You're right that Heiligman packed a lot into the first eleven pages of Chapter 1 of Charles and Emma.
Take a look at what she covers in just five pages in Chapter 2! At the same time she builds tension by postponing the conversation about the "big fear," she also:
- clarifies the journey to the setting where the conversation will take place;
- describes Charles's father;
- orients readers to the historical time frame in terms young readers will understand;
- explains the family's religious beliefs that will impact the discussion between Charles and his father;
- introduces Charles's siblings and their relationships to Charles;
- summarizes Charles's informal and formal education from childhood to young adulthood;
- illustrates Charles' relationship with his older brother through a specific anecdote;
- foreshadows Charles's future activities by referring to a relationship with a freed slave;
- explains why Charles decided not to pursue a medical career; and
- refocuses on The Question: What is the problem that Charles thought "Was so big that he hadn't put it on his Not Marry list"?
But in spite of covering so much ground, I followed Heiligman. How, I wondered, does she orient her readers and keep us on track so we don't get whiplash moving from one scene and time period to another every few sentences? Why do her transitions seem smooth and seamless?
1. Repeated words. Heiligman repeats words to help readers make connections. The first sentence ends with "home" and the second sentence begins with "home," propelling us headlong into the chapter which will describe Charles's home.
"To talk to his father, Charles set out for home. Home was the Mount..." (p. 17).The next paragraph picks up the house's name, "The Mount was typical of Georgian architecture from the previous century." References to people are also repeated as the focus moves from one topic to another. Heiligman describes the house in terms of what "Charles's father" liked, then in the next sentence she describes the physical appearance of "Charles's father":
The house had regular, strict proportions, which was how Charles's father liked things. Charles's father, Dr. Robert Darwin, was a huge man--over three hundred pounds, with a huge personality and reputation to match. (p. 17)2. Punctuation. A sentence with two parenthetical inserts is followed by a sentence in the following paragraph with a longer parenthetical phrase, cluing readers in to comparisons they'd be familiar with. Repeated parenthetical inserts smooth the connection between disparate time periods in Charles's life--moving backward in time from his growing up to his birth:
[maids and other servants were expected to] keep the fires going to make the house warm(ish), prepare the meals, do the laundry (by hand), and in general run the house, just as they had when Charles was growing up.3. Re-echoed concepts. "Hunting and shooting" is mentioned on page 19, "As he got older, his great love was hunting and shooting;" "shooting" is again reechoed in the quotation from the letter written to Charles by his father: "You care for nothing but shooting...." (p. 21)
Charles was born at the Mount on February 12, 1809 (the very same day a baby named Abraham Lincoln was born across the Atlantic Ocean in a log cabin in Kentucky) (p. 18)
4. Foreshadowing. Heiligman foreshadows Charles's future activities by describing his earlier interests, adding coherence and connection to different time periods of his life. As young boy, "Charles could entertain himself for hours just by thinking, or observing birds "(p. 19). As a medical student in Edinburgh, he learned "how to stuff birds. This would become quite handy later on" (p. 20).
The amount of research Heiligman integrated smoothly into her story is mindboggling. Her website describes her research on location and using primary and secondary sources. Her successful creation of a storyline anchored in research is an inspiring model for non-fiction writers. And her transitions make following her story a delightful ride.
If you're just now reading Charles and Emma, in Chapter 3 you'll find out what was Charles's "problem that was so big he hadn't put it on his Not Marry list." (p. 21) Read on!
Storysleuths Tip #57: Clear transitions can orient your reader to rapid fire changes in time frames, settings, and action.