Thursday, September 2, 2010

Who said what and when, part 1 of 2

At Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, Tanya Lee Stone wrote about the use of dialogue in nonfiction books. The topic is so important to her that it was the post she chose for “repost month.”

I also touched upon this topic, in June 2008, a month prior to the release of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

My feeling is that nonfiction writers may incorporate corroborated quotations into their narratives, but may not fabricate dialogue. (I didn’t check a dictionary, but to me, “dialogue” means fabricated.) And either way, writers must attribute anything in quotation marks. If it’s words that someone did once speak or write, state sources. If it’s made-up, make that clear (and call your work historical fiction).

When I say “quotations,” I mean lines from interviews. I feel it’s okay to shorten a quotation as long as it doesn’t alter the meaning. I feel it is not okay to change words in a quotation, other than verb tense when necessary. I think other nonfiction authors feel the same.

However, there is something diametric about using actual quotations in nonfiction. The quotations are authentic, but they were not necessarily spoken at the chronological moment they appear in the book’s narrative. In other words, they are at once true and false.

Take this passage about writer Jerry Siegel from Boys of Steel:
“He had crushes on girls who didn’t know—or didn’t care—that he existed. ‘Some of them look like they hope I don’t exist,’ Jerry thought.”
Here is the material as it appeared in an interview with Jerry:
“I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. As a matter of fact, some of them looked like they hoped I didn’t exist.”
First, how could a researching author read that and not want it in his book?

You see how I changed the tense of and shortened the original lines. However, this does not change the meaning, and while it takes a few words out of Jerry’s mouth, it does not put words in.

This passage also demonstrates what I mean with regard to the diametric nature of nonfiction quoting. Yes, Jerry did say this, but in an interview decades after the fact, not when I position it in my narrative (the 1930s). That is why I used “thought” instead of “said” here. It was my inexact way of accounting for the time discrepancy. Call it nonfictionesque.

Part 2 of 2 (in which I reveal a risk in not sourcing your dialogue).

1 comment:

  1. I remember hearing somewhere many years ago that if an author spends years researching his non-fiction topic, then puts words in people's mouths, the book automatically changes from non-fiction to historical fiction.