Nonfiction Morphs into Fiction

When I began talking with Herman about his experiences, I had already enjoyed some small success as a writer of stories and articles for the youth market. Naturally, my first thought was to turn his adventures into a nonfiction book for middle-grade readers. However, because during most of the story Herman is in his early 20s, an age that would seem like adulthood for younger readers, I shifted the writing style upward in hopes of appealing to a slightly older audience of ages “12 and up,” otherwise known as YA.

      My feeling was that young people in high school would be able to identify with a youth who is only 18 in the first chapter, thus only a few years older than most readers. Besides that, I envisioned the book as a curriculum supplement for world history classes, as well as a “crossover” book that would be interesting to adults.  At the time, the recently born “new adult” category meant for readers age 18 thru 25 had not yet appeared in marketing parlance, but that was an age group I also wanted to reach because they would be the same age as my hero.
       As the chapters began to flow, I used the transcribed interviews with Herman, his letters to his mother, and my reading and research to substantiate what I was writing. Sometimes the process was difficult due to the bare-bones nature of what Herman remembered. Before I was very far into it, I determined that I would dramatize some scenes, even adding in some basic conversation loosely based on Herman’s words from his interviews. This brought me close to treading on the line where nonfiction bleeds into fiction. I would need to have some detailed author’s notes, I thought, to explain this to younger readers.
       When the manuscript was completed, proofed, and edited with the help of input from my ever-faithful writers’ group, women who had encouraged me for many years, I began to submit query letters to agents. I was sure an agent was the best way to introduce a book such as mine to a publisher—a book I felt was well written and informative and which I was convinced could become classroom reading, but would never be in the popular league with the Harry Potter books, which had recently taken the world by storm.
       In 2006, I entered the first chapter of the manuscript in a writing contest held by my local chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and I won first prize in the Young Adult division. This honor was highlighted in my query letter, along with my publishing credits and a brief description of the story.
        I soon learned that the title I had given my book, Becoming an American, was misleading. An agent who asked to read the manuscript indicated that she missed the angst and feelings of dislocation that would surely be part of any immigrant story. Well, I thought, it’s not really an immigrant story in the traditional sense, though the hero is certainly an immigrant. But what kind of story is it? I decided it was more a story of coming of age during a significant and dramatic period of history—a time when politics and the world situation had a powerful effect on the life of my main character. I changed the title to In History’s Shadow and continued to submit it to agents.
        The “not for us” responses accumulated and I found myself thinking seriously about something another agent had written. “Rewrite the manuscript as adult fiction and I will be willing to have another look at it.” As an ex-teacher, letting go of the nonfiction idea was difficult for me. Besides, I had already spent close to eight years on writing and research. The suggestion amounted to asking me to start over! A full rewrite would be an enormous task.
       I kept a notebook of all my submissions, and as the list of agents and publishers who had turned down the manuscript grew, my willingness to consider rewriting also grew. Finally I acquiesced. After all, historical fiction was my favorite genre to read. I would try the rewrite, one chapter at a time, always saving a file of the original and continuing to send it out if I found an agent who might be interested in the nonfiction version.
       I decided to approach the rewrite as if I were creating an onion. That is, I would add to the basic story layer upon layer of fictional detail. I simply could not bear to start fresh with a blank page. I would let the true story and the personality of the man I knew and loved suggest and lead any invention I might add as I turned my YA book into a novel for adult readers.
       I started by adding more dialogue, then moved into imagining the feelings and thoughts of my hero. I expanded the dramatic scenes already part of the manuscript, those few that had been based on Herman’s memories, and was able to make them more evocative. Best of all, as I allowed my creativity to mingle into the facts of the story, I discovered many places where the incompleteness of my uncle’s memory had left questions that I could now creatively answer. What did he do with his motorcycle before he left Germany? How did he get from Germany to England? What really happened on his one date with Molly, the English girl? What prompted him to write to President Roosevelt and what did that undiscovered letter actually say? What was the crossing like going back to Europe as a soldier? How did he feel after visiting Dachau? What kind of relationship did he have with the Russian girl and what was her name? About midway through the process, I again gave it a new title – Refugee Soldier.
      Sadly, as the manuscript became a novel,  I had to remove many chunks of historical background facts.  In a few cases I was able to incorporate these details into the new scenes.  Other large sections of background history, like information explaining the Geneva Convention rules, as well as a discussion of trench foot, were moved to a glossary that I still plan to have as backmatter.  It was difficult for me to let go of some of this information, but cutting in order to maintain plot flow improved the manuscript.
        Gradually, Herman’s experiences turned into a novel, now titled Immigrant Soldier. All the important elements of plot and character still follow the facts of what really happened and, best of all, I have come to believe the novel is a more compelling story.


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