, was more myth than fact.  As I began trying to lay out the story it quickly became clear that I would have to put everything on hold and build my own vocabulary, background knowledge, and schema about honey bees before I could even begin to write this story with any veracity.

I launched an inquiry into the lives of honey bees by searching university entomology websites, general Google searches on honey bees and some specific searches to find or verify facts I’d run across.  It wasn’t long before I had pages and pages of notes.  And it became increasingly clear that I was searching in the wrong places.  The information I was gleaning was personally fascinating, but too in-depth, too technical for the information that would become the backup singers if the story were to take center stage.  I learned more about bees, specifically honey bees, than most adults carry around in their heads.  While this made for interesting party conversation (for me at least) I did not find it particularly helpful for the purpose of writing this story.

I backed away from those searches and spent the better part of a day going through my personal library of picture books (about 3,000 titles) pulling every title on bees or insects in general.  I read Gail Gibbons, and Melissa Stewart, and books from Weekly Reader, and Time for Kids, and Backyard Books, and Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science books, and titles from Read and Wonder, and more.  I read everything I had in my library.  It made sense to ground myself in the information written for children since Henry (my main character) is a child and my primary audience is about his age.  After reading the first few titles it became clear that this was indeed the route to take. When I finished my personal collection I began a quick search for other children’s books and ordered all of them.  These included everything from introductory level books with very minimal text paired with great photography to deeper, more dense and more complex texts.  I learned a great deal about honey bees and discovered how very important these very small creatures are to our own existence on this planet.

Taking the time to read, question, reflect, and gather more information was essential to building a story that is true to the character and location as well as to the scientific facts about honey bees.  I found myself in a cycle of reading the least complex, most general texts first to build vocabulary and slowly layer conceptual understandings to solidify my knowledge.  Each new text gave me more tools to craft this house of fiction on a solid foundation of nonfiction and to move onward to the next more complex, more specific text.  I also found that the more I read the more specific my questions became.  Layer upon layer information formed a solid foundation of fact strong enough to support this house of story.

9781561459537When I began I had the essence of the story. I had the characters and the rhythms of their speech.  I had intimate knowledge of the South Carolina Lowcountry.  I had the events in the plot and the tension.  What I did not possess in the beginning was the vocabulary, the conceptual understanding, and the facts that were necessary to make the fiction believable. I needed the nonfiction background to make that happen in this story.

As I began to construct the story I had conversations with children and adults about honey bees.  I made note of misconceptions, myth, and questions. I listened to personal stories of interactions with honey bees. All of that informed the curious nature of young Henry.  His curiosity and his questions, his love of nature and wonder, and his deep and abiding love for Aunt Lilla drive his need to know.  Aunt Lilla, a beekeeper, a strong and independent woman held the knowledge but knew how to layer it so that Henry could take it in slowly and meaningfully.  The King of Bees builds on the interplay of fact and fiction, of story and information.

I take it as a great compliment when a child asks, “Is that real?” or “Did that really happen?” or “Are you Henry in that story?”  It seems to me that the hallmark of good fiction is that it causes the reader to suspend judgment, to fall inside and live through events with the characters, to believe-at least for a while-that it is all true.  Toward that end as a writer I build the house of story on some set of truths.  Those truths may be part of my personal life experiences.  They may be growing out of some universal truths or they may be grounded in some historic events, or some place known to me or to the general population.  Those truths form the foundation strong enough to support the fiction, the house of story.

Lester Laminack, Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University, is a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the US and abroad.  He is the author of several books for teachers and children.  You can find out more at www.LesterLaminack.com or find him on Facebook and on Twitter at @lester_laminack.

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION (from Stacey):

  • This giveaway is for a copy of The King of Bees. Many thanks to Peachtree Publishers for donating this prize. For a chance to win this copy of the book, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, June 3rd, 2018 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Wednesday, June 6th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
    • U.S. mailing addresses only for the book.
  • If you are the winner of this book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – LESTER LAMINACK. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

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Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this blog post.
I used a random number generator and Kristina Weller’s commenter number came up so she won this giveaway.

57 thoughts on “Building a House of Fiction on a Foundation of Nonfiction Leave a comment

  1. Lester, I remember the NCTE roundtable presentation when you had me transfixed with your reading of The King of Bees and then, your backstory. This line from your text resonates with me and brings me back to that NCTE moment: “It seems to me that the hallmark of good fiction is that it causes the reader to suspend judgment, to fall inside and live through events with the characters, to believe-at least for a while-that it is all true.”

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  2. As usual, Lester has paid attention to superb detail with his books! I remember seeing him speak several years ago and talking about wanting to write a book about bees. I love everything he does and I could listen to him talk all day!

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  3. I loved reading how your research included not just the comprehensive nonfiction study, but also discussions wth many to get at common misconceptions about bees. How wonderful!

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  4. I have been wanting to read this book since first seeing it at NCTE. I am fascinated with the research that goes into writing fiction and believe that a post like this one is important to share with kids, who often don’t realize that amount of research that goes into writing authentic fiction pieces.

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  5. This was a fascinating post to read. I am always intrigued hearing about the process authors go through to write a book. This book looks amazing, and I look forward to checking it out.

