Author’s Notes – The Story Behind the Story

I recently submitted a NF manuscript to a few agents. Twenty-four hours later, a new worry crept into my mind. I hadn’t included an Author’s Note with my submission. I had followed the agents’ guidelines, keeping my query and cover letters to one page. I certainly didn’t want to add word count and pages to the tail of my manuscript. Without the Author’s Note, the agents won’t know how exhaustive my research has been; the years-long journey of discovery; the soul-wrenching inspiration behind the story; what happened to my subject(s) after the book ends; my subject in context to the world around him/her. The manuscript will have to stand on its own now. Was this an opportunity missed?

I polled a list-serve I’m on, as well as a handful of friends in the know. Half responded that an author’s note should always be submitted with a nonfiction manuscript. The other half thinks there’s no need. With no hard-and-fast rule on the subject, I kicked my worry to the curb.

This got me thinking about the importance of Author’s Notes. I’ve been known to sneak to the back of a book and read this back matter “bling” before beginning page one of a book. Why? Because I’m fascinated by the story behind the written tale. Does that make me a wee bit geeky?

Author’s Notes are not limited to nonfiction. You’ll often find them in historical fiction, tall tales, folktales, legends, myths, and stories heavily influenced by iconic literary works. Picture books to YA.

Author’s Notes can be compelling, surprising, and revealing. Almost always, they add a fuller picture of the subject, making the book that much more meaningful.

Peruse Author’s Notes for:
*the author’s inspiration
*interesting detours along a research journey
*to learn of liberties the author took with the story
*to learn where the truth meets the fiction of the story
*facts of interest to adult readers and buyers
*injustices, scandals, and dramas appealing to adult readers
*An expanded historical context
*An elaboration on curriculum tie-ins (we’ll explore that in a future post.)
*The “rest of the story.”

Naturally, because I’ve always liked show-and-tell, I’m including a small sampling to demonstrate a diversity of children’s books with fascinating Author’s Notes.

by Kathleen Krull (Knopf, 2009) Picture book biography
Author’s Note reveals the unfortunate power struggle between this hardworking man and a huge corporation like RCA. glimpse: “…Philo Farnsworth may have won the race to invent TV. But he lost the war over getting credit for it during his lifetime.” Fascinating and sad. Adults might find this especially interesting.

by Bethany Hegedus (Delacorte, 2010) Middle Grade Novel
Author’s Note reveals the author’s heart in the story. glimpse: “What I am is a storyteller, one who fell in love with the stories that have been swirling around slave quilts…” The historical research of the book in general offers many curriculum tie-ins and discussion points appropriate for students studying American history.

by Marc Tyler Nobleman (Random House, 2008)
Picture book biography
Author’s Note reveals the dramatic legal struggle of creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, against DC Comics, after the two friends mistakenly sold all rights to the Superman character for $130. Much like Farnsworth’s history, the story behind this story is nothing short of fascinating.

BUD, NOT BUDDY (Newbery medal winner) by Christopher Paul Curtis (Random House, 1999)
MG novel
Authors note reveals the family inspiration behind the story and a deeper introduction to the plight of African Americans during the Great Depression. glimpse: “Although Bud, Not Buddy is fictional, many of the situations Bud encounters are based on events that occurred in the 1930s, during a time known as the Great Depression.” As a bonus, the author includes period photographs for added context.

by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Harper Collins, 2000)
Fiction picture book
Author’s note expands on the facts about the Creek Nation of Oklahoma, the Ojibway of the Great Lakes, and how traditional jingle dancing dresses were made. The accompanying glossary adds even more. A fantastic example of a curriculum based addendum.

ETERNAL by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2010) YA Fiction
Author’s Note reveals the author’s inspiration behind the vampire-based tale, and introduces the impressive literary figures that inspired a few characters’ names and, with thoughtful comparison, points out what sets this tale apart. The author shows her expansive literary knowledge with nods to iconic works of literature such as those by Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and more. This author’s note is a prime example of how research plays into a wholly fictional tale for older readers.

by Kathleen Krull (Random House, 2004) Picture book biography
Author’s note reveals the inspiration behind Giesel’s most famous stories. Here, you’ll learn which story was inspired by the rhythm of a steamer ship. Which was inspired by the sight of a stranger in a “pompous hat.” Find out how his windblown desk of sketches gave birth to HORTON HEARS A WHO. And how two publisher bets resulted in THE CAT IN THE HAT and GREEN EGGS AND HAM. Four pages of Author’s Notes reveal ever so much more than the picture book format allows. This is like having two books in one.

Don’t pass up a good Author’s Note. There’s a revealing story behind every story.

2 Responses to “Author’s Notes – The Story Behind the Story”

  1. Anonymous

    Donna– Just my opinion, but don't sweat it. If the agent or editor likes the story, they like the story. I don't think the author's note will make or break a submission. With my first acquired book, I still have yet to write the Author's Note. And my second book, now under consideration with an editor, went to the publisher without an Author's Note, though it will have one. If this is the story I'm thinking of, it will hold it's weight alone.

    Don, Devas T.