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How to Bring Truth into Storytelling by Kristen Millares Young

Posted Tue, 1/15/2019 - 10:05am by  |  Category: , , , ,

An investigative journalist by trade, I am a novelist and essayist by vocation.

Today, I encourage you to use research to engage with the world. Don’t just sit at home, typing and scrolling. Google will not get you there. And why would you rely on a corporate algorithm to rank what you read and determine what you find important?

To discover the best information, ask a librarian.

As writers, as researchers, we labor as part of a community of minds. Like many other arts, research is a handcrafted thing, even when built by hyperlink. A librarian can guide you to the very best information about your subject matter, no matter what it is.

Also, if you aim to set a story — whether true or imagined — in a real place, make the time to go there, notebook in hand. I believe in gumshoe reporting.

But in my eight-week class A Field Researcher’s Guide to Authoritative Storytelling, we will focus not on the best process for gathering data, but rather on how to bring truth, by which I mean accuracy, into storytelling without becoming pedantic.

Regardless of the genre of writing you favor…

In your research, you want to go to as many sources as possible: reading and taking notes, conducting informational interviews, walkabouts, drivethroughs and arounds. Hang out. To the extent possible, immerse yourself in the real world in which your story takes place.

Building the authority to restate research as fact requires three sources for each piece of information. In your assessments, be sure not to accept written documentation as incontrovertible.

Documents are an attempt to impose a narrative on the disorder of lived experience; they are but one source of information. Seek out oral histories, and don’t disregard conflicting accounts — that’s where the story is.

But then, put your notes aside.

Your job as a writer is not to produce a piece of explanatory journalism, nor a dissertation. Your job is to leaven a scene with authentic details — which could take the form of a brief mention of what seems like a chance object but whose placement in the text renders a historical, geographic, or socioeconomic truth in one clean brushstroke.

In whatever time you have, don’t become too grim in your pursuit. Stay playful, and stay open — in both the research and the writing. Allow your characters to surprise you. That means they’re alive.

In fiction, the story-truth — a term coined by Tim O’Brien to mean the emotional truth — is more important than the happening-truth of factual occurrences. The research guides the story, but it does not control it. Let small details bear the weight of your knowledge. Be ambitious with your scope, but do not be afraid to express large truths through small scenes, whether imagined, observed, or depicted.

Research carries a story like water a boat. Keep it moving. Stay afloat.

Now, I do love essayistic digressions — consider the whaling chapters of Moby Dick or the definitions of knots that formed chapter heading in The Shipping News. But to weave research into prose, and not just interruptive deliveries of factual or meta-commentary, I’ve found the trick is to keep it lyric, by which I mean authoritative.

The trick to bringing research into storytelling is to make the truth felt.

Something which has been felt is hard to forget.

That pivot — from plot to emotional epiphany — is why we write. We research to build the authority to make that turn happen for readers, too.

Come to Hugo House on Tuesday nights. You will leave our eight weeks together with a clear sense of purpose, a deep grasp of research and the authority to tell stories.


Kristen Millares Young is the author of Subduction, forthcoming on Red Hen Press in spring 2020. An essayist and journalist, her work has been featured by the Washington Post, the Guardian, the New York Times, Crosscut, Hobart, Moss, City Arts Magazine, Pacifica Literary Review, KUOW 94.9-FM, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Miami Herald, the Buenos Aires Herald and TIME Magazine. Her personal essays are anthologized in Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze (Sasquatch Books), a New York Times New & Notable Book, and Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity (forthcoming on Routledge). Kristen was the researcher for the New York Times team that produced “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” which won a Pulitzer and a Peabody. Her reporting has been recognized by the Society for Features Journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Kristen has been a fellow at the University of California at Berkeley’s Knight Digital Media Center, the Jack Straw Writing Program, and the University of Washington Graduate School.