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  6. When I first heard about this book, I was sitting in the audience at All Write in Warsaw, Indiana and listening to Lester share his story to us. I was mesmerized by him then, and I am mesmerized by this post about his process. Today, I am mesmerized by the cover of this book and the story awaiting inside!

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  7. More and more I am noticing the blurring of genre lines. Great writing crosses many boundaries. I loved reading about your process. Many of my students ask the “is this real?” question a lot about what they/we read.

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  8. This is such great information to share with students! I love for them to connect with authors by learning about the “before” of a published book. Lester’s books are always so rich and beautiful! I can’t wait to get my own!

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  9. This is going right inside the back cover of my book, “King of Bees.” I love, love, love Lester Laminack, the storyteller. This story didn’t disappoint, but I definitely felt the effects of all that research you shared. So important for our young writers to hear. Thank you.

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  10. I love learning about the writer’s process. This is a beautiful book cover on an important topic. I’d pair it with The Raft. Thank you, Lester Laminack!

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  11. I really loved reading about Lester’s process in crafting this book. It is so important to do the research and then figure out which parts belong in the story.

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  12. This is amazing, so much detail and research and insight into how to find out details about a story for children. The book sounds just wonderful and I am full of anticipation to read it! Thank you for outlining how you went about it all!

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  13. A beautiful story and perfect for the Focus on 2 literacy curriculum that Boston Early Childhood has rolled out called “The Power of Pollinators.” Thanks for the timely and beautiful book.

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  14. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am writing a few things right now, and this idea of using nonfiction to build the fiction… I am rolling that around in my head because I think it was just the advice I needed to hear!

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  15. I am always inspired by Lester’s thinking. I love to hear him talk about books. This was so helpful to read because often his books feel a bit like magic. Background knowledge is so important. We write well about what we know well.

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  16. As an educator and a writer, I appreciate the insight on the foundation of how this story was built by author Lester Laminack. Kids will appreciate the main character, Henry, in the KING OF BEES and his curiosity about Aunt Lilla’s bees. An outstanding picture book.
    Suzy Leopold
    sleopold@gmail.com

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  17. A friend of mine is a beekeeper and I am fascinated by but also a little scared of bees. The cover of the book is so inviting. I can’t wait to dig in with my kiddos and learn more about the fascinating world of bees. Then maybe a field trip to my friend’s backyard.

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  18. I loved Saturdays and Teacakes. This book also sounds like it would open children’s minds to the world with a sense of wonder! I look forward to reading it.

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  19. What an amazing look into an author’s mind of the process when writing a story – and what an in-depth process it is! I love the weaving together of fiction and non-fiction. Thanks for this!

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  20. I’m really excited to read this book! I loved hearing about the research and reminding myself not to rush that process for kids. Looks like I’ll be adding another Lester Laminack books to my collection!

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  21. I’m so excited about this book! I’ve been working on a unit of study about the amazing honeybee! I’d love to add this to my collection. It’s so important to engage students in high quality texts that build knowledge along with the love of reading.

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  22. I enjoyed reading about the link between nonfiction and fiction writing. In so many stories, facts play an important role. The best writers are those who weave them in without it being really obvious to the reader. This post is great for inspiring some lessons for young writers.

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  23. What perfect timing as our 4th graders are working on research projects and I’m researching polar bears along side of them. After we are done, I’m going to try to write a story about a polar bear…I just need to decide if it will be from the bears POV or a child’s!

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  24. This is the perfect lesson for promoting a deep understanding of the links between authors and readers…you simply can’t have one without the other! Thank you, Lester, for making it so clear and relevant! Can’t wait to read this book!!

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  25. What a powerful lesson to teach writers of fiction and nonfiction- that there are elements that weave the genres together. This is a great conferencing tip for my writers who are reluctant to write in a different genre. And, of course, what a fabulous book to add to SC History studies!

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  26. Lester is an amazing storyteller! This was a wonderful post about combining fiction and nonfiction. I cannot wait to read this story!

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  27. Another example of the importance of weaving all of our reading together across the days. Books help us bridge the gap from information to fiction and back again, making all learning more engaging.

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  28. Lester, you’re the best. I admire the dedication, curiosity, perspective shifting, and the all-in-ness of your process. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your lessons, and thank you for adding yet another title to your wonder-inspiring collection of books. I cannot wait to add this one to our library. ❤️

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  29. During a past ELA meeting (last week), we (teachers) were talking about how we have to build background with nonfiction before reading many of the fictional novels that we read. We get the nonfiction from the library (print and digital) and reading magazines (example: Scope). This picture book sounds magnificent with very little background building needed – brilliant! I can’t wait to read it.

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  30. Thanks for sharing the research it takes to write a fiction book, this is great information to share. I like reading the acknowledgments in fiction books where writers often talk about this process.

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  31. This is one of my favorite posts! Great use of non-fiction to both inform the reader, as well as to build a lovely story.

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    • Great reminder that just like kids, we also need to build our background knowledge in order to write about a topic we are not familiar with. I can’t wait to read the book and order it!

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