Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Guest post: Penny Colman on organizing her new non-fiction release

Penny Colman is author of the new book released today, May 20, 2011, published by Henry Holt and Co.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World

I asked Penny to share her thoughts with Release Your Writing blog readers on how she managed to structure this complex story. Penny's response...

I’ve had the feeling before upon signing a book contract, but with this book—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World—it was particularly intense.  What feeling, you ask?  Panic in concert with the words echoing in my brain:  “And what have I gotten myself into this time!?” 

Sure, I had tackled big topics before, including a history of burial, the true story of Thanksgiving, a collective biography of eight historic women with widely varying amounts of source material, and the story of Rosie the Riveter. But this book was to be a joint biography that spanned more than ninety years through the lens of a legendary friendship between two very different women that lasted fifty-one years and was at the center of a momentous social movement that is typically trivialized.

In May 1851 when they met, Elizabeth was thirty-five years old and Susan was thirty-one years old.  

Of course, I could have started the book at that point, but I was curious about the differences and similarities in how they grew up.  That curiosity certainly ratcheted up my writerly anxieties about how to structure the telling of these separate stories. I spent weeks working through this decision. 

  1. I taped long sheets of paper on a wall and made parallel timelines from their births to their first meeting.  
  2. I used Post-it Notes so that I could easily add or remove items, as I tried to discern a structure.  
  3. Then, one day, I saw it--four time periods that encompassed significant events in both their lives: 1815-1832; 1833-1839; 1840-1847; 1848-1850.  Eureka! 

With that insight I was able to organize their early years into eight alternating chapters that focused on one and then the other. Here are the title and subtitle of the first two chapters in Part I: 

“Ah, You Should Have Been a Boy!”
 ELIZABETH CADY: 1815-1832
"An Affectionate Family” SUSAN B. ANTHONY: 1820-1832

Part II covers the years from their meeting through the Civil War. The story of what Elizabeth called the “dark hour of woman’s struggle” appears in Part III. Their final years, in which they go from ridicule to reverence, ostracism to embrace, are examined in Part IV. 

With my structure in place, I set off to write a book that brought Elizabeth and Susan to life for me, and, of course, I hope for everyone who reads Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World.



Anonymous said...

I loved this post! Thank you, Penny.

Penny Colman said...

You're welcome. It was interesting & useful to articulate that part of my process.