Test the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 3

Continued from last Friday.

Now that your Scene column is filled with the various locations and the action that takes place in each scene and your Character column lists every character who appears or is referenced in those scenes, let’s move on to the facts.


In this column, you will note the clues and pertinent information passed on to the reader during the scene.

Avoid Ommisions

Once this column is complete, omissions stand out. In Agatha Christie’s “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”, Hercule Poirot notices that the shoe on a battered corpse is old and worn, whereas the same exact shoe was new and shiny when he saw it on the woman shorty before–suggesting that the woman he saw alive was an imposter. If Christie had not included a scene allowing Poirot to get a good look at the imposter’s shoe, then the detective’s discovery would have seemed omniscient, rather than logical.

If you have a scene at the end of your story where the sleuth tells all, you can make a list of her summation in the information column and cross reference it with earlier information given just to make sure you’re playing fair. For example:

“I noticed a hidiously large footprint in the begonias which could only have belonged to Gregor the Giant who worked with the traveling circus.”

Did you give the reader these clues ahead of time?
Is there a scene where you show the discovery of the footprint?
Is there a scene where you let the reader know the circus is in town? Maybe a character is perusing the local paper and saw an advertisement.
Is there a scene where the slueth at lease sees mention of Gregor the Giant, if not the giant himself?

Create Balance

Once you see all of the information as it is relayed to the reader, you may also find that you could time a revelation to better advantage. If all of the clues cluster around the beginning or end of the story, the middle will drag.

It’s especially disheartening to read an entire story where not much happens only to have the clues pop up on the final pages. (Trust me. I just read a book like this. I loved the characters, loved the dialogue, but by the last quarter of the story, I didn’t care. Where was the detection? This was supposed to be a mystery!)

It feels as if the writer is saying, “Oh! I forgot to tell you.” and “Let me get this bit in here because the ending doesn’t make any sense as it stands now!”

In Plain Site

When you look over the information imparted, you might find that you tell too much, or tell it too early. It’s not very satisfying to read a mystery when you know who the murderer is by page twenty-five. Maybe the clue could be sublter. A giant footprint outside the library window when there is a giant in town is not very subtle. What about two narrow, deep holes? What could have made these? If your references to the circus aren’t over the (big) top, it may come as a surprise to find that the holes were made by Sammy the Stilt-walking Man.

When I first began reading Agatha Chrisie, I found myself crying, “Cheat!” at the end of her books. Then I would page back through and find that the clues were all there! But they were subtle. I highly recommend writers read her books to discover how to lay a path of clues without using neon signs.

That’s it for Information. Next week I’ll show how Questions Asked can ensure there aren’t any loose ends.

Interview with Author Hannah Dennison

Hannah Dennison is the author of the Vicky Hill mystery series. Like Vicky, Hannah was an obituary writer for a small English newspaper before crossing the pond to try her hand at screenwriting. Fortunately for us, she switched to long-form narrative and a mystery writer was born!
Welcome Hannah!

Now that your third book is in print, does the writing process come easier to you, or is it more difficult to keep a series fresh?

I love this question. It couldn’t be more timely! For me, it is just as hard meeting a deadline with my fourth book—due mid March—as it was my first. If anything, the pressure is worse because I want the book to be better than the last one! Keeping the series fresh is always a challenge but having a “season long mystery” (to borrow a TV phrase) is a useful. Vicky’s ongoing story arc is how to deal with her criminal parents who are increasingly encroaching on her life. Having Vicky gradually mature as a young woman also helps. She starts off being somewhat “naive” in the romantic department but as time moves on, Vicky starts to grow up.

Your books each revolve around an eccentric English event—snail racing and hedge jumping to name two. Were these sports popular when you lived in England, or have you had to dig to find these gems?

