Monday 31 August 2015

Research in Creative Nonfiction Part 3 - Nola Passmore

How To Include Research

Last week, I looked at some strategies for gathering research information for creative nonfiction.  If you’re like me, you’ll uncover many more facts than you can use.  So how do you weave your research into your nonfiction piece so that it reads like a story rather than a technical report?

How Much Research?

First of all, consider how much research information you need to include.  This will differ according to the type of piece you’re writing.  If it’s a newspaper or magazine feature article on a current issue, you would probably use more research than you would for a memoir.  Even then, it would depend on the type of memoir.  If you’re writing about your journey with a rare illness, you may want to note more research about it.


Once you’ve determined how much research you need, try to find a good balance between the facts and figures and your other story elements.  As with fiction, it’s a good idea to unveil a bit at a time rather than having information dumps.  Lee Gutkind and others have recommended using a highlighter pen to mark up different sections of your story so you can see how the different components work together.  For example, you could highlight all of the sections in an article that relate to research facts.  Are they spread throughout the story or do they appear all at once?  If you find big chunks of facts, you should think about breaking them up. 


Any research you include should be there to support the story you want to tell.  You shouldn’t add information just for the sake of it.  It might be interesting, but does it tie in with the rest of your story and strengthen the point you want to make?  If not, toss it out.  Your readers will thank you.
An Example

My husband Tim was born with spastic diplegia, a condition that affects his legs. He uses a walking stick and can’t move quickly.  Going up and down stairs can be especially difficult as he doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in his knees and ankles.  This is manageable in Australia, which is relatively disability-aware.  However, it was more problematic when we went on a bus tour of Italy in 2004. 

I wrote a 2700-word travel essay about our time in Italy, that has since been published.  In the extract below, I’ve included some research about disabled access. 

Next stop was St Peter’s Basilica.  Half the people on our tour were Americans of Italian extraction, with accents that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the Godfather movies.  They were enamoured of the spectacular interior of St Peter’s.  Lots of statues of saints and past popes, and ornate artistry everywhere including the incredible dome and altars.  However, I … was drawn instead to the Pietà – the iconic sculpture of Mary cradling the body of her crucified son. 
I wanted to reach out to the grieving mother, but the statue was above eye level and not easily accessible.  Bulletproof glass, the legacy of an attack with a geologist’s hammer in the 70s, also kept us at bay.  I wanted to get a better view, but then I noticed a woman in a wheelchair craning her neck to see above the crowd.  Suddenly it dawned on me.  She and the woman at the Sistine Chapel were the only wheelchair-bound people we’d seen since arriving in Europe sixteen days before.  Where did Europe put its disabled?  
Some months later, Time magazine ran an article on disabled access in Europe which confirmed our observations and more.  Although Europe had a disabled population of about fifty million, it lagged behind most of the Western world in making reasonable provisions for disabled people.  A survey carried out in Rome in 2004 found that only 20% of buildings had complete disabled access.  By the time you factored in the scarcity of suitable public transport and the predilection of Europeans for putting most of their toilets up or down flights of stairs, I was beginning to understand why we hadn’t seen many disabled people out and about.  Australia had ramps, disabled parking spaces and disabled loos.  Italy had cobblestones, narrow passageways and steps.  Lots of steps.
But there were lighter moments too.

You’ll notice that I included a fact about the Pietà, namely that it was protected by bulletproof glass because someone had attacked it with a hammer in the 70s.  I could have provided more details, such as the name of the hammer-wielding culprit or the dimensions of the glass.  However, that wasn’t relevant to my main theme of disabled access.  I only needed to show why it was difficult for the woman in the wheelchair to get close to it.

You’ll also see that I’ve cited some facts about disabled access from a Time Magazine article. It may seem like I’ve given a lot of research in that paragraph, but that’s the most I mention in the whole essay and it’s balanced against other personal recollections.  By citing actual facts about disabled access in Europe, it puts our own experiences in context.  Right after that passage, I revert back to personal anecdotes and share a funny story.  Although the essay has a serious message, there are lots of lighter moments so that the reader hopefully goes away feeling entertained as well as more aware of the issue.  If you’d like to see more, you can read the whole essay here.

Do you have some half-written articles or memoir pieces in a drawer somewhere?  Why not take them out and see if any of them could be enhanced by some well-placed research.  You might just strike the universal chord your readers are looking for.


Gutkind, L.  (2012).  You can’t make this stuff up: The complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between.  Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.
 Passmore, N. L.  (2014).  Vespas, wheelchairs, and the metamorphosis of Alberto.  In J. Cooper, B. Morton, J. Spencer & C. Tuovinen (Eds.), Tales from the upper room: Tabor Adelaide anthology 2014 (pp. 12-19).  Saint Marys, South Australia: Immortalise.

Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including devotionals, true stories, magazine articles, academic papers, poetry and short fiction.  She loves sharing what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same.  She and her husband Tim have their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her writing tips blog at their website:  


  1. Great post, Nola! As with everything else, that balance between elements is essential, isn't it?

    1. Hi Lynne - Yes, it can be a tricky balancing act, especially when you've done tons of research and want to tell everyone all the fascinating things you've learned. Guess it's the same with novels. Sometimes less is more. Thanks for your comment :)

  2. Yes, a great post, Nola - and I enjoyed reading your travel essay :)

    1. Wow Jenny. Gold star for making your way through that :) Thanks for your comment.

    2. It was easy and entertaining to read - with a great message about accessibility and assumptions :)

  3. Nola, excellent post and series! Thanks for sharing your expertise with us. :)

    If you'd like to learn more about this topic from Nola, you'll be happy to know that she's presenting a workshop titled "Creative Nonfiction – techniques for adding sparkle to your manuscript" at the Christian Writers Conference in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, October 23-25, 2015.

    More information on the conference can be found at the following link.

    1. Thanks for the conference promo Narelle :) Writing blog posts is a great way to prepare for workshops. I've learned a lot preparing the series too.

  4. Another great post, Nola. It's such an important balance to add enough research to draw sufficient parallels for credibility, but not overwhelm a reader with mounds of facts. I've seen both extremes, but when the writer gets it right, it adds so much to the reading experience.

  5. Thanks Adele. Yes getting it right is the tricky part. But when we do strike that balance, hopefully it whets the reader's appetite so that they'll want to look into the issue more. Thanks for taking the time to comment :)


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