500 pages. That’s the length of the transcript journalist Rachel Slade had to wade through in researching her 2018 bestselling book, Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro. Assembled from 26 hours of audio pulled from a doomed ship’s data recorder—actual conversations between the crew and the Ahab-like captain—Slade had to sift through the transcription’s technical language to unveil these complex characters and their extraordinary situation, extracting quotes along the way.
The 790-foot-long El Faro was freighting 25 million pounds of goods between Jacksonville, Fla., and Puerto Rico when Hurricane Joaquin devoured the vessel in October 2015. The container ship was ripped to pieces and the entire crew perished, making it the deadliest American shipping disaster in 35 years. The catastrophe was covered by all the major news outlets, and much of the discussion distilled into a single question: How could a vessel equipped with modern technology, in an industry that’s so heavily regulated, suffer such a fate?
Slade took it upon herself to find an answer. Countless hours of rigorous reporting led her to conduct more than 100 interviews with officials, experts, and the families of those who’d been lost on El Faro. She attended live hearings by the National Transportation Safety Board in Jacksonville, and even traveled on a two-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to better understand what it felt like to be out in open water for days at a time. The multifaceted conclusion that Slade draws in the book is built on the firm bedrock of her dogged investigation.
The former executive editor of Boston magazine, Slade did not study journalism in school, but started at Boston as the design editor and worked her way up the masthead. In fact, she has an undergraduate degree in political science from Barnard College and a Master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. Like so many writers, her craft is self-taught, which means her approach to the writing process is forged in real-world practice.
Here, Slade shares with WD classic tips and innovative advice for nonfiction authors, derived from the experience writing her award-winning book.
1. Always Be Thinking Ahead
Before she started Into the Raging Sea, Slade first wrote about El Faro in a September 2016 feature for Yankee magazine. In putting together that article she was able to cultivate sources, gain a workable understanding of the shipping industry and, perhaps most important, recognize there was enough meat on the topic to extend it into a full book-length work.
“I did a ton of research up front and laid down a lot of connections,” she says. “I just totally over-reported a 6,000-word story with the idea that I would eventually pitch it.”
So, if you’re unsure whether your own topic has enough depth to carry it to full manuscript length, consider pitching it to a magazine first. It’s a beta test of sorts; if you meet your word count feeling like you have far more to say, then the subject may have book potential. An added bonus: Already having that article under your belt will appeal to agents as well, proving you’re the right person to take on the topic.
2. Find an Experienced Guide
By nature, journalists must often play the role of dilettante, attempting to gain serviceable knowledge in fields outside of their own proficiency. Such was the case with Slade, who knew very little about the shipping industry before pursuing the El Faro story.
While she could (and did) immerse herself in research, it took a capable subject-matter expert—in her case, a former chief mate who had worked in the industry for more than 25 years—to help translate some of the more technical material, describe the ship itself, and really take her inside the mind of a mariner: “Being able to talk to him about all kinds of things, listening to how he describes things. All that sort of stuff helped me with perspective and gave me courage to write about these characters in a more familiar way; to make them real.”
The takeaway: When rounding up sources, if the material at hand is dense or particularly specialized, see if you can find an interpreter of sorts to help make sense of things.
3. Observe When You Can
In reporting a story, interviews often provide the most lucrative material. That said, nothing beats actual observation when it comes to evoking emotion.
When the transcript of El Faro’s fateful voyage was first released, Slade flew to Jacksonville, where she met with two sailors who were intimately familiar with both the ship and its crew. Together, they spent an emotional eight hours reading through the transcript as if it were a stage play. Of the crew members in the document, Slade says, “They had no idea that these would be their last words. They had no idea that somebody would be reading this so closely. And yet they are so eloquent in revealing who they are through these casual conversations.”
Observing how your primary subjects interact with the world, even casually, can provide powerful insight. Their conversations, actions, and even their mannerisms can be used in the narrative to provide context into their character. It’s classic showing versus telling, played out on the page.
4. Develop Trust for Sensitive Conversations
When reporting on a tragedy, you may have to interview those who’ve experienced some kind of suffering. That was the situation Slade faced in talking to the families of El Faro’s crew members. There were a number of other journalists pursuing the shipwreck story at the same time as Slade, so naturally, some of the families were a little hesitant—unsure of who to talk to and suspicious of motives. Her way in may sound simple, but it’s vitally important: She presented herself with honesty and compassion. Slade communicated to them that her goal was to represent the story of El Faro as accurately and authentically as possible. And it worked.
While she understood and respected that some of the families couldn’t bring themselves to have those hard conversations, others opened up and were ultimately very candid in sharing the details of their daughters, sons, and spouses, trusting Slade to tell their stories and keep their memories alive.
5. Record Your Interviews
Recording interviews is standard procedure for most journalists, but there are even more benefits than initially meet the eye. Taping an interview puts less pressure on your real-time note-taking, which means you can actually immerse yourself in the conversation without simultaneously trying to get the words down on paper. It’s also valuable to have a clear record of exactly what your source said, just in case you’re ever challenged.
