What Non-Fiction Authors Can Teach Novelists

Do you aspire to write a novel as breathtaking as Huckleberry Finn? Mark Twain cheated. He brought to his fiction a skill set he developed under his given name, Samuel Clemens, as a journalist. Twain the novelist knew that a riveting opening, skillful incorporation of dialogue, and compelling details are all tools he could mine from nonfiction.
Image by erika

Lee Gutkind, editor of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction, says the best nonfiction writers “embrace many of the techniques of the fiction writer, including dialogue, description, plot, intimacy and specificity of detail, characterization, point of view; except, because it is nonfiction—and this is the difference—it is true.” As a journalist and creative nonfiction writer who has also written fiction, I’d flip that statement and say fiction writers borrow from nonfiction writers. Regardless of who claims ownership, why wouldn’t any writer not want to improve her craft? Here are some nonfiction examples that can guide novelists:

Dramatic Opening

All he could see, in every direction, was water.

In Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand opens with her protagonist, former Olympics runner Louie Zamperini, adrift on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s been twenty-seven days since he was shot down by a Japanese Zero. He hears a plane and, anticipating rescue, fires two flares into the air. But machine gun fire quickly tells him he has signaled, not an American rescue plane, but a Japanese bomber. Hillenbrand tells Zamperini’s story chronologically, except for this opening, a scene we don’t return to for dozens of pages. But we are compelled to read until we find ourselves again at that point in the story, and by then we’re hooked, willing to devour the full 500 pages.

Characterization

We talked some, he was very shy, but after a while he said, “One thing I really like is Spanish rice.” So I promised to make him some, and he smiled kind of, and I decided—well, he wasn’t the worst young man I ever saw.

Long before novelist Thomas Harris invented a sympathetic serial killer in Hannibal Lector, Truman Capote persuaded readers to sympathize with a real murderer in his nonfiction book In Cold Blood. In Capote’s account of the brutal slaughter of the Clutter family by two ex-cons, we are led to believe the one who actually performed the murders—Perry Edward Smith—is worthy of pity and compassion. Capote does this largely through the dialogue of others, including Josephine “Josie” Meier, the wife of the sheriff who arrested Smith.

Detail

The discoveries came quickly: a vat of acid with eight ribs and part of a skull settled at the bottom; mounds of quicklime; a large kiln; a dissection table stained with what seemed to be blood.

In The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson paints a horrifying portrait of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who confessed to twenty-seven murders but may have killed as many as 200. Perhaps the most shocking part of the story is the Chicago “murder castle” Holmes built, complete with airtight rooms in which he could weaken or kill victims with gas, and a hidden chute to send corpses to his basement for dismemberment and disposal. Larson’s use of detail places us in this house of horrors, where Holmes killed dozens a short distance away from unknowing riders of the world’s first Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World’s Fair.

Scene

He looked back: The man was still there, chasing after him, still shouting angrily. Then, quite incredibly, he stopped and raised a gun, took aim, and fired.

Simon Winchester wasn’t present on that “moonlit Saturday morning of February 17, 1872,” in a crime-ridden London neighborhood known as Lambeth Marsh, but in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, he uses his own prodigious research to place us on the scene. He in particular uses one of the five senses, sound—quoting various accounts of overheard gunshots—to show us how a peaceful bookworm, Dr. W.C. Minor, has a dark side.

Suspense

An aged, exhausted Harrison, taken under the wing of King George III, ultimately claimed his rightful reward in 1773—after forty struggling years of political intrigue, international warfare, academic backbiting, scientific revolution, and economic upheaval.

In Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel gives away the ending in the opening chapter; the English clockmaker John Harrison won the royal prize for a method of calculating longitude at sea. What novelist would want to give away her ending at the beginning? Yet Longitude is a page turner, because Sobel moves at a quick pace. She brings to life the scientists and politicians standing in Harrison’s way, while limiting details to those that both inform and intrigue.Writers are told to read, and we do. We’re also told to read what we write. But that advice can be taken too narrowly; if you’re a mystery writer, does that mean you only read mysteries? Or do you seek out any prose that skillfully poses questions and artfully builds suspense? Any novelist wishing to improve her craft would be well-advised to read non-fiction as well, to experience works in which truth is stranger than fiction. Of course, Mark Twain had his own thoughts on that: “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.”

Tell me your opinion: Have you as a fiction writer found value in reading non-fiction?

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About Patrick Ross | @PatrickRWrites

Patrick Ross is a professional storyteller. A longtime journalist, blogger, and creative writer, his first book Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road was published in October 2014 by Black Rose Writing. For four years he has blogged about writing, creativity, and living an art-committed life on The Artist's Road. He earned an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing with The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and online with The Loft Literary Center. His wife and two teenage children tolerate his need to honor his muse through writing, which is particularly impressive since they often show up in his prose.

Comments

  1. Great article and very useful comments too. I have learnt a lot about how to write good stories from all of you with new additions to my list of books to read. Thank you. I am off to your blog!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.