I came across hedge jumping completely by accident. I overheard a conversation in a restaurant between a couple that was fighting over “Charlie’s ridiculous hobby.” Eavesdropping – which is what we writers do best—I learned that Charlie had an obsession for jumping over hedges. His enthusiasm was so great that weekends were spent scouring the English countryside for suitable specimens—a neat, box privet, a comfortable, springy laurel or the deadly blackthorn for Charlie to leap over. My editor liked the idea so much, I thought, well, I’m English (and eccentric by default) so I wondered what other sports American readers would not know about. Once I started digging, I was stunned by the unusual sports my fellow countrymen enjoyed—hedge cutting, Naked Farmer competitions, worm charming, bog snorkeling, flaming Tar Barrel racing and Morris dancing. The list is endless. These plot backdrops inadvertently provide my series with a “hook.” A sort of … good grief, let’s see what she’s writing about this time.

Each book adds new depth to your protagonist, Vicky Hill, as she learns about betrayal and disappointment. How do you keep developing her character and yet retain the naivety and optimism that makes Vicky so loveable?

I’m happy you feel she is developing. Walking that fine line between naivety and being TSTL – (too stupid to live) is a constant challenge for me. But like everyone, Vicky has to grow up at some point. I hint at the battles she faces ahead on dealing with her father’s criminal activities but most of all, each book does bring her nearer to the Great Seduction scene that I am very excited about writing. I’ve even thought about conducting a reader survey to see who that lucky man might be!

Gipping-on-Plym is the village where Vicky currently resides. A product of your imagination or based on someplace you know?

I lived and worked in the real town of Tiverton as an obit writer for the Tiverton Gazette—no surprises there—so yes, it is an amalgamation of Tiverton in East Devon and Totnes in South Devon (an area that has taken recycling to a new level). I have included a few places that do exist. How could I not set a scene at The Nobody Inn pub in Doddiscombleigh. They have a delicious menu for anyone who might find themselves in Devon.

I love how you bring forward minor characters from previous stories and spotlight them in later books. How do you determine which minor characters are worth expanding on?

To add to your earlier question, expanding some of the minor characters really helps keep the series fresh though I don’t know which ones will make the cut ahead of time. They tend to tell me. They also don’t do as they’re told. I have a loveable paramedic called Sexpot Steve who is infatuated with Vicky Hill and who I have tried to kill off in both Scoop! and Expose! … but he just won’t listen!

The “Cabot Cove Syndrome” says that if you have a small village and you keep killing the residents off or jailing them for murder, soon the village will be empty. On the other hand, you don’t want the new guy in town to be the killer or victim every time. How do you avoid this writing pitfall?

Yes. That’s a hard one. One thing I’ve learned about human nature is that everyone has some kind of skeleton in the closet. As my plots are character driven, it is immensely satisfying to exploit those skeletons. I’ve always given every one of my characters – major or minor – a secret. It can be as small as being an obsessive collector of vinyl records to someone who has an unreasonable dislike of hedge jumpers. Sometimes a newcomer can survive but simply act as a catalyst. I feel that making the familiar characters fascinating can at least help soften the inevitable.

Tell us what’s next for you.

My fourth book—THIEVES!—will be out January 2011. I will be submitting a proposal to my publisher, Berkley Prime Crime, for two more in the series. I’d love to see our Vicky through her first real romantic encounter especially as one of her greatest fears is dying an old maid, “pure and unsullied.” I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure that won’t happen!

Thanks so much for having me today Jackie.

Vicly’s latest exploits can be found in “Expose!” at bookstores and online, and a review of the book is at Jackie Houchin’s New & Reviews. If you’d like to know more about Hanhah, visit her website.

Test the Ingegrity of Your Mystery – Part 2

Continued from last week.

Now that you’ve listed all of the scenes including where they take place and what action occurs, move on to the second column of your chart.


The point of listing the characters is to help you keep track of everyone who makes an appearance in your story. List every character who appears in each scene. This includes characters who are not physically present but come up indirectly in conversation. Also, if Mr. X speaks to Ms. Y on the phone, add Ms. Y to the list.

This serves a few purposes.

