Carla King interviews Natalia Molina: I’m Not a Historian but Want to Write Historical Nonfiction. What Do I Need to Know?

Nonfiction Authors Podcast | August 17, 2022, 10:00 am PT / 1:00 pm ET

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Live on August 17, 2022 10:00 am PT

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Natalia Molina is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Her research explores the intertwined histories of race, place, gender, culture, and citizenship. She is the author of the award-winning books, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts and another award winner, Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1940. Her most recent book is A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community, on immigrant workers as placemakers —including her grandmother—who nurtured and fed the community through the restaurants they established, which served as urban anchors. She co-edited Relational Formations of Race: Theory, Method and Practice, and is now at work on a new book, The Silent Hands that Shaped the Huntington: A History of Its Mexican Workers. In addition to publishing widely in scholarly journals, she has also written for the LA Times, Washington Post, San Diego Union-Tribune, and more. Professor Molina is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

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In this episode…

  • Learn how to determine where your story fits, and what genre is best for your piece of historical nonfiction.
  • Figuring out the genre of your piece, along with your voice and how you’re going to tell the story.
  • Getting a sense of the micro and the macro in your story.
  • How to bring elements of novels (storytelling/imagination) into your historical nonfiction piece.
  • How to work with the silence in your historical piece.
  • Figuring out the organizing principle behind your story.
  • How to use oral interviews and letter writing to get more perspective for your historical nonfiction piece.


Hello and welcome to the interview series for the Nonfiction Authors Association. Today’s session is with Natalia Molina and we will be talking about how to write historical nonfiction even if you’re not a historian.

I’m Carla King, your host, and I’m happy to have you with us today. This interview will last only 30 minutes and you can find recordings on our Nonfiction Authors Association website and social media platforms including YouTube.

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And now I’d like to introduce our guest.

Carla King  00:00

Hi, Natalia. Big welcome to the podcast.

Natalia Molina  03:01

I’m so happy to be here. I’d love to talk about writing–more than writing.

Carla King  03:09

Excellent. Yes, I know, sometimes it’s easier to talk about than do it, isn’t it? So really, today, we’re going to concentrate on how to write–because historical nonfiction even if you’re not a historian–many of our NFAA members and critique groups and people who are studying are writing historical nonfiction about periods of time they’re interested in. And many are writing personal family biographies, which do delve into the historical nonfiction arena. So there’s all kinds of historical nonfiction in various genres. Can you just give us a definition of what is historical nonfiction, and the range of sub genres we’re talking about?

Natalia Molina  04:04

Sure. So one is that type of history that people think about when they come up to me at a dinner party and find out that I’m a historian and say, ‘I hated history.’ So you’re thinking more kind of that textbook history, nonfiction history. But you know, history–that genre also includes things like biography, autobiography, memoir. And I think it’s just as important as it is to know the sub genres. It’s really important just to sample them before you start writing. Before I wrote my book, A Place at the Nayarit, I was trying to figure out how I was going to write it–Is it going to be more of a memoir about my grandmother and her restaurant? Is it going to be more of a history book, very objective, where I’m not really part of the text? And so what I did was, I read a lot of these sub genres, and I really tried to get a sense of how different writers synthesized and vivified their material.

Memoirs that I would include, that I would recommend, are Anne Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter, it’s a memoir. So she’s talking about her father’s history, and so you get a sense of what it was like to be Jewish American, and starting a business, and being a professor, and really loving wine and all the things that he delved into.

Another memoir I read was Crying in H Mart: A Memoir; that one came out more recently, once I’d published, but really gave me a sense of–it was very personal. It was about food, and family, just like mine, but very personal.

Another one was by Colman Andrews, My Usual Table: A Life In Restaurants. And what he does is he kind of spans his career, but he’s part of that narrative of food. And that was a little bit more of where I wanted to land.

So part of getting a sense of those genres is you reading and saying, “Well, what am I comfortable with?” You know, it’s really helpful to read, and also to listen to audiobooks. For me, that was really important. Because, again, more than knowing the genre–it’s not just figuring out your genre, but figuring out your voice and how you’re going to tell the story.

