Tweet This: Social Media Has a big impact on Nonfiction
The benefit of writing a nonfiction mystery story this way is that you can transport the reader into the narrative so they get lost in its pages. One of the best techniques to draw the reader in is to paint a picture of what the world they are reading about looks like. For many years, the detail a writer was able to gather was limited to traditional analog reporting, including interviews, photos, and handwritten letters or diaries. Yet today, thanks to social media, digital photography, and a trove of digital resources online, the ability to gather details for a narrative nonfiction story has been almost completely erased. In addition to the dozens of hours of interviews I often gather for my writing, below are five digital techniques I use when reporting and writing narrative nonfiction stories and books.
Treasure Troves on Twitter
Social media has, by far, had the greatest effect on narrative nonfiction writing since the dawn of the genre. By scouring Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and a slew of other sites used by the person I am writing about, I’m able to gather countless morsels of information about my subjects that I could never have deduced just a decade ago. With a little time and patience, you can find out what someone was wearing, where they were at a given moment in time, and, in many instances, whom they were with. Most people today post and comment about articles they are reading, their favorite restaurant or coffee shop, and their political thoughts. To go a level deeper, figuring out someone’s username on a website like Yelp, you can find out where they have eaten, or Foursquare, where they have been down to the minute. Individually, these digital crumbs don’t seem like a lot, but layered atop one another, they offer a fascinating and unlimited view into someone’s thoughts and life.
Where the Wind Blows
One of the best techniques for getting the reader out of one scene and into another is to “paint the room,” where you show distinct attributes of the space they are in, describing the floors, lighting, what the chair feels like, among other details. (Sometimes I find these things by going to a place and actually sitting in the chair they sat in; at other times, I look at photos online.) Describing the room has benefits beyond showing where someone is: it also helps a reader transition between spaces. But when you want to let the reader know you are switching to a new character in the story, you need to move beyond the room. What better simple tool is there to do this than the weather? Thanks to historical weather data with online weather almanacs, you can describe the outside world, too, and let readers understand they have moved to a completely different place, rather than tell them. To include an added element of texture, I sometimes use digital sundials to see if the space was cast in shadow or sunlight at that specific moment.
Behind a Photograph
It’s nothing new that photographs capture a moment in time that can be used in a narrative nonfiction story, but once photos started to turn digital, there was a whole new trove of information that was captured within those images. Photos now have what’s called EXIF data, which can include dozens of little snippets of data, including the date and time the picture was taken, the type of camera used, and in many instances, the GPS coordinates where the image was taken.
Location! Location! Location!
When I was writing my latest book, I found a photo of Ross Ulbricht camping with a few friends in the summer of 2013. The EXIF data didn’t include GPS coordinates, so I had no idea where it had been taken. All I had was a picture of a hillside overlooking an ocean of what appeared to be Douglas fir trees. It could have been anywhere in the world. But when I started looking for other photos, I found that an hour earlier, one of Ross’s friends who appeared to be on the camping trip had taken a picture going over the Golden Gate Bridge. By doing the math and looking at highway speeds, I guesstimated the distance they had traveled from San Francisco, and using Google Maps’ satellite view, I looked in a radius from that distance away. Sure enough, after scouring the woodlands north of the city, I found the hill and the Douglas fir trees and was able to write about the trip with even more granularity.
Texts, Emails, and Chat
Getting hold of chat logs, emails, text messages, and other digital communications often lets you see raw discussions between the people you’re writing about. But — and this is a big but — while gaining access to this information can be a major coup from a reporting standpoint, for a reader, it’s all incredibly boring to read about. The key to digital communications is knowing what to include and what not to. There is nothing worse than reading an entire email in a narrative nonfiction story. Less is always more. Sometimes only a few quoted words are enough.
Individually, each of these pieces of data can help you narrate a story with insightful detail, but when you start to add these resources together, they become almost surreal with the level of specificity you can paint for a reader. There’s also a through line that will exist through all of these clues: a timestamp. Using something as simple as Microsoft Excel, you can place all of these digital moments into a “database,” or timeline,” and start to cross-correlate them to paint an even more vivid picture. When you start to weave these clues together, the reader is rewarded with something that reads less like nonfiction and more like a novel.