From Novels to Non-Fiction

- by Sara Fitzgerald

There’s no sweeter music to an author’s ears than hearing a reader say, “I really enjoyed your last novel. When are you going to write another?”

For many years, my answer was, “I don’t know.” There were a whole host of reasons, including the fact that writing a book is much harder than it looks. Couple that with the time it takes to write a novel, a publishing market that may not be interested in the kinds of books you want to write, and the realization that there may be other kinds of writing that will bring you the same kind of joy—with less of the pain.

A few years ago, I found myself “retired” at a younger age than I expected to be when I sold off my share of a consulting firm I helped found. I decided I needed “something” to keep me from going stir-crazy. Reflecting back on my life, I realized that I had really enjoyed writing my senior history thesis in college, and that I should try to find a project that would engage me in the same way.

Now, six years later, the University of Michigan Press is about to publish the fruits of that work, a biography entitled “Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’ of the Moderates.”

Why this subject? I grew up in a moderate Republican family in Michigan, and as a teenager, I had watched the 1964 Republican National Convention and had been astounded to see a network television correspondent interviewing a woman politician. It was Elly Peterson, who was about to step down as the party’s assistant chairman to run for the U.S. Senate seat from Michigan. I think it made an impression on me because it was so rare to see a woman on the national political stage back then, and I was proud that she came from my home state.

I continued to follow Peterson’s career from afar as I grew up, majored in history and went to work in the newspaper industry. She became the first woman to chair a state Republican Party, then deputy chairman of the President Ford Committee, a member of the first national council of the National Women’s Political Caucus and co-chair of ERAmerica, the coalition of organizations that lobbied for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Fast forward many years, and late in her life, Peterson moved into my parents’ retirement community in North Carolina, and I had the chance to meet her personally. I always thought she would have a lot of interesting stories to tell, and when I finally approached her about the idea of doing a book, she didn’t disappoint.

If you asked me which was harder to write, a novel or a biography, I would answer, “Biography.”  There are all those footnotes, and the index, but most of all, because you can’t make it up!

Writers, historians, and editors will have different points of view on the extent to which, for instance, a conversation can be “created” to help tell a non-fiction story. I discovered that while I had written novels, I was not comfortable with taking a novelist’s license with dialogue. Fortunately, Peterson wrote a memoir (three versions of it, in fact) that she published for her family and close friends. In addition, she had provided many lengthy interviews (including a three-day session with me, two years before she died) and was the subject of dozens of newspaper profiles and interviews. A onetime secretary, she kept well-organized files, with incoming and outgoing correspondence filed together, as well as the texts of many of the hundreds of speeches she delivered over the course of her career. In addition, many persons in her life had provided oral histories of their experiences, and I did additional interviews with contemporaries who were still alive. So I had many “voices” from which to choose. Sometimes I came across multiple versions of the same story, so I had a choice of which text seemed the best to use.

But I do think that my experience as novelist helped me as a biographer. You can’t, of course, change the ending, and one life will have more drama than the next. Unlike many fictional heroines, Elly Peterson enjoyed a happy childhood in a household with two parents who were determined to send her to college, even back in the early 1930s. But she had her share of ups and downs. I realized I still had to understand the “narrative arc” of her life, to figure out where to begin the story and where the book’s natural ending should fall. That ending came in 1982, when she was 68. The remaining years became the epilogue, ending with her death, unfortunately before I could share my final product with her, at the age of 94. Outside readers –and a limit on word count—helped me pare away those details that seemed to slow the story down, rather than enhance it. The lessons in pacing that I hope I learned as a novelist came in handy as I tried to keep the reader turning the pages at the end of each chapter.

A novel and biography will, by their nature, be quite different. But I hope that when those friends who asked about the next novel finish my new book, I hope they will conclude, “Your latest heroine sure was a memorable character!”

Sara Fitzgerald is a former editor at The Washington Post. Her blog, “What Would Elly Think,” is at

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