Carla King  06:20

Wow, yes, that’s a lot. And thanks so much for giving us those examples. And, you know, it is a tough job. I just came off of a 8 week critique group, where we had a writers writing about parents whose grandparents were in the Holocaust, a Mexican American family and life in Los Angeles, and many others. And there is a lot of research that goes into this, as well as personal memory and going deep into our emotions, and finding that universal truth that we’re trying to convey our lesson and our culture.

You are a professor, an academic, a journalist, an author, and your life seems to be all about historical research and nonfiction, but we’re just mere mortals. How do we tackle this really big task without it taking over, completely, our life and work?

Natalia Molina  07:21

Sure, well, the first thing I’ll say is, this was a new genre for me as well. I’ve really written history books that I wasn’t a part of. And so to write about my family was a new thing. And you know, every writing project makes you feel, to some degree, like a beginner.

I’d say one thing is to have a starting place and know what you can and can’t get from that starting place. So for example, oral interviews. We think, ‘Oh, I need this information to write about it, and to do this oral interview.’ But oral interviews aren’t always the be all, end all, you know. People mediate their memories, you still need to prepare for the interview that might be getting a sense of this person’s life, in terms of when they were born, in terms of what major events may have coincided with their life. Perhaps it might be, you know, looking for historical photographs of the time period of the city where they lived, the town where they lived, you know. You need those things, not necessarily because they can comment on them directly, but you want to jog their memory.

And then once you interview somebody, if you’re going to continue those interviews, you might ask the first interviewee and then from then on, ‘Do you have any photographs, you can share?,’ those kinds of things. And then make sure that you get permission from them to share their history–there’s a form that you can download off the internet about that. But then you can use that information for the next interview. ‘You know, actually, my last interview told me this,’ or, ‘My last interviewee shared this photo with me. Can you comment? Do you know the people in the photo? Did you ever go to that restaurant? What was your memory of the neighborhood?’ And not asking those leading questions, right? Like, ‘Was it sad growing up in the depression?’ versus, ‘Tell me about growing up in the 1930s.’ You know, those kinds of things.

Letters are another source that people use to write their biographies, or to write biographies or a family memoir. And letters are so helpful, right? They’re personal. They’re revealing. They say something about the time period. But we also have to remember they also follow a convention. People tend to write in a certain convention of their time period, it changes over time. You might think about how photos do this, right? You think about photos from the early 20th century and people are like this and they look very still and they do not smile. And you think about photos today you see on Instagram where people are like, ‘Ay!’, right? It’s very different ways that we purport our bodies. And you can think about the same convention in letter writing. Even the fact that, you know, people write like a ‘Dear Diary,’ –there’s a way in which they’re comporting themselves. So just know that, that these are personal texts. But they also can be examined within that time period. That being said, letters are really amazing because they might get you at sources that you may not otherwise hear from.

You just mentioned people from the Holocaust, Mexican American families in LA. Those are not, you know, the main things that we have in terms of structuring our historical events, those voices from below what we call us historians, you know, the top down and the bottom up. And so they’re still very valuable sources, and I don’t want to discount them. I would also say that, you know, you might think about how that person’s life history reveals something broader. I’m reading Jackie and Me right now–the fictionalized relationship of Jackie Kennedy and Jack Kennedy. And, while it’s really focused on–especially the first chapters–on Jackie, you get a sense of what it’s like to be a woman at that time. What her marriage choices were. So, you know, giving that sense of the micro and the macro. The individual life, but the society, right. So that you have a sense, when somebody makes a choice, they move from the South to Los Angeles, a woman decides not to marry, these kinds of things. Are they following a pattern? Are they exceptions? Are they part of the norm? Are they a pioneer? And that’ll help you enhance your storytelling around it.

And also, you know, thinking about where you’re going to fit in your story. Do you want to bring in your own subjectivity? Do you want to talk about, you know, what it was like to be raised by this? If you’re talking about a parent, for example, and they were a hippie, they were non conventional, they were all these things. Do you want to talk about how that affected you? Was it fun to be raised by someone like that? Did you not have stability? You know, those kinds of things.

And another thing to remember is, sometimes we think we’re at a disadvantage. Oh, I can’t write about that. I didn’t live through that time period. Sometimes we actually know more than even the subjects themselves. I’m thinking about Natasha Trethewey’s novel Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, which is a very poignant tale about her mother being murdered. But she has a police report, she knows what was going on with her mother’s boyfriend, the person who murdered her, more than the mother knew, because she has all the court cases, the witnesses, the police reports.

Another example would be by Manning Marable, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. And he says, ‘He never even knew the FBI was watching them. I did, I had the reports.’ So there’s lots of ways in which we can get information, and sometimes even more information than the person that we’re writing about, or the time period that we’re writing about. And then we must also decide, how are we going to fit in this story?

Carla King  13:25

Thank you for all that. Boy, I have a lot of questions from here. How many directions can we go in? Well, because you ended in inserting or not your own voice. I’m thinking of books about parents, or that sort of memoir once removed, or a segment of a famous person’s life and context there. We either have, and we have an interest in, those lives, that life–the mother, the father, the famous person. We have maybe an interest in that historical period or an event. When is it okay to insert your own voice, and maybe even imagination? Because we don’t have all the facts, you know, maybe the weather, you know, to create the scenes that are so important to building a good story. You know, the description, the sort of movie-like cinematic opening and narrowing down into what’s happening. When is it okay to sort of imagine that, or project your own imaginings in a story like that? Or is it?

Natalia Molina  14:39

Carla, I think you just nailed it. I think that is the keyword that the listener should take away–is that imagining. So I think it’s okay to insert yourself. Just let the reader know, right? So, for example, I mentioned the Jackie and Me novel. It’s a novel, we know that the writer is imagining things. And you can do that in historical texts as well. For that, you might just say, ‘I don’t know the information, but this is what I imagine.’ And it’ll get refined and all that, right, because, like, you just did those workshops.

So for example, I had trouble with that. And that was certainly not in my earlier drafts of The Place at the Nayarit. Because that is a book about my grandmother, and I never met my grandmother, she died before I was born. And so people want to know, like, ‘How did she, why did she set up the restaurant? What was it like when she first opened?’ I don’t know certain details. And so I’m just very clear with the reader. And so I talk about, you know, I don’t know what it was like that first day. And I tell them why I don’t know. ‘These people don’t leave records, she immigrated on her own. There are no family tales to hand down. But I imagine it would be a day like any other for her. And I’ve set this up already. I’ve told you she’s reserved.’ And every other day that I do have interviews, it is pretty much the same day. She was a hard worker, she was always vigilant about the restaurant, and I know the description of the restaurant, so I can say something like, ‘I don’t know what it was like the day that she opened the restaurant, there are no family tales that were handed down. But I do know, she probably set the tables with the salt shakers, set up the chairs, swept the sidewalk and propped open the door waiting for the customers to come,’ right? It still sets the same scene and letting you know.

In any piece of writing, whether it’s a family history, another kind of history, there are going to be silences. And so you can talk about those silences. And that’s why I mentioned in the beginning, their oral histories. Oral histories aren’t the be all, end all. People don’t remember, people don’t want to tell you even something very, you know, very defining, you know. For my people, they lived through the 1965 Watts uprisings. ‘What were you doing during the Watts uprisings?’ ‘I was working. I had nothing, I don’t know.’ You know, you’re like, ‘Oh!’ But that’s also telling, right? That silence is telling. That silence is like people needed to live their lives if people are hard working. That alone tells you something.

And I love the way that you talked about that imagination. I think another thing to recognize in your writing is–what kind of a writer are you? Are you someone who’s into thick description? Are you the kind of person who’s like, ‘Oh, we went out to eat, and I got the carne asada tacos with a little bit of fat on it. And then I got the red sauce, you know, the red spicy sauce that both gives it that zing and that,’ you know, what kind of writer are you? Are you that thick description writer? If not, then read some books on thick description and see how people do it. Nobody has all strengths as a writer.

