Building a House of Fiction on a Foundation of Nonfiction
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.
When 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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