Avoid Irritating Surprises

If your victim has an identical twin sister and that fact is crucial to the plot, it’s not really fair to the reader if no sister has been mentioned until the crucial moment when she pops up. By all means keep the fact that she’s a twin under your hat, but even a casual mention of a sibling earlier in the story will keep your reader from throwing the book across the room when one conveniently shows up. Put twin sister in the character column of the scene where “siblings” are mentioned. 

If you want to make her appearance a complete surprise, there must be a hint that this unknown person exists, such as a conversation the victim has with her over the phone or a letter signed with her initials. The reader gets enough hints from the conversation or letter that the person involved is important even if the reader doesn’t know exactly who it is. Even an ambiguous mention by the detective that “there must have been someone else in that room the night so-and-so died” will do. If the twin sister is on the other end of the phone, has written the letter, or is the unknown someone who must have been in the room, put twin sister on your character list for the scene. 

I also list characters who I assume are involved in the story but aren’t specifically mentioned. For instance, if the victim’s will comes up in a scene, put (attorney) in the character column. The parenthesis show that you haven’t decided how to introduce the character, but that he should exist. Consider it a reminder that your sleuth wants to talk to the attorney. If the will has nothing to do with the murder, it would still be the natural inclination of the police to investigate the angle, even if it’s a dead end. You may decide to handle the will in a clever manner that won’t involve an attorney at all, but it will have been a deliberate move, not an omission.

Keep Suspects on Even Ground

Tracking the number of times a character receives mention will also ensure that the detective gives the suspect proper consideration. If Harry Cheese is the killer, but the sleuth only discusses him once during the course of the investigation, the reader will feel cheated. Conversely, if every chapter includes Harry Cheese, Harry Cheese, Harry Cheese, you might as well light a neon sign flashing Killer over his head.

Balance the Investigation

Listing the characters will also show if your story lacks character balance. Some writers have amateur detectives who assist the police. Stephanie Plum exchanges information with Joe Morelli, Cora Felton has Chief Harper, and Hercule Peroit has Chief Inspector Japp. If your sleuth and the police share an equal number of scenes, ask yourself if you want them to be co-protagonists. If your intention is to include the police officer only as a supporting character, you will have to either condense his scenes or find a way for your sleuth to uncover the same information.

Next week I’ll discuss how to avoid the bad joke syndrome. You know. You get to the punch line and say, “Wait! I forgot to tell you____!” 

Interview with J. Michael Orenduff

J. Michael Orenduff’s website claims that the award-winning author “grew up in a house so close to the Rio Grande he could Frisbee a tortilla into Mexico from his back yard, a practice frowned upon by his mother.” That must be how he makes Albuquerque, New Mexico come alive in his Pot Thief series. Orenduff also writes for the stage, and his play, The Christmas Visitor, has garnered several awards–including first prize in the Jewel Box Playwriting Contest–and was selected as one of the “Top 100” by Writer’s Digest in 2008.  Welcome Michael!

According to the Archeological Resources Protection Act, your protagonist, Hubert “Hubie” Schuze, is a pot thief. Did the ARPA really put treasure hunters out of business?

Almost. The only place it is now legal to dig for artifacts is on private land, but getting permission to do so is difficult. Most known sites are on public land. You can fish, graze cattle, cut firewood, and mine for gold on public land, but if you happen to kick up an arrowhead while hiking, you better leave it where it falls.

Hubie resides in New Mexico and studied anthropology. J. Michael Orenduff lived in New Mexico and studied anthropology. What else do you and Hubie have in common?

Almost nothing. He’s short, single, and has a full head of hair. I’m tall, bald, and happily married with two children and a grandson. Hubie hates travel and martinis. I love both.

You’ve lived in so many interesting places—Texas, Maine, Bulgaria, Chile, Bermuda. What made you place your mysteries in New Mexico?

I wanted the protagonist to have some moral ambiguity, so I made him a treasure hunter, and New Mexico is the perfect place for that.

In The Pot Thief books, Albuquerque comes to life. You convey a deep sense of the scenery and people in the details, all the way down to the food. Since you no longer live in New Mexico, how do you corroborate the details?

