Skype Selfie

Skype Selfie
Here I am in a Skype Selfie during one of my recent Skype Visits. WHAT FUN!! Click on this photo to find out about my school visits on SANDRA MARKLE SPEAKS!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Write Faction--It's Non-Fiction Powered By Imagination

One of my favorite ways to write non-fiction is what I like to call faction. By that I mean it’s a fictional story in which all of the characters and the details are based on real facts.

One example is ANIMAL SCAVENGERS: WOLVERINES (Lerner, 2005) which was selected as a Children’s Book Council and International Reading Association Children’s Choice Book for 2006.

tells the story of one gutsy female wolverine living in a forest in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in northern Canada. The female wolverine is a fictional character. However, the story of her life shares real facts about wolverines and the rugged habitat they call home.

In the story, the wolverine even has a narrow escape from a bear that attacks in an attempt to get a share of the leftovers she’s claimed from a wolf pack.

And, come spring, this story moves on to the birth of her two babies, a little male and a little female, and how she raises them.

Adding to the challenge of telling this fictional, fact-based story, WOLVERINES is a photo essay so all the illustrations are real photos. To find these, I looked at thousands of photos. I contacted experts who study wolverines in the field and take photos. I also did on-line searches of professional photo agencies (stock shops). The challenge was to find just the right images to portray the fictional action. I also had to find images of wolverines that looked the right age and had fur with similar-enough coloring and markings to appear to be the same animal. In fact, this faction story is illustrated with images of a number of different unrelated wolverines.

HIP-POCKET PAPA (Charlesbridge, 2010) is an example of faction illustrated by an artist. It was honored with four awards, including being named a 2011 Charlotte Zolotow Award Honor Book. I was thrilled to receive this award because it’s for writing excellence in a picture book.

HIP-POCKET PAPA tells the fictional story of a real frog, a very rare tiny frog. It's unusual because the males carry the teeny, tiny tadpoles in hidden pockets on their hips.

It was a chance to let my imagination run—as long as I kept the animals and the place real because the illustrator could show whatever I described. So I was able to take young readers down into the leaf litter to see the world with its dangers and its resources from the little frog’s point of view.

This book was about such a rare frog that shortly before publication researchers learned something new about the frog’s life. The illustrator Alan Marks and I decided it was an important discovery. So I rewrote some of the text to have the fictional story reflect this new information, and Alan reworked the illustrations.

So the FACT part of writing faction means it’s important to stay true to sharing what’s real. The FICTION part of writing faction means you need to be aware of a key point about writing any fictional story.

Think of the story as being like a play—told in three acts.

Act One: Sets the story in its location, introduces the main character(s), and sets up the problem to be solved (which may be as real-life as staying alive and successfully raising young).

Act Two: Gives the main character(s) a series of challenges to face and puts them in dangerous situations as they work to solve the problem.

Act Three: Lets the main character(s) face the biggest challenge of all and solve the problem.

In the newly released FAMILY PACK (Charlesbridge, 2011) the faction story opens with a young female wolf alone--on her own—in a strange new world.

This wolf grew up in Canada, was trapped by humans, and released into a new place—Yellowstone National Park. The humans tried to force her to be part of a pack of their own creation, but she wanted no part of that and set out on her own. That, in one page, is Act One.

Act Two follows the young female wolf’s trial and error effort to develop her hunting skills without a pack to guide her and without any experienced wolves to help her catch prey to eat. This act also shows her loneliness when she thrusts her muzzle skyward and howls, but the only answer she gets is an owl’s hoot.

Her hunting skills finally improve. She grows bigger and stronger and gains confidence in hunting in her territory. So much so that Yellowstone is no longer a strange place, it's home.

At the end of Act Two, the young female wolf encounters another wolf, a young male. “Hello, good looking!”

Act Three is romance embodied in learning to hunt as a team. Then the female gives birth to four pups that grow quickly.

The happy ending is the whole family howling together. “At last, the female is part of a family again—her own family pack.”

FAMILY PACK is faction because while all of the action is imagined, the wolves are real—known to scientists as Female 7 and Male 2. And the way they behaved is based on real wolf behavior. The happy ending to the real story is that When Female 7 and Male 2 found each other and had four pups, their family became the first naturally formed pack following the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Called the Leopold pack, it became one of the largest and strongest in the park—at one time numbering twenty-five wolves. And the Leopold pack continues to exist today, hunting the same territory first claimed by Female 7.

Faction is still writing real-life drama, but it's a way to let your imagination spread its wings.


  1. Sandra, thank you your blog. I wish it was all in a book for there is so much helpful information on writing non-fiction for children. I love writing non-fiction and I am learning so much from you.

  2. I agree. I am loving your blog, Sandra! Thank you so much for these wonderfully informative (and beautiful!) posts.

    I was wondering about your thoughts on faction itself. Do you think it should be shelved in the fiction or nonfiction section of the library? Is it easier or harder to sell to a publisher? Do you think the publisher markets faction any differently? Do they sell any better or worse to end buyers than straight nonfiction? Do you ever get teachers, librarians, or reviewers "calling it out" as not real nonfiction? How do you react to that?

    Please don't get me wrong! I love faction, and I think it helps all of us (not just kids!) learn about what's true and remember it. As a writer, I often see the potential for dramatizing facts in this way, but I'm always so afraid of crossing a line somewhere and losing credibility or marketability because of it. So, I'm just wondering what your experiences have been, and if you can offer any guidelines for the rest of us. :)

  3. Hi Laura,

    Please forgive my slowness in responding. I live just outside Christchurch and have a house full of people as we deal with the recent earthquake disaster. In fact, I was in town for this terrifying experience, but I did make it home safely. I will, once I catch my breath, share this experience on my blog.

    You've asked a very good question. My faction books are shared as exactly what they are, fictionalized accounts of real life. I always make sure the facts are strong enough for children to gain valuable insights from the story. My books always include author's notes which tell the real life story that inspired the fictional one. It's important to make it clear this is not a strictly factual report. I also make absolutely certain that the facts I share are completely correct. That's why my faction stories, like my straight non-fiction books, are checked by an expert, and usually more than one, in that field. For example, FAMILY PACK, was written based on interviews with several experts who spent years working on the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and checked by Dr. Doug Smith, director of the Wolf Restoration Project at Yellowstone National Park. It was also based on my extensive research into wolf behavior for articles for National Geographic for Kids magazine, my book GROWING UP WILD WOLVES, and my book ANIMAL PREDATORS: WOLVES.

    Reviewers, librarians, and teachers and most importantly parents and children happily respect the effort I go to in order to be certain the stories I weave share valuable real-life insights with readers. As for whether it's easier or harder to sell faction than straight non-fiction to publishers, the answer is what sells is quality--a well-researched, well-crafted book that provides a fresh take on a familiar topic or covers a whole new subject and fills a hole in the market place.

    The key things I would share are never take shortcuts on doing your homework before you write, always--ALWAYS--take the time to have your facts/story checked by a reliable expert, and use the real facts to tell the very best story you can.

    All Best,

  4. Talking about Internet sites, you should write the full list of works cited including publishing year, author, name of the source, and even direct link just at the end of the page or in a separate section, click how to write annotated bibliography apa here to find more information.