Tuesday 19 October 2021

The best defined single tip I’ve heard about writing narrative nonfiction: Candace Fleming and her VITAL IDEA by Juliet Clare Bell

We are all too aware of the many disadvantages and often grave difficulties faced in a long-term pandemic. Today I'd like highlight a positive thing for writers, particularly those who may not yet be published and who are really trying to hone their craft. With so much having been moved online, over here in the UK we have had the chance to attend lots of US webinars about the craft of picture books that we’d never normally get the chance to (as they’d have previously happened in person). Given that narrative nonfiction is so much bigger in the States than it is here (and that many UK writers write with US publishers in mind as a result), nonfiction webinars have been particularly useful.

 I’ve taught writing classes and been part of a writing panel on narrative nonfiction, and I’ve written three nonfiction books, all commissioned but for different markets:

Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (illustrated by Jess Mikhail, BVT; Junko Tabei: One Step at a Time (illustrated by Evelt Janais) and Do Bees Dance (illustrated by Adam Linley)


And I’ve written several blogposts for the picture book denabout narrative nonfiction. I’ve got loads of narrative nonfiction picture books which have been really useful for research and for comparison.

                                A small selection of my narrative nonfiction book collection

It’s something I’m really interested in, and especially so at the moment when I’m editing my latest narrative nonfiction picture book which I was thinking and researching about for a long time before I actually started writing it.

Well, there was. Many nonfiction writers might be familiar with this concept -and I’ve worked at doing this myself but I’ve never known it as well explained as Candace’s explanation. I can’t talk you through the whole webinar as it is hers -and anyone who’s interested in writing nonfiction, whether you’re already published in the genre or not, I’d highly recommend attending any sessions she does, but she’s blogged about this idea herself, so I can highlight the principle behind the general idea:


                                     Giant Squid by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Candace Fleming’s


for nonfiction.

Candace breaks it down into your TOPIC and your VITAL IDEA


When you set out to write a nonfiction book, you usually have the general topic in mind, and often you will start your research around the topic without yet knowing the angle you’re going to take. For example, with our book Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (illustrated by Jess Mikhail)

 the broad topic was given to us. We were commissioned by Bournville Village Trust to write a children’s book on some aspect of the Cadbury family. That was all. So I set to work looking at the extraordinary archives attached to the factory in Bournville, UK, and at Birmingham Central Library, and I started reading books on the entire Cadbury family… There were many interesting stories to be told but after a good deal of research I found something that spoke to me more than all of the fascinating things I was reading. It was the story of Richard and George Cadbury and the creation of the chocolate factory and later, Bournville Village. So that was the TOPIC.

The story itself was fascinating but what really hooked me was looking into the personal archives and reading about why they wanted to do what they did: Richard and George were keenly aware of their good fortune and worked tirelessly -in many ways- towards sharing their good fortune with others. And this was my VITAL IDEA.

When I wrote the book, I didn’t know about the term VITAL IDEA but it’s really interesting to look back over the book and identify what Candace talks about. Once you’ve chosen your vital idea -and there can only be ONE in a picture book, then the rest of your research can be honed. This VITAL IDEA will be the heart of your story, and information you have -however interesting- that does not speak to the vital idea does not belong in that story. It can feel very harsh (but hey, you can put it in the back matter). Anyone who’s done a lot of research for a book knows there are so many things that would engage your reader, but your job is telling the story of your VITAL IDEA. It’s why you can have so many picture books on the same topic and they are all so different.

And this is what I love about narrative nonfiction: the vital idea for the story is really personal to the author. As Candace states, you need to think (once you know enough about your topic)

what is it that I -rather than anyone else- have to say about this topic to the child reader?

This concept (without using the term vital idea) is really interestingly discussed throughout the book Narrative Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep -where authors tell the personal stories behind why they chose their topics and the particular angle of the story:

                                   Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep (edited by Melissa Stewart)

For me, when it came to the Cadbury story, I had grown up with the Quaker philosophy (my dad and his Irish family for generations had been Quakers) and although I’m not a Quaker, I went to Quaker Meeting regularly for a while as a child and have always liked a lot of their philosophy. Our local Amnesty International and CND groups where I grew up were dominated by Quakers -they were actively involved in trying to make the world a better place to live. And the more I read of George Cadbury’s writings on responsibility and society, the more I felt that their story was highly relevant to our current climate. I would find quotes from him, almost one hundred years old, that felt like they could have just been written. The Quaker philosophy was never going to take up a big part of the book (it was only referred to specifically in one sentence of the story) but I appreciated how it underpinned so much of what they felt and how they lived their lives. And we (Jess, the illustrator, and I) both lived within three or four miles of Bournville and the Cadbury factory. All these reasons came together to form the vital idea -the story that only I could tell in that particular way because of my engagement with the subject.


So there is only one vital idea and that has to be honoured throughout the story. And this will affect the mood and the language used. As Candace says, when you know your vital idea, you hone your language accordingly and this is what makes the language ‘soar’, which editors are always so keen to see.

Even though I’d pretty much applied this to the Cadbury book (and to the Junko Tabei book) without having used the terminology of vital idea, I applied it to my editing for my current book, which took a lot of research before I realised what I wanted at the heart of the story.

                                                    Lots of notes for my current manuscript

 I can’t write it about here as the book is not out yet (nor even yet sold) but articulating the vital idea to myself, writing it down and honing it until it was really precise, meant that I was able to edit more effectively and ruthlessly, even killing my darlings -things I really wanted to share with the reader but weren’t important enough to my vital idea (but all is not lost: I get to sneak them into the back matter!) And I’ve been able to adapt the language slightly to help bring out that vital idea…

For anyone who is interested, I’d recommend checking out the Writing Barn webinars and all the SCBWI online events. Some of the digital SCBWI events are free to SCBWI members but the regional ones (like Candace’s one) have a small fee.


Do you have any brilliant tips for nonfiction writing? Have you applied the vital idea principle to your manuscript? I’d love to hear any thoughts or suggestions in the comments below. Thank you.

Juliet Clare Bell (always called Clare) is a children’s author of more than thirty books -but who will always love learning new perspectives on writing and thinking from fellow authors. www.julietclarebell.com


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