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.

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