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Narrative Nonfiction: Making Facts Dance, Patricia Byrne

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Article by Patricia Byrne ©.
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Five years ago I was reminded of a story that I had vaguely heard of growing up. It was about an ancestor, my great granduncle who served as a monk on Achill Island in the late nineteenth century and wrote copiously in his journals and notebooks. When I read his account of an explosive relationship between an island landowner Agnes MacDonnell and her volatile tenant James Lynchehaun, I knew that I had to retell the story. The result is my book The Veiled Woman of AchillIsland Outrage & A Playboy Drama published by The Collins Press this week.

Choosing the Genre

As I immersed myself in researching this island story I was faced with the decision of what genre to adopt. I could have opted for a strict historical account with each of my sources carefully recorded in footnotes, and I had rich material to work with: my great granduncle’s notebooks; national folklore material about the dramatic Achill events; court case records; newspaper accounts of the time. Indeed, my first strategy was to go this route as I painstakingly reviewed and numbered each item of relevant information. Along the way I published articles in historical journals on slices of my research. However, I knew in my bones that this was not the style I wanted to adopt for my eventual book.

I then tried the historical fiction approach, taking the bones of my story and weaving a fictional structure about the events. This was a useful exercise in that it released my imagination to immerse myself in the fierce emotions and passions evoked in Ireland and beyond by the savage happenings in north Achill. In particular, it allowed me to get inside the heads of the main protagonists, Agnes MacDonnell and James Lynchehaun, and freed me from the discipline of sticking rigidly to the factual events. I completed a draft of my book as historical fiction but still I was not happy. While I had got inside the heads of my protagonists, I was reluctant to present this compelling story in a fiction format. I wanted to stay close to the facts of what happened while also giving the narrative a dramatic structure. And so I opted for the narrative nonfiction approach.

Narrative Nonfiction

Narrative nonfiction is also described as Creative or Literary Nonfiction. It is a relatively new genre of writing that describes factually accurate events using the techniques of fiction – an effect described in the book The Art of Fact as ‘making facts dance’. In Cold Blood, the 1966 book by Truman Capote –often described as a ‘nonfiction novel’ – about a brutal 1959 murder in Holcomb, Kansas, is considered a pioneering work of this approach.

One of the questions I faced in adopting the narrative nonfiction route was that of the balance between staying true to the facts of the case while attempting to dramatise the narrative. I decided to let the reader know at the start what my approach was by setting out my rules: the book describes actual historical events; there are no fictional characters in the account; direct speech is taken directly, or adapted from, contemporary historical accounts; individual scenes are dramatised using setting, gesture, and imagined internal thoughts of the characters; detailed research source notes are provided. It was important for me that my reader understood the parameters within which I was writing.

Real People are Characters Too

In his book Creative Nonfiction Philip Gerard writes: ‘Real people are characters, too, and they are not real to your reader until you make them real. The special requirement of nonfiction is that we must learn what is inside them through what we can reasonably learn from the outside.’

In fiction, the writer is encouraged to write detailed biographies for the main characters. In Agnes MacDonnell, James Lynchehaun, and an array of other historical figures in my book, I already had larger than life characters, their physical descriptions, and accounts of their actions from my detailed research. What I needed to do was to take this material and get inside the characters’ skins to attempt to understand what drove and propelled them towards the dramatic events that unfold in the story. I found a few writing tools were of particular assistance:

  • I focused on breaking my narrative into scenes to show particular actions of my characters and to allow their personalities emerge through these actions e.g. Agnes MacDonnell pursuing her tenants repeatedly in court for outstanding rents.
  • I had physical descriptions of my main characters from my research. I used a particular device referred to as character tags to select a particular physical trait which is repeated through the story. In the case of the character James Lynchehaun, I focused on the trait of the agitated blinking of his eyes, particularly in moments of extreme tension.
  • Achill Island is a place of dramatic physical landscape and I was able to use this setting to dramatise character and story. An example of this occurred shortly after Agnes MacDonnell was brutally attacked at her home, the Valley House, and a fierce storm erupted. The assault and destruction caused by the elements mirrored the disfigurement and injuries she had suffered.
  • I used characters’ speech to reveal personality: direct speech, dialogue and internal monologue, but within the confines of nonfiction

Talking Out Loud on the Page

Speech gives texture to the narrative in nonfiction, just as it does in fiction. The rules I set for myself were that all the direct speech I used in my story would be taken from contemporary historical sources. These included letters, diaries, journals, depositions, court case records, newspaper accounts, folklore records etc. In some cases, as in the instances where witnesses to the Valley House events were interviewed by magistrates, the question and answer nature of the exchanges gives the effect of lively dialogue. Instances where I did not have source material for speech to draw on, I used the technique of dramatically recreating the imagined internal thoughts of the characters (free indirect discourse) to convey their emotions. An instance of this occurs in the story after the dramatic escape of James Lynchehaun from prison and Agnes MacDonnell is imagined to be in terror at his possible reappearance on the island..

Reader Pact

An important piece of advice that I received when setting out on the narrative nonfiction route for my book was to be clear with the reader what to expect and what my rules were. Along the way I kept in mind what Philip Gerard wrote: ‘Be aware that you’re dancing around that line dividing fiction from fact – which is fine, so long as you never forget for a moment where that line is.’


(c) Patricia Byrne April 2012

Patricia Byrne is a Limerick writer and a graduate of the MA (Writing) programme from NUI Galway. Her nonfiction book The Veiled Woman of Achill is published by the Collins Press and can be purchased online at www.collinspress.ie. She will read from her book in Achill on 5 May as part of the Heinrich Boll Memorial Weekend.