I spent much of my childhood in New Mexico, and the memories are as fresh as the desert air. Maybe that’s why they call them the “formative years.” New Mexico is in my blood. I have many family members and friends all over New Mexico, and I visit there every chance I get.

Your books involve scientific theories and manage to make them entertaining! The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras delves into math, and The Pot Thief who Studied Ptolemy reflects on astronomy. Why this added layer? And were you worried the titles might intimidate readers?

I think the “Pot Thief” part of the title actually added a few sales to young people who thought it referred to a different kind of pot! Seriously, I believe a good book should entertain and enlighten. I spent most of my life as a teacher, so I enjoy the challenge of trying to make theories understandable and interesting. I try to work them into the story in such as way that they don’t sound like textbooks or lectures. I also get help from experts in the various disciplines. The next one in the series is The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein, so that should be a real challenge.

As someone who’s read both books, I can attest to the fact that the science fits the mystery and is offered in an enlightening manner. I wish my high school science teacher had made class as understandable and enjoyable! 

When you write your mysteries, which do you focus on first—the crime, the scientific theory, or the antagonist?

I tried focusing on the antagonist, but in each of the first three books, a strange thing happened. I decided about halfway into the story to change who did it! Of course that required considerable re-writing, but I enjoy the process, and it makes for better ‘aha’ moments because the final story is more ingenious than the one I thought up before starting to write. I guess I have to be immersed in the book before the creative juices flow.

I understand that you recently sold out of books at the launch of The Pot Thief who studied Ptolemy. What have you done to build up a following of readers?

The successful launch of The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy was due in large part to a great article in the Albuquerque Journal just days before the launch, to the hard work of the bookstore owner who publicized the event, and to the fact that it was held on the evening of the annual Holiday Stroll in Old Town where people come out to shop and watch the lighting of the Christmas tree. There were a lot of Pot Thief books under Christmas trees in Albuquerque.
I think the two main keys to building a following of readers is to be in touch with as many of them as possible and to have a new book out at least every year.

Your wife is noted art historian Lai Chew Orenduff. Have you ever thought about teaming up with her to write an art mystery?

Absolutely. She is too busy with her day job at this point, but when she retires, we definitely want to write such a book

That’s something I look forward to. Until then, what’s next on your agenda?

As mentioned above, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein will be out later this year. It’s complete, so I’m working on the next one and trying to find a theater company to produce one of my plays. The play, The Christmas Visitor, has won four awards from various playwriting contests and was going to be produced by a theater in Norfolk, Virginia, but they went broke last month, another victim of the economy. We give government money to banks who pay their executives billions in bonuses, but there was no stimulus money for the arts. I’ll step down from my soap box now. Thanks for the interview.

Thank you, Michael.

You can find out much more about Michael and The Pot Thief series by visiting his web site and blog and in this recent interview with author Marilyn Meredith on her blog, Marilyn’s Musings. His books can be found in many bookstores–both in store and online–and you can check your local independant bookstore as well. Michael and his wife Lai will present “A Good Cover is Worth a Thousand Words”at this June’s Public Safety Writer’s Conference in Las Vegas.

Finally, you can find a review of the first Pot Thief book (with the second soon to follow) at Jackie Houchin’s News and Reviews .

Testing the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 1

WinR Jacqueline Vick shares a writing tool she uses when reviewing her mysteries.

Some writers thrive on it. Some writers dread it. All writers do it.


Mystery rewrites involve an extra step because the story depends on logic. If there are misplaced clues, forgotten hints, or unexplained details, the climatic moment (and the murderer is…) will result in an unsatisfying “Huh?” Unfortunately, by the third pass through your manuscript, your subconscious has a tendency to fill in the missing information, because you know what should happen. This makes it difficult to catch mistakes.

One way to test the integrity of your mystery is make four columns in a notebook (electronic or paper) and then break the story into four parts: Scene, Characters, Information, and Unresolved Questions.


A scene tells its own story; it has a beginning, middle, and end. It may take place over more than one location. For instance, the conversation may start in the drawing room and then move out onto the lawn. The purpose of every scene is to reveal character and/or (but hopefully and) to move the plot forward.

