by Christine Liu-Perkins
“Just what is it that keeps readers reading? . . . Readers stay with a book as long as it promises to answer still unresolved questions.”
— Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor (New York: Norton, 2002), 103
The suspense of unresolved questions is clearly important in fiction. But the quote above was actually written in regard to nonfiction. When I read this, it struck me as a timely “Aha!” just as I was beginning to draft my nonfiction book At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui.
I realized that the book would need questions in search of answers that pulled the reader into the book and all the way through to the end. Questions like, What do the artifacts tell us about the people in the three tombs—their lifestyle, their daily activities, their beliefs and concerns?
This approach helped me sort through information from more than four hundred sources. It helped me decide what to keep in, what to leave out, and what readers would need to know to understand the facts and related issues. Questions also helped me figure out the structure of each chapter individually as an outline of logical flow from one question to its answer to the next, related question.
As I began writing each chapter, I thought about what questions a reader would want answered. For example, in the chapter on Lady Dai’s mysterious cadaver, I thought readers would want to know:
- What was the condition of Lady Dai’s body when it was found?
- An autopsy was performed on her cadaver. What is an autopsy? What can be learned from an autopsy?
- What did the doctors discover about Lady Dai’s body?
- How did she die?
- What is the normal process of decomposition?
- How might bodies avoid decomposition? What processes have been used to preserve bodies?
- How was Lady Dai’s body preserved?
- Are there other cadavers like Lady Dai’s?
I then wrote the chapter focused on answering those questions in ways that would (hopefully!) capture readers’ attention and leave them satisfied at the end—well, at least until the cliffhanger question leading into the next chapter . . .