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The Practice of Writing Narrative History: An Interview with Matthew Goodman

The following interview took place just before the release of Matthew Goodman’s fourth book, The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team. I have attended several of Matthew Goodman’s lectures on craft and continue to be intrigued by his choice of genre: narrative history.

Tonja Matney Reynolds: What is narrative history and how is it distinct from creative nonfiction?

Matthew Goodman: I would say that narrative history is a subset of creative nonfiction, in much the way that memoir or personal essay is a subset of creative nonfiction. Like those other two forms of CNF, narrative history is nonfiction that draws on literary techniques that have traditionally been associated with fiction: narrative structure, characterization, authorial voice, and so on. But unlike, say, memoir, the author is writing about other people rather than about herself; it’s a third-person rather than first-person point of view.

With narrative history you’re telling a true story, same as with any other kind of history. But rather than telling—oh, just to take one example—the entire story of World War I, you’re telling the story of a particular soldier in the war, or perhaps a particular unit or some such thing, and tracing that story over time, really digging into the motivations of the main character or characters, seeing how they change over the course of the narrative, what the characters learn, how they grow, how the world of the end of the story differs from the world of the beginning of the story. You’re focusing on the central conflict, how the narrative builds to a climax.

And this is absolutely crucial: every bit of it has to be true, or else now you’re doing something else—you’re writing fiction. (I find that often people refer to my books as “novels,” because I guess they seem novelistic, but in fact they’re very different from novels: they’re not fiction.) With any of my books of narrative nonfiction, everything in it is taken from historical sources, rather than being made up by me. Every bit of dialogue—indeed, anything between quotation marks—is taken from a historical source, such as a newspaper story, a trial transcript, or an oral history, and is cited in the endnotes, just as with any work of history. This is replicated in even the most granular details. If I say that it was raining on a particular day, it can’t be just because I think that this weather happens to work best for the scene or because I’ve got some great description of rain that I want to use. Any time I describe the weather, the reader can be certain that I’ve checked newspaper reports for that day, or I found some diary entry or some other historical source that indicates what the weather was. And again, that’ll be cited in the endnotes so that the reader, if she wants, can check that out for herself. This is true as well of particular locations, or makes of car, or what restaurant a pair of characters met at for dinner, or what they ate during the meal. If those details are in the book, then they must be drawn from historical sources rather than having simply been invented by the author.

Tonja Matney Reynolds: In your writing in this genre, what have been the most useful research sources?

Matthew Goodman: In writing my books, I’m hoping not just to tell the reader what happened, but also, crucially, to give as strong a sense as possible of what it felt like to be living in that particular time and place, to provide a sense of life as it was actually lived. My absolutely favorite responses that I get from readers is when they tell me, “Wow, I felt like I was really in New York in 1835,” or some such thing. In my book Eighty Days, which tells the story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s race around the world in 1889, I was hoping that readers would feel what it was like to be barreling down the Wasatch mountain range on a train; or sailing along the Suez Canal on a moonlight night; or raising a glass of wine with Jules Verne in his home in Amiens, France. With my newest book, The City Game, about a scandal-ridden basketball team in 1951, I was looking for a more jazzy sense of mid-century New York, of Times Square with its arcades and flea circuses and neon lights; or the old Madison Square Garden in the moments before a game, the darkness inside the arena punctuated by what seemed like thousands of fireflies—the burning tips of cigarettes.

Much like a fiction writer, you’re looking for those vivid, specific details—most helpfully, sensory details—that work together to conjure up a scene. And you can find those in what might not seem to be the most obvious places. For instance, I will always read as many newspapers as I can from the particular place and time about which I’m writing. But I’ve found that often the most helpful parts of the newspapers are not necessarily the news sections, even when the stories specifically concern the subject I’m writing about. Rather, I gain a lot by looking at, for instance, the advertisements in the newspaper. Printed ads tell us so much about a society: what people were wearing, what they were eating, how they furnished their homes, the modes of transport, the common medical procedures of the time, the popular books or plays or (if the period is more contemporary) movies or television shows, and so much more. Not to mention the prices of everything at the time. These are the sorts of details that can vivify a work of narrative history, give it a sense of actually lived life.

Oddly enough, guidebooks from the time period you’re writing about can be particularly helpful sources. A historian is, in a sense, a kind of traveler, though one who is traveling through time rather than space, and just like those other travelers, a historian can use guidebooks to get recommendations on the restaurants and hotels of that city, the most interesting sights, the most appropriate forms of dress (for weather and style alike), and the habits of the “locals.” Guidebooks often give suggested walking tours, describing the streets and stores and buildings that you’ll pass as you walk along. They are, believe me, absolute gold mines for a writer wanting to bring a particular city to life for the reader.