In the Scene column, give a brief description including Action and Location:

Discussing clues in the Garden.

Location is important.

Everytime a new location comes up, the writer must give enough description to convey a sense of place to the reader. An author once said that if it wasn’t necessary for a scene to take place at a particular location, get rid of that location. I think the author’s point was that new locations shouldn’t appear randomly. If deadly nightshade is the weapon of choice, then it would make sense to have a scene in a the woods where the slueth could discover a ready supply of the plant. If she’s simply contemplating the appearance of a new suspect, there’s no need to describe the lovely fauna. If possible, move her to the setting of the next scene–have her ponder this new suspect while climbing the porch steps to her next interview.

And make the location fit in with your character. Poirot disliked the untidy nature of the wilderness. He wouldn’t have gone for a relaxing stroll through the woods, though he might have unwillingly traversed a path if he suspected the existence of a clue.

Action keeps the story moving.

By listing the Action, you’ll notice where the story stagnates. The detective needs to regroup and lay out the information gathered so far and readers appreciate these recaps. However, if you have ten scene descriptions in a row that read “thinks about…”, you might want to reorganize or add some action. Otherwise you’re in danger of the dreaded “talking head” syndrome.

Laying out your scenes will also make it obvious if there are bits that should either be cut or combined.  The sleuth spots a clue in the drawing room fireplace. Later, he runs into the maid and discovers the butler was suspiciously missing from his duties during the critical hours. Why go back to the drawing room twice if you can take care of it all during one visit? The sleuth follows the maid into the drawing room to ask her a question and notices the clue in the fireplace. And if there’s a dangly scene that doesn’t serve a purpose, off with its head! Let’s say the sleuth looks for the maid in the drawing room but doesn’t find her. He comes back later. Why, why, oh why would you waste space on that first trip?

Next week, find out how listing the characters in each scene can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes.

Interview with Rosemary Lord

We are pleased to present WinR Rosemary Lord. Rosemary is an author, actress and is involved in issues benefiting Hollywood women and preservation. She is the author of several best-selling nonfiction books as well as a new mystery novel, “Lottie”. Welcome Rosemary!

What led an actress and best-selling non-fiction author to write a mystery?

During my years as an actress, I had often done bits of journalism as a way to pay bills between acting gigs. In England I would write interviews with some of the actors I was working with: Glenda Jackson, Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan, George Segal and so on. I wrote for the teenage magazines in the UK, such as Petticoat, Mirabelle, Jackie, and then progressed to women’s mags like Woman, Woma’s Journal etc.

When I came to America and was waiting for my Green Card, I did loads of journalism for these same magazines and American ones such as Coronet, Field Newspapers, Atlantic Review and so on. I wrote a “Letter From Hollywood” column and interviewed many of the old-time actors and film makers such as Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Shaw, Glenn Ford, James Stewart, Edith Head, John Huston and so on.

Although my acting career progressed and kept me busy, I still loved history and the Old Hollywood. And so years down the line, when the opportunity came to write my first book, Los Angeles Then and Now, I jumped at the chance. Then came Hollywood Then and Now, in which I got to write about the people as well as the place.

I was starting another non-fiction book on Hollywood history and talking about it to a writer friend, Jacqueline Winspear, of the successful MAISIE DOBBS novels. She pointed out that as I found those olden days so intriguing, why didn’t I write a murder mystery set in Old Hollywood? I explained that I wouldn’t know where to begin with writing a mystery. And she said that she had not set out to write a mystery when she started writing MAISIE DOBBS. So with that encouragement, all the little pieces of stories that had been running round inside my brain, began to knit together.

You’ve recently put the final touches on your historical mystery. Can you tell us a bit about the plot and central character?

