Reading (and Writing) Nonfiction: Amy Butler Greenfield’s A PERFECT RED

Yesterday, I picked up a book I’ve been wanting to check out–Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire. I started reading, got hooked, and realized something about myself.

I now read nonfiction. For pleasure.

In the past year, between working on the nonfiction sections of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide and doing research for my historical YA, I seem to have undergone a transformation. I was someone who did notread nonfiction (other than memoir) by choice, who figured she’d untrained her brain by immersing herself so happily in four+ decades of novels. And then I was reading to find excerpts for my book and reading to learn more about settlement houses and the suffrage movement and…bam! I was changed.

I picked up Amy’s book for two reasons: 1)I know her from the blogs and love her posts and 2)I thought the subject sounded really interesting. In other words, I chose to read a nonfiction book that had nothing to do with my own work–just for fun.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m still VERY picky and get SERIOUSLY irritated with writers who drone on and on, giving me lists of dry facts and try to show me, in that long-winded academicy voice, that they’ve done their research and they are proving their thesis, so don’t argue with them, please. (Yes, pet peeve, sorry!) But I’m also finding out what makes good nonfiction, like Amy’s. Here’s what I’m seeing that makes me happy.

  • A goal for the book. No, the author doesn’t have to tell me that goal, any more than a novelist has to explain their purpose. But I’d better sense that the author had a REASON for writing this book, that they have a point to make–not just to educate me, but because they care so much about that point, find it so fascinating, that they HAVE to share.
  • A sense of conflict. In a how-to, this means that the author recognizes the problems their readers are facing; that they understand the push-pull tension of that problem and know how badly their readers want to find a solution. In history, this means finding the drama of the past, not just the information.
  • Concrete, specific details. Fiction writers struggle with summary versus scene, telling versus showing. In the nonfiction I was trying to read years ago, most of those authors lost that struggle. In good nonfiction, the author has picked just a few, perfect, strong details to pull you into their world, to make you part of it. In self-help, this may be with a well-chosen and well-drawn anecdote, or a skillfully created exercise that makes the reader feel as though that exercise is for them. For their problem. In history, this skill shows up when the author has waded through a gazillion pages of facts and pinpointed the few that will help them paint their own concise, sharp pictures.
  • The book has a hero and an antagonist. In a memoir, the hero is the author, and the antagonist may be another person, a big event in the author’s life, or the author themselves. In a how-to, the hero is the reader and the antagonist is the problem they face and need to solve. I’m only a few pages into Amy’s book, so I haven’t yet identified who’s who in the main cast, but I know they’re there. It’s too exciting a read for them not to be.
  • Tight prose. A good nonfiction writer gets me lost in their words; a bad nonfiction writer gets me lost in their sentences. I want to be drawn in. I don’t want to start a sentence and have to go back to the beginning three times to remind myself what/who the subject is and play dot-to-dot to connect it up with the rest of the phrases (often four, five, or six of them) that finally take me to the period. One of my husband’s teachers once marked his paper with this note: “This paragraph has no period.” A good nonfiction writer knows to trim, trim, trim.

Okay, you’re seeing the pattern. Nonfiction has to tell me a story, as much as any novel I will ever pick up. It has to make me want to turn each page, make me resist putting down the book at bedtime, and make me procrastinate all other tasks so I can keep reading. This is what I want to read. And, yes, the transformation is working more deeply than that–I’m wanting to write this kind of nonfiction as well. I already have an idea for a picture book about two real women who were amazing enough in their own right, that I have no wish (or need) to fictionalize them in any way. And I want to write that book up to the standards I’ve just set out, the ones Amy shows so well in her book.

I’ll leave you with a little tidbit from her introduction, just to give you the first taste that will make you want more.

It was big news, then, when Spain’s conquistadors found the Aztecs selling an extraordinary dyestuff in the great market-places of Mexico in 1519. Calling the dyestuff cochinilla, or cochineal, the conquistadors shipped it back to Europe, where it produced the brightest, strongest red the Old World had ever seen….

The history of this mad race for cochineal is a window onto another world–a world in which red was rare and precious, a source of wealth and power for those who knew its secrets. To obtain it, men sacked ships, turned spy, and courted death.

This is their story.

Adventure tale, anyone? Dig in!


  1. Terri Thayer says:

    Okay, you got me interested. Have you ever read the Orchid Thief? Nonfiction that is so entertaining and crazy, it seems like fiction.


    • beckylevine says:

      Subject of The Orchid Thief?

      Amy’s book seems right up your books’ alley: fabric, dyes, and blood! 🙂


  2. chrystalrose says:

    Sounds like a good one:)

    I just finished a memoir, that I’m sure I’ll be endlessly tightening up…

    One of the “duh” moments I had was realizing I was the main character and that I needed to develop myself–not just the other characters! My beginning was originally a splash of cold water on the face. I figured out I had to get the reader to warm up to me first before I completely shocked and appalled them:)

    I’m sure there’s still plenty of work I need to do.

    I’m only a couple of blogs deep here myself, any other good writer bloggers you recommend?



    • beckylevine says:

      Chrystal, thanks for stopping by. The memoir sounds great–good for you for developing everybody, including you!

      You can check out the list of blogs at the right of this site.LOTS of writers. Also, for memoir, you probably want to take a look at the National Association of Memoir Writers:
      and Women’s Memoirs:

      Good luck!


  3. What a thoughtful and compelling “review.” It’s strange noticing a change in tastes, isn’t it? Where will we find ourselves next?


  4. Hi Becky! Are you going to LA SCBWI in August? I hope we can meet.


    • beckylevine says:

      Hey, Kathryn. I wish–can’t make it this year. It would be great to meet you, too. We’ll get there sometime, I’m sure. I think you need to do a Bay Area signing. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: