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The Nonfiction Contract

By Daniel Hubbard | June 1, 2014

We research our ancestors to learn the facts about them, about their lives, their times, the places they lived, their occupations, and travels. The list, as they say, goes on. First we gather documents that are clearly relevant. Then we gather documents that are more subtly related to our ancestors. Though we may never finish collecting evidence, after a time we have enough to move on. We start to deeply analyze the evidence. We start to combine little clues into bigger conclusions. We know what we think happened here and why we think a path went untaken there.

Eventually, it is not enough to have the information locked up in our files, our databases, our heads. How do we communicate it? We know more than just the evidence. In research the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We have our conclusions and our hypotheses. To pass those things along we need to write. Not just any writing will interest a grandchild or a cousin or some relative who has not even been born. So we write stories. We try to make them interesting. we try to make them flow. They are not just any stories, either.

Gerrit_Dou_-_Scholar_sharpening_a_quill_pen_300We write nonfiction not fiction. The line between them can be a fuzzy one but we need to make it sharp and then we cannot cross it. The writer has an unwritten contract, the nonfiction contract, with the reader. The writer can infer but not invent. The reader places their trust in the veracity of the words on the page. The writer cannot violate that trust. If the writer has reason to believe but does not know, that is what must be communicated to the reader. If the evidence is unclear or contradictory and simply cannot be reconciled, the reader ought to taste that mystery as well, not be fed false clarity. I often find as I write the stories of people’s families that I could easily make a story flow and grab the reader but it is easy only if I subtly imply that things are known that are not known. In some cases the written lines themselves might be correct but lead the reader to places between the lines that are simply not quite right. I can also easily tell the story that is factually perfect but that trips over itself as it dots its “i’s” and crosses its “t’s.” Much of the craft of writing the stories that rise from the facts that we uncover is to present the facts, the probabilities and the possibilities so that the reader knows the difference between them at the same time they are drawn in by the narratives of long-gone, reconstructed lives. Or, perhaps, to lead the reader to a possibility without ever stating it, without ever implying that it is fact, and letting them realize what might have happened for themselves.

When we pass on our research, we need to engage but we also need to be aware of the promise that we make to the reader. We have that contract, the nonfiction contract, with them. The reader must be able to trust that they are reading the facts as best we know them. They need to know the difference between the certainties and the likelies.


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