I really like Erik Larson’s work. The last book of his that I was reading was Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania. I am not interested in Lusitania at all, but I love how he can get a historical fact and turn it into this scene.

Some of us–the other way to think about it is forest versus trees. And I talk about this with my students writing their dissertations all the time. So we’re really good at getting all the information and putting that all in there. And I believe them. They’ve done the research. I believe the history that they’re telling, but it’s not a great story. And we are human beings–we want to connect to a story, we want to be able to imagine that. So if the writer can’t imagine that story for us, we’re not going to be able to imagine it. We’re not going to be able to connect to it.

I have other students that love that description. I call them the forest people. They can set the scene, but I don’t believe them because they don’t give me any details. So part of it is balancing that. I would also say, you know, part of it is also figuring out who your audience is.

I read both Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, his autobiography, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Michelle spends chapters talking about their relationship, and what it was like when Obama was gone, and when they met, and all these things, right. Her title is Becoming–that’s her organizing principle for her book. And so she’s talking about becoming Michelle Obama. So it makes sense that she put that in there. He’s writing it as a politician, a promised land. Like the really needy Michelle is like, that much of a description, and their courtship, everything. It’s like, you know, I forget how much it is. Maybe like half a chapter at the most, probably even less. So, you know, it’s understanding those storytelling tools of imagination, forest, trees. But it is also knowing–who are you writing this for? What is your purpose? What is your organizing principle? And even though you may have a ton of information out there, you’re only going to be able to let in that which serves your purpose.

Carla King  20:26

Thank you. I love that concept of the organizing principle. And I’d like to dive a little bit deeper on that, because I’m not quite sure what that means and how we use it to approach our writing.

Natalia Molina  20:40

Oh, thank you. I’m so sorry. Yes. So–what is your point? Do you want–so, for example, I’ll go back to the Barack and Michelle example. He wants to show he’s a politician who did well in office. It does not serve him to spend chapters writing about his relationship. She wants to show how she became Michelle Obama; how a black woman, how a working class, poor black girl from the Southside of Chicago came to be First Lady. And so she wants to show a lot about her relationships with her parents, with her husband, all that they went through. And  what it was like to be a working mother, so her daughters. And so that is, you know, her–what I would call her organizing principle, what others might call their point. What someone else might call their laser focus.

I had this problem when I was writing my book A Place at the Nayarit, because I wanted to write in history about restaurants as being community hubs, urban anchors. But I need to contextualize that micro within the macro of the neighborhood, which is Los Angeles, but specifically Echo Park, because it’s a unique neighborhood. And there hadn’t been histories written about it. So I couldn’t really just kind of reference or, you know, kind of sum it up, I had to do that research. And because I was writing about a restaurant, it made sense that I spoke about other restaurants. And I love restaurants. So I fell in love.

I went into a thick, thick description about you know, Taix French restaurant. They have a great story, you know, founded by these brothers, and Doris Day used to go there and order the French Onion soup. Before you know it, my chapter on Echo Park is like 10 pages on a restaurant that I’m not even writing about. And so I have to remember–what is the point of my book? Somebody else can write the story of Taix, or I can tell you about it on the podcast. But I can’t spend–in a 30 page chapter–I cannot spend 15 pages talking about it.

Carla King  22:40

This is a very hard thing for authors, especially new authors who may often start with a family history–is, what is your book about? What is your book about? Because you have all this information. I mean, of all the things that you could have written about, why did you choose this Mexican restaurant instead of something else? I’m sure there are a lot of interesting stories in your family. How did you go about lasering in on, you know, this is what I want to do. And then once you decide–well, actually, this goes for any book–once you decide, how do you pinpoint what to write about and what to leave out? This is just the hardest, seems like the hardest thing for people because you want to write about it all.

Natalia Molina  23:39

Absolutely. That’s a great question. And I’ll say I went through several drafts. And I think that’s one thing, right? Like you just alluded to being in this eight week process, and I assume in that, giving feedback.