So the novel I have now finished is set in 1920s Hollywood, during the Silent Era. It was inspired from reading so many old documents I had uncovered in researching my non-fiction books. Because it is set during Prohibition, there was a lot of corruption going on, of course, but people’s behavior was still very controlled and strict. Which is why the new Movie folk in Hollywood were considered wicked and immoral. And any girls working in this industry were considered ‘loose women.’ So this is the world my young heroine, Lottie, struggles with. And because she is from England and had lived through World War I, it was like living in Paradise for her to move to sunny California, where oranges grew everywhere and she has the opportunity to work in “flickers.” And, yes, there is a murder. But other than that, I’m not saying more at this point!

How did you research old-time Hollywood?

Apart from the research that I already had from my previous books, with authenticated documents I had studied, the 1920s were a time when my mum and her sister had been working in the theatre. They were dancers from early childhood, heavily chaperoned, and had travelled all over England, France and Morocco and other exotic places. They had a “Bluebird” dancing act! And they had appeared in shows with Maurice Chevalier and many other entertainers of that era.

My mum LOVED Hollywood and always wanted to come here to work. So she subscribed to Hollywood Fan Magazines and watched the silent movies – her favorites were Clara Bow and Theda Bara – and tried to copy their make-up and fashions. I have been able to use so much of what she had told me about her young years for my heroine. And my mum was a great reader: always talking about “Aggie Christie” and her stories. And once Mum was married and had all of us kids and so no longer was a dancer, she became a writer. She used to write some of the fifteen minute “Morning Mysteries,” for BBC Radio and “Mystery At Midnight,” for Capitol Radio in England.

Also my Dad, who was in the Royal Navy, had been to Hollywood during Prohibition. And I loved to hear him talk about the speakeasies and how he had met Jean Harlow and danced with Anita Page! And my Grandpa, on my Dad’s side, was a Detective in Bristol, England. (My Dad was in the same class as Cary Grant – then Archibald Leach – at Primary School.) So I think my curiosity and questioning that my characters have, must have been channeled from him.

These days, people are popping their own homemade movies on the interenet without a thought. What methods did you employ to make the early days of filmmaking seem fresh and exciting to your readers?

I think that one of the problems with entertainment today, is that all of these “How it was made” shows take all the mystique out of movies. Many people today think that they can make movies or write a Best Seller without having to learn how, because they have learned a few trade secrets. That’s why I love films like “Cinema Paradiso,” in which we were transported back to the days of the primitive censorship of removing THE KISSES(!) from those wonderful movies. And the challenge of bicycling from one village to another with the next film reel, so the audience can see the end of the movie. That is the magic of a simpler life.

And in my novel, I have tried to bring my readers into that early time when the audience heard no dialogue – so the director was talking all the way through the scene, and the noise from the stage next to them would spill over. But the audience would use their own imagination far more than today. Today, all the details are filled in for them. In those early days, they were still working out how to produce special effects and perform stunts. And there many dreadful injuries, some fatal, because the actors were not considered too valuable. They could always be replaced! And they would work 18 hour days, in horrible conditions – but be thrilled to have a job. I loved inhabiting that simpler and more appreciative world.

You are also the author of the best-selling non-fiction book, Hollywood, Then and Now. What differences did you find in writing a non-fiction book on Hollywood and a fictional account of the industry?

The difference with writing fiction, after my non-fiction books, is that now I have the opportunity to color things. I can take actual happenings and change the people involved, fictionalize them, and hook them into another real life incident and come up with a wonderful “What if…” moment. But on the other side of it, having all that rich research at my fingertips, I hope that I can have the readers feel the integrity and authenticity of the people and situations from times gone by.

As an actress who has worked on well-loved shows such as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Dr. Who” and who has acted with greats like Sir Anthony Hopkins, tell us how acting informs your writing? Does it help? Or is it a hinderence? Would you recommend that writers take a beginning acting class or improv class?

As an actress I have been fortunate to work with some terrific actors over the years. In England it was not so much the Star System you have here, so actors may play the lead one week and the next time they would have one line. You all learned to “muck in together.” I had a bit part in the film of “Alice in Wonderland” and was in the same scene as Dame Flora Robson, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Horden, Michael Crawford and a host of others in a lengthy Court Room scene that we worked on for many, many days. (I was the Chief Clerk of the Court in a Parrot costume!) But it was fascinating watching these great actors interact. And they were all considerate, humble and hysterically funny. And, as a writer, I find my acting experience helps so much with my characters, as they all have these different voices that I seem to channel! Anyone watching me write would think I should be in a loony bin, as I argue out loud back and forth in different dialects!

