Claire Cock-Starkey on the Art of Factual Storytelling9 min read

by Jan 26, 2017Interviews0 comments

Nonfiction writer Claire Cock-Starkey has a rather full resume. She has worked at BBC Radio Four and Five Live. She was a researcher for Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany. This lover of facts also contributed to, and helped develop the format for Schott’s Almanac, an entertaining and modern take on the almanacs of old. On top of all those achievements, she has also published six successful books, writes for the online magazine Mental Floss, and has two new companion books coming out in 2017. Should I include that she does copy editing on the side? To say that we at Plotist are thankful she made time to speak with us is a bit of an understatement.

Credible Concepts

My entire chat with Claire Cock-Starkey revealed that writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, starts at the same place: an idea. Inspiration for fictional stories can come from anywhere and fiction writers have the ability to play with plot twists and even mess with the forces of time if we desire, Yet anyone who delves into the world of truth-telling through nonfiction has to work within the boundaries of fact. Claire explained she is “always on the look out for the germ of an idea, everything I read from blogs, books, articles and fiction are mined for inspiration.” Who knew that fiction could be used to influence nonfiction?

“I think any writer struggles with self-belief, and even today, having written seven books at the start of any project, I get “The Fear””

Once you find that concept extraordinaire, before the writing even begins, an author can find themselves questioning everything. I found it interesting that even nonfiction authors can have their nerves gnawed by doubts. “I think any writer struggles with self-belief, and even today, having written seven books at the start of any project, I get “The Fear””, Claire shared. I don’t know of a single author who does not question whether or not their story is worth being told even after they have finished it. Yet, when it comes to non-fiction I would have assumed that the collection of facts, recipes, or history wouldn’t produce that knot in the pit of the stomach. I admit to having my mind blown by that.

To combat the doubt that seems to follow everything I write I turn to my firm belief that only I can tell the story that I am telling. Cock-Starkey explained, “As a writer you need to be keenly aware of the questions: who cares? And why you?” I can see where this question would be relevant for nonfiction, but after much thought I realised that it applies to fiction writers as well. Are you rewriting an old classic because you feel a character deserves to be further explored? Maybe you’re telling the story of brand new characters because they simply won’t stop having parties in your mind until you put their story to paper. Regardless of what you’re writing, I believe that once you have the idea or concept, keeping these two questions in mind can actually help you stay focused.

Blasting Building Blockades

In Claire Cock-Starkey’s case though, she turns to research to get over “The Fear”. “Launching into a project is a scary thing and it can seem very daunting, but usually once I start researching I get so excited by the things I have learned that I am inspired to commit words to paper.”

As writers we often hear “Write what you know!” Considering the fact that I write about supernatural creatures in an alternate version of our world, this particular statement means I need to ensure that every character is true to their emotions. It also means that I should take the time to do research on concepts I don’t fully understand such as the history of a culture, location, or group of people. I can then take that information and use it to inspire my works of fiction. It didn’t surprise me that nonfiction writers needed to perform fact-finding activities.

“Research is vital and finding the right sources can take time and effort,” Claire responded when I asked her about her research process. For her latest book, she spoke at length with librarians and conservators from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, United Kingdom, as she wanted to “make sure I truly understood my subject.” Curiously, I had never considered seeking out people in the fields I want to write about for interviews. Granted I can’t go out and find a shapeshifter to ask them what their life is like, but I can seek out a chef to learn about the profession as one of my bear shifters happens to be a chef.

Content is all well and good, but how do you work around writing solely on one subject for non-fiction when you discover something interesting you want to include? Claire keeps an amazing collection of interesting titbits to use in her books, though some end up as mere footnotes instead. For her book Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins, where she writes about European explorers’ first encounters with food, animals, and people, she added a footnote about bamboo: “*Bamboos are traditional classed as male or female; the female variety is hollow and the male has a near solid core.”

This separation can help keep a reader’s attention without boring them about a subject.

Plenty of subjects can be covered in a nonfiction book, but just like fiction writers, a nonfiction writer must organise their findings in a way that makes sense. “I spend an awful lot of time agonising over the structure!” Claire agreed.  She deals with this by knowing her subject matter as “certain subjects might crop up a lot so you need to make sure they are not grouped too closely together.” This separation can help keep a reader’s attention without boring them about a subject.

Whimsical Written Word

“My greatest aim is to make the reader chuckle with delight at a fact they never knew,” Claire Cock-Starkey begins.  Coincidentally, her comment produced a rather unexpected laugh from me. Even though I write nonfiction in the form of interviews, her comment caught me off guard as I have such a hard time reconciling books about facts with humour. For some reason, when I think about nonfiction I see stack after stack of textbooks, or boring D-list celebrity life stories. Turns out that there is really only one difference between fiction and nonfiction.

This is one of those steps that every author, regardless of writing style, faces.

“The main aspect of nonfiction writing that differentiates itself from fiction is the need to be truthful and be able to back up whatever you write with reliable sources. In that sense, non-fiction can be more journalistic than fiction,” she explained. I could argue that the events of 2853 TDM on planet MK6 are a very reliable source for why my protagonist, Xgfp*, found a way to poison Bleer with cherry flavoured bubble gum. I do want my laser gun totin’ character to be written in a way that is as truthful to Xgfp as this piece is about the interview Claire gave me. However, my story about planet MK6 will not be scrutinised as fact, even if that character is real in my mind (I’m sane, I promise).

She went on to say, “…[writing nonfiction] can be quite freeing because there are no hard and fast rules, but equally it can make planning and structuring quite challenging.”  As a writer of both journalistic nonfiction and crazy aliens-supernaturals-and-magics-oh-my fiction, I believe that planning and structuring an interview can be just as difficult as plotting my NaNoWriMo or latest tabletop RPG story. My vast amount of Plotist timelines with subtle variations for the same story show that. (Many of my RPG stories and timelines are set to private because I know how sneaky the players at my table can be.)

The Flawless Finish

Once the collection of facts is pulled together and written, the editing process begins. This is one of those steps that every author, regardless of writing style, faces. It can be hellish, especially if I’ve written something by the seat of my pants, or on the fly, instead of by plotting the story.  Claire pointed out that during her editing process, “there is nearly always more I could include and elements I have to cut, but if you have planned a book properly then no key information should be missing.” If nothing else this inspires me to want to plot and plan my stories better, even if Xgfp won’t shut up until I have written her alien fight scene.

Claire Cock-Starkey’s latest book Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library came out in October. Her Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins was named one of Q.I.’s ten most interesting books of 2016! You can find this amazing woman on Twitter, her website, of her Amazon author page! I highly recommend checking her, and her books, out. (Did the library-based pun work?)

*Xgfp has been borrowed from our Jenny. Her Xgfp seems to be one of the most adventurous characters I have run across yet.

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