So one thing to begin with, you know, yes. I’ve grown up with these great stories of my grandmother, a pioneer woman who came to the U.S. 100 years ago and started her own restaurant. And I knew it was unique because she opened it in a place like Echo Park, which was a multicultural crossroads, geographic crossroads, cultural crossroads. Versus like East Los Angeles and ethnic enclave. There were gay employees. I knew that was unique. We don’t often talk about immigrant history and gay history. So I knew the stories were unique.

But people have to care about your stories. If people don’t care about your stories, it doesn’t matter how interesting they are. And so that was a little part of why I didn’t write about it. A bigger part was just feeling like, you know, I was–for me as a historian, as somebody who works in that–I wanted to show like, I’m a serious historian and I can write about things that, you know, aren’t just part of my experience. So that was part of it.

But part of it was, I just got to the point, both with teaching and seeing what was going on in the news and the neighborhood, that this story was overlooked. And the story of not just my grandmother’s restaurant, but where it takes place in Echo Park, is a story of every neighborhood going through gentrification today. And that’s why I was like, ‘Oh, people will care about this,’ because areas going through gentrification–it’s not just the economic turnover and the business turnover, which already is a lot. But it’s that we don’t know the stories of the people that lived there first. We don’t know the stories of the businesses that were there 30 years, and then had to close their doors because they couldn’t afford to have that business anymore. The pandemic showed that to us even more, right? Those restaurants that we love that went out of business, and that we were trying to support during the pandemic as best as we could. And so to me, it’s–I’ll go back to that micro and the macro. It is the story of my grandmother’s restaurant, and I do show why it’s unique. And I have great stories in there. Marlon Brando went, he asked my aunt out. You know, my aunt went to my grandmother and said–she didn’t really speak English yet–she said, ‘I’m going with Marlon. He asked me out on a date.’ And my grandmother said, ‘What did he say exactly?’ She said, ‘He wants to make love to me.’ And she’s like, ‘That’s not what that means. Come back in the restaurant, you’re not going anywhere,’ right? So there are these great stories. But it was also about showing people–this is about businesses and places; that unless we write our stories, they will go away. They will not be in the historical record. And so it was really getting at that larger point as well.

Carla King  26:35

I’d love to talk about all your other books, they’re so interesting in many different ways, but we’re out of time. So I need to ask you to tell us where we can find you; about your other books, or any services or classes, or whatever you offer. So let us know.

Natalia Molina  26:53

I’m at @prof_nataliam on both Twitter and on Instagram. Or you can just Google me, Natalia Molina, USC, my website, everything will come up and I just started a newsletter, because I really want people to have these tools. And I really want teachers, especially, to be able to teach their kids and people trying to write their own memoirs, histories of their family. And so I’m putting all my tidbits that I’m learning as I go on my book tour, and the stories people share with me, into the newsletter.

Carla King  27:25

And I noticed that you are at, correct?

Natalia Molina  27:33

Thank you so much. Yes.

Carla King  27:36

Okay. Awesome. And, thank you, everybody, for joining us today. We conduct these interviews every Wednesday at 10 o’clock. You can find them by going to nonfiction authors googling us going into our Facebook page or our YouTube channel. Thanks again, Natalia, hope to get you back, and everyone else, I’ll see you next week. Thanks!

Natalia Molina  28:02

This was so fun. Thank you.

And thank you to our listeners for joining us today and every week. For a list of guests and topics just check our schedule on the site, use your favorite search engine, or better yet, sign up for our mailing list at

Quotes from our guest…

“It’s not just figuring out your genre, but figuring out your voice and how you’re going to tell the story.”

“Who are you writing this for? What is your purpose? What is your organizing principle?”

“…Another thing to remember is, sometimes we think we’re at a disadvantage. Oh, I can’t write about that. I didn’t live through that time period. Sometimes we actually know more than even the subjects themselves.”

“It’s understanding those storytelling tools of imagination, forest, trees. It is also knowing–who are you writing this for? What is your purpose? What is your organizing principle? And so even though you may have a ton of information out there, you’re only going to be able to let in that which serves your purpose.”

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