Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 25, 2008

Blurring the Lines of Nonfiction

Thank you Becky Levine beckylevine for the review on your blog of Anne Hutchinson’s Way! I blush.

And I’m going to respond to some of the thoughts in your other post today about ways to lure lovers of fiction to enjoy more of what nonfiction can offer. It’s not just your son, Becky, whose allegiance is to certain library shelves. I asked my college students recently about who liked nonfiction, and maybe half an unenthusiastic, polite arm was raised. So many have unhappy memories of textbooks. History seemed fact after fact, not argument and emotion. It seemed that way to me, and sometimes people are surprised, knowing that most of my books draw from the past, that I never took one history course in college. Instead, I learned about history from novels and the background reading I did for them. Those people seemed truly alive.

Now when I write about real people from the past, I use fictional techniques, mainly, inventing dialogue, which I note in an afterword. Anne Hutchinson was famous in her time – or notorious – so those who could write wrote about her. ( Of course some of those recorded views were not my views. Particularly that of Governor Winthrop who didn’t hesitate to say that woman was in league with the devil. So I weigh and interpret).

And even with quite a bit of information, what’s missing is what was said at the kitchen table or at bedtimes. Almost always missing is what the children said and did. We have a transcript of Anne’s trial, but no notes of what her children looked like when they heard her mother would go to jail. I use what’s known as a framework, then imagine my way in. It’s the kind of thing we do with friends: listen well, then take a step past the circumstances to feel our way closer to their hearts.

You can read more about nonfiction on Anastasia Suen’s Monday roundup at



  1. Yay Jeannine!!!!
    What a wonderful review.

  2. Jeannine,
    I think this is what makes nonfiction enjoyable to read. The layers of what might have been going on, what might have been behind the words we know were said. I’m doing as much research as possible on a historical figure I want to put in my novel, but I know there will be gaps. And interpretations. I’m going to try & give myself the freedom to fill some of those in, like you’ve done with Anne.

  3. Thanks, Jo. You are always so generous with your yays. It’s wonderful!

  4. The gaps always make me so curious. We’ll never know for sure, as we really don’t know everything, or sometimes even much, about people we know in life. So it is great to feel the liberty to make those leaps. I’ll look forward to hearing how it goes!

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