It’s beneficial later, too, when you’re actually writing the book. Slade records all her interviews, then pays to have them transcribed (transcribe them yourself if you want, but companies like Rev.com offer transcription services for as cheap as $1 per minute). Then, when she needs a specific piece of information, she can jump into one of these digital records and search for a key term with CTRL+F. In that way, she effectively creates searchable indices for all of her interviews, making it easy to track down the specific information she’s looking for.
6. Learn Through Firsthand Research
No matter how many hours you spend poring over a book or how extensive a source’s account may be, there is a depth and richness that can only be captured firsthand. “I knew I had to get on a ship, there was no question,” Slade says. “I had to get out to sea, and I had to get out to sea for days.”
She wanted to understand what it felt like to be so isolated—to be surrounded by nothing but the sea for miles on end. So she signed up for a 14-day trek across the Atlantic on a container ship bound for Baltimore from Italy. The experience was invaluable, not just as a research exercise, but in bringing a sense of place to the narrative itself. “As I was writing these scenes, all I would have to do is look up and the scene was unfolding right in front of me. I hope that it gives the scenes a little bit more immediacy, because I really was there.”
7. Stop When the Repetition Begins
It’s in a nonfiction writer’s nature to report every nook and cranny of a story. In fact, the problem more often than not is knowing when to stop the interviews, put the brakes on the research, and start writing. Slade has developed an effective strategy for deciding when it’s finally time to put pen to paper: Once your investigation starts dredging up repeat information, it’s time to move on to writing.
“I learned all this, like a lot of people, by trial and error,” she says. “For me it’s always been report it, report it, report it until the same information starts coming back to you.”
8. Put the Raw Story Down First
Writer’s block is an enduring struggle for scribes of every skill level, and can be further compounded when you have mounds of notes to sort through. The question arises: Where on earth do you begin when you have a full book’s worth of source material?
Slade skips the problem by first laying out the entire narrative by memory. After spending so much time immersed in the story, she has the central parts down pat. “My thought is that if I don’t remember it, it’s not important,” she says. “That’s my first pass—I want to tell you a story. I want to tell it to you fresh. I want to tell it to you like we’re sitting down and I’m going to share this really incredible thing that I learned.” Later on, she’ll go back through, folding in the facts, quotes, and other details.
It also helps her to compartmentalize. Slade treats every chapter like its own individual magazine article, a 3,500- to 6,000-word feature. Each chapter has its own arc, therefore making it easier to shuffle the order if need be.
9. Mete Out Technical Background
While the primary plot of the book chronicles the course of El Faro’s consequential journey, putting the tale into context (and communicating the magnitude of what happened) required a fair amount of exposition. Slade includes an entire chapter about The Jones Act, which traces how colonial America’s merchant roots led to a 1920 law placing federal regulation on the shipping industry. Another chapter describes the climate science behind hurricanes.
Layering the exposition into the narrative took a deft touch. As with many nonfiction works, including background information was crucial to the story, but front-loading it all at once or presenting it in the wrong way could risk boring readers. Which is why Slade was judicious in where she chose to slot it, dropping her expositional chapters in right before readers need them, almost as a means of foreshadowing.
“I was pacing it to build what would be coming in the next chapter,” Slade says. “I’m hoping that by the time you get to that chapter, you’re ready for it because you’ve got the information you need to understand it. And then your enjoyment of the narrative doesn’t stumble.”
10. Translate Complex Concepts With Figurative Language
The other struggle Slade faced was figuring out how to explain highly technical concepts in a more accessible way—to those not versed in, say, modern sea-navigation software, or the anatomy of a container ship. Translating dense topics is a skill she honed during her time at Boston magazine, while reporting on dense subjects like the Boston Planning and Development Agency. It’s a challenge she relished while writing Into the Raging Sea and pulls off with the flourishes of a master storyteller.
Among her most effective tools: Figurative language. By employing similes, metaphors, and vivid imagery, Slade manages to paint a distinct picture in the reader’s mind. For example, in one passage describing the problematic way El Faro’s ventilation boxes were positioned on the side of the ship, she writes: “It was like having your nostrils somewhere near your belly button.”
There’s an art to making technical tales palatable to a broad readership. Applying the same tradecraft you would in a work of fiction can be incredibly effective.
11. Take a Break Between Writing and Editing
In terms of writing time on Into the Raging Sea, Slade was expeditious, quickly throwing down a first draft. “The book was very much as if you were pregnant,” she says. “When the baby is ready, you’ve just got to get it out.”
But upon finishing, she walked away from the manuscript for a while, giving her time to transition her mindset from writer to reader. As Slade points out, we’re all better readers than we are writers, simply because we’ve spent far more of our life reading. Thus, that break was essential and afforded her the space necessary to approach the story with a fresh set of eyes. It gave her a willingness to be more critical (and less precious) about the words she’d poured out so rapidly.
12. Read Your Manuscript to a Teenager
Slade’s parting words of advice may also be her most unconventional: Track down a teenager. After completing the book, Slade cornered her 16-year-old daughter and read sections of the text to her, looking for parts where she seemed bored.
“She had no interest, doesn’t read nonfiction except for school, wouldn’t read this book, and knew nothing about the topic,” Slade says. “It was great because I was reading out loud to see where I was losing her. She had no problem interrupting me. I’m into engaging people who have no interest: Where am I losing you? What don’t you understand? If you’re tripping up on lack of information or I’m getting boring, you’ll put the book down.”