In that vein, when I was writing Eighty Days I had a scene in which one of the two main characters, Elizabeth Bisland, was aboard a train traveling across Utah. What, I wondered, would she see when she looked out of the window? Well, in the New York Public Library I found an amazing book first published in 1870 (it clearly hadn’t been looked at in decades!) entitled Great Trans-Continental Tourist’s Guide, that described the red clay and sandstone scenery of exactly that stretch of railroad. Similarly, in a critical scene in The City Game the players are taking a late-night train from Philadelphia back to New York after a game. Which train was it? Well, once again in the invaluable New York Public Library I found the National Railway handbook Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Porto Rico, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba for January 1951 and discovered that it was the Potomac, leaving Philadelphia at 11:26. And from there you can find out what the train looked like, the stops along the route, and all the rest. In a sense, in doing research a narrative historian functions a bit like a detective, tracking down clue after clue until you can reach some determination about what happened.

Tonja Matney Reynolds: In Eighty Days, you take the point of view quite close to the main characters at times. Did you ever feel like you were presuming what the characters were thinking? Or are these moments that were backed up by writings of the historic figures?

Matthew Goodman: Yes, this is a somewhat tricky but extremely important consideration. It’s always so tempting to presume what a character is thinking or feeling at a given moment, because the narrative historian—like the memoirist or fiction writer—always wants to bring the reader close to the characters, and what better way is there to do that than to present their thoughts and feelings? But just like anything else in a narrative history, you can’t make it up. In writing Eighty Days, I was fortunate that both of the protagonists subsequently wrote accounts of their trips around the world, which included lots of details about their inner lives at various important moments along the way—that is to say, presented the interior landscape as well as the exterior one.

Without that, you’ll need to have some other source, such as a letter or diary entry or interview, in which the character describes her thoughts, reactions, and so forth. Barring that, if the author believes that she knows her character so intimately that she can guess what was going on inside the character at the moment, then the author can present those thoughts and feelings—but only alongside some sort of qualifier that makes it clear to the reader that this is the author’s supposition rather than some sort of independently verifiable assertion. This can be done in a number of ways, most efficiently with a qualifying word such as “likely” or “presumably,” or a phrase such as “we might assume that.” As you read a lot of narrative histories and become more familiar with the form, you become very good at noticing those little signals from the author; when it’s done well, you can admire how smoothly they’re inserted into the text so they don’t detract from the flow of the narrative.

Tonja Matney Reynolds: Does the research come first before writing or is it more of a back and forth? How much time do you spend doing research versus writing?

Matthew Goodman: For me, the two pieces—research and writing—usually end up requiring about the same amount of time: a couple of years of research, and a couple of years of writing, plus an additional six months or so for revision. (In truth, I revise throughout the writing process, continually working and reworking my writing as I go.)

I always research before I write—it’s simply impossible to begin writing before I have a strong sense of what I intend to write about. Often, of course, you don’t even know what the book is truly about until you’re deep into the research; in a real sense, you’re letting the research guide you, as much as you’re guiding it. Often the process can be frustrating: you spend all day in the library and end up with only enough information for a few sentences in the book, or perhaps a paragraph. It can feel a bit like trench warfare—you fight and struggle, and when the smoke clears you’ve only moved forward a few feet. But some days are also really rewarding, when you unexpectedly find the perfect quote, or a delicious character detail that you hadn’t even suspected. Those library books that are delivered to you in the morning might contain dross, or they might contain treasure; you never really know for sure, until you open them up and start digging through them.

Little by little, though, the work gets done, and usually after a couple of years of solid research, I’m ready to write the first sentence of the book. Even then, the research isn’t really done. Invariably, no matter how much you believe you understand the story you mean to tell, it turns out that there are holes in your research that you hadn’t anticipated, and you have to go back to the library to fill them in. But at that point, the research feels less like a chore than a treat. Because you’ve been sweating away at the writing, sitting at the computer day after day, and now you have the opportunity to actually leave the house and join society again, at least temporarily: “Hooray! I get to go back to the library!” Ideally, when the work is going well, the two pieces complement each other: the research provides a respite from the writing, and the writing provides a respite from the research.

Matthew Goodman is a New York Times-bestselling author of four books of nonfiction, including most recently The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team, and Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Salon, The American Scholar, and many other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @MGoodmanBooks.

Tonja Matney Reynolds is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a 2018 Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. She recently won the Michael Kenneth Smith Novel Fellowship at Porches for her women-centric novel set in a 1930s Appalachian coal town. Her short stories have appeared in The Hong Kong Review, Streetlight Magazine, Women Speak anthologies, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @TonjaMReynolds.

Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina Zhang

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