As an actress, are you tempted to write a script or a play?

I have written scripts years ago. I wrote a sitcom set in present day Hollywood, that the head of BBC Comedy ‘sat on’ for a couple of years, telling me how great it was. But then he got fired… And my husband, Rick and I wrote a docudrama script for a PBS series many years ago. But I must confess, I much prefer the world of novelists. Novelists – and especially Mystery novelists – are the greatest people in the world. They are encouraging, supportive and have such curious minds and great senses of humor! Script writers – like actors – seem so competitive and age conscious! It appears to be a crime to be a script writer or an actor once you reach forty years old! But novelists – well they are smart enough to go on for ever.

What’s next for you?

And so now I am going to catch up on my reading. I have a stack of novels I am anxious to read – and clearing out my office. I am wishing for the Clutter Clearing Fairy to appear on my doorstep. And then I shall start on my next book in this series. For now I have to deal with the coming of sound – of “Talkers”….!

Writing Nonfiction for a Nonprofit

We all know, or should know, the difference between nonfiction and fiction. The former is just-the-facts and the latter allows plenty of latitude to tinker with the truth. And the most obvious difference between for-profit writing and nonprofit writing is. . . the profit.

Of course, many nonprofits do pay their writers a salary. In my case, however, I volunteer at the Glendale-Crescenta Valley (California) Chapter of the American Red Cross (www.arcglendale.org), and I do it free of charge – which doesn’t mean there isn’t ample payback for my time and trouble.

Volunteer writing, aside from getting one published with a byline and providing opportunities to meet some really cool people, is a terrific training ground. Here are some things I’ve learned in my three years of producing an e-newsletter for the Red Cross.

  • Get used to no-frills working conditions. Forget the private office and state-of-the-art equipment. Forget instant IT support when your computer seizes up; in most cases you are the IT support. On the plus side, your hours are usually flexible and so is your work location; I’ve typed up more than one newsletter from my home office during a lull in my other activities, wearing my comfy sweats, and with a dog snoozing at my feet.

  • Develop your initiative skills. Nobody’s going to spoon-feed you information. This is a good lesson for any writer. Use the internet, one of the best friends a writer ever had. Before I interview someone for the newsletter, I put their name in the search engine to see what I find and help me prepare my questions. Keep your ears and eyes and mind open for story opportunities. Ask questions. Persist.

  • Producing a newsletter for a nonprofit is not hard journalism, but neither should it be a “puff piece” pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. For example, when interviewing a disaster volunteer for a profile, I don’t ask things like “What do you really hate about working for the Red Cross?” I do ask them, “What challenges do you face, and how do you deal with them?”

  • Stay humble. Your time is not as important as that of a Disaster Action Team Captain who just got back from the site of a residential fire, helping a family cope with the loss of everything near and dear to them. Respect others’ time and sensibilities. Cultivate a thick skin.

  • Stay objective. Temper the urge to tout the terrific work the nonprofit is doing with hyperbole and lavish praise. This is where you stick to the facts, which do the job more convincingly. One of my personal challenges is always to do justice to the people I write about – usually “average citizens” like the rest of us who give up their leisure time to teach CPR classes or fly off to the scene of a hurricane, usually at great personal inconvenience and cost. But at the same time I don’t want to come off like a simple-minded hero worshipper. Usually just telling their story, in their words, does the job.

  • Stay factual – and, as with any kind of journalism, do your fact-checking. Confirm spelling of names, phone numbers, web site addresses.

Being a volunteer nonfiction writer for a nonprofit organization won’t make you rich. It could make you famous – stranger things have happened. One thing’s for sure: you’ll meet some great people who are doing good work for the betterment of their organization/community/country/etc.

It can renew your faith in humanity and your hope for our future.

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