What’s the hardest part of writing a compelling narrative history? Finding an idea, said Matthew Goodman, author of three nonfiction books, including most recently, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (Ballantine Books, 2013). Goodman took some time off from searching for ideas to visit FIT last week, guest-teaching classes and reading from his book.
“It’s not because there aren’t great stories,” he said. “You have to find a good story with a fascinating character. You have to find a story that reveals something larger. It has to never have been done before. And you need thousands of pages of research material to draw from.”
For Eighty Days, he was reading about Nellie Bly, an investigative journalist from the 19th century, when he came across an intriguing sentence, something to the tune of, “In 1889, she raced around the world.”
With a little more research, he discovered that her opponent was an equally compelling heroine, a writer and reporter named Elizabeth Bisland. Not only did the story have a built-in narrative arc (a race around the world to beat the “80 days” laid down in Jules Verne’s novel), but it starred two interesting characters who both wrote memoirs after they made their way back to New York. And there was a larger story about the changing roles of women in the late 19th century.
For years, he practically lived in the bowels of the New York Public Library, reading everything he could about the era and the race so that he could write a novelistic story without inventing a single detail. “On a good day I’d get a paragraph’s worth of material,” he said. “It started to feel like trench warfare.”
But the challenge of writing it had nothing on the struggle of finding the next big idea. “It feels a little like finding a wife,” he said. “You’re looking and looking and looking. You find ideas, you go on a date with these ideas, and they don’t work out. Or you find out someone has already written it, and it’s like this woman has married someone else.”