Moving Between Fiction and Non-Fiction Writing, by William Dietrich
I’m a switch hitter as a writer, doing journalism and books, and moving from non-fiction books to novels and back again. I think the reader benefits.
Like plenty of authors before me I began as a newspaper reporter. The field teaches basics useful to any writer: writing to deadline, writing to length, research, interviews, the experience of being edited, and getting feedback (complaints) from readers are all helpful.
The lesson pounded into me daily, from editors and readers alike, was to tell a story. Collecting data and quotes was fine but it was making sense of it and presenting it in a compelling narrative that decided if anyone would read the result.
Successful verbal storytellers include Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. They spun yarns instead of lectures. They all tried to use a particular incident to illustrate a larger truth and bet that listeners would remember a story when they forgot a speech.
That’s what novelists do, too.
My first non-fiction book, The Final Forest, grew out of my Seattle Times newspaper reporting on battles over logging and trees in the Pacific Northwest. To organize the book, I picked a representative dozen players in the political and environmental drama and made each the subject of a chapter.
Their smaller stories told the longer, bigger story, the way fiction does.
My first novel, Ice Reich, was inspired by a real-life Nazi expedition to claim a slice of Antarctica, that I learned about while visiting the continent as a journalist. I found my experience as a reporter helped in my research, including interviewing biologists on a credible bioterrorism threat. Journalism helped me make things up. It also made me comfortable getting out of the chair. I drove across the Australian outback for Getting Back, waded through an ancient Jerusalem tunnel for The Rosetta Key and followed Attila’s trail for The Scourge of God.
Newspaper habits of objectivity, however, hampered me in getting into the mind of the novel’s characters. A novel was also completely different in the need to not just sustain a narrative over the length of a book but pace it to build suspense. Warner editor Rick Horgan was generous with early advice and introduced me to Christopher Vogler’s classic book on storytelling tropes, The Writer’s Journey.
Novels require the writer to take the newswriting straitjacket off and hunt for heart and soul. You can flex some descriptive muscles, have fun with metaphors and translate real-life experience into fictional drama.
Then, in going back to non-fiction, I find it easier to present a clear point of view and add color to a true story. Fiction writing makes me a closer observer. Photography, painting or bird watching can do the same.
I like fiction because I can control the narrative and characters and come to a satisfying conclusion. It’s grounded in larger truths.
Non-fiction stories are often about problems that never end and people whose lives extend out from the topic at hand. Real life is always more peculiar and surprising than anything I can imagine.
As much as possible, I try to bring real history into my historical novels. Novelists are like professional liars who know to make the lie as close to the truth as possible, to allow readers to ‘suspend disbelief.’
As a writer, you don’t need to choose between fiction and non-fiction. It helps to do both.
William Dietrich’s author website: www.williamdietrich.com
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Historical Novels