Since the ‘90s and the huge success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, memoirs have become the rage. Before that, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood jump started a new genre, which took the factual, and personalized it. But how do you write creative nonfiction that readers love and believe in?
Simply stated, the genre is the perfect blend of the factual and the personal. Based on a true story, the skilled writer then uses a subjective point of view to create the tale, including imagined conversations and the thoughts of the characters in the story.
In other words, the writer takes a good deal of poetic license.
As a developmental book editor, however, what I often see is a chronicle of events. Most times, we get the first 50 pages of family history (sometimes going back hundreds of years). And while that may be of interest to your family, such does not make for a successful book.
So how do we make sure yours is interesting, accurate, and enjoyable?
Here are 5 tips to writing great creative nonfiction:
First and Foremost, never Contradict the Facts.
This is, after all, nonfiction, which means it’s not only based on truth, it contains, and doesn’t refute, verifiable facts.
Yes, you may be putting words into characters’ heads. But to the best of your ability, these need to be consistent with the characters as you know them.
And the facts themselves just don’t change.
Check, double check, and re-check again the facts of your story.
You may remember something one way, then go to the actual scene and find that the street you thought bisected the intersection actually went the other direction.
Seems like a simple sin to leave as is, no? But all you need is one reader to catch a glitch, and you’ve just lost your verisimilitude.
Witnesses to any event have notoriously sketchy memories. Which is why in police work, a witness’s recollection isn’t taken as fact. Four people can see something happen, and have four entirely different “facts” to go along with it.
So, don’t take your memory on face value. Check out dates, times, people, and places.
Research with Primary Sources.
Sometimes, you have no choice but to consult periodicals, books, reports, etc., especially when you’re writing something that occurred long in the past. But whenever possible, go back to the sources who were there.
Police reports are great. Then see if you can talk to an officer who was involved.
News reports can get you a long way down the road. But is the reporter still alive? Find him.
One of my authors just finished a fabulous book that begins 100 years ago, in the time of vaudeville, about a famous seal trainer, and his equally (if not more so) prodigy. He relied heavily on newspaper articles. But he also has a family connection, and picked the brains of everyone who knew anything about it. Which led him to many other sources as well.
When you go to write creative nonfiction, use every resource possible.
Write it like a Novel.
Yes, absolutely, differences in fiction and nonfiction of all sub-categories exist. But the essence of creating an enjoyable book still contains all the elements of great fiction:
֍ The characters come to life. They’re living breathing 3-sided people. Note: if a memoir, this includes the character who is you!
As a book editor, I give the very same exercises to my writers of either fiction or nonfiction, in order to flesh out the people on the page.
֍ We still need a definable plot—beginning, middle, and end—with a beginning story question, which is in the end answered, and which proceeds through the storyline arc, through plot points that move the book along.
֍ And as with fiction, we create all this through scenes.
Finally, Read in the Genre.
Broken-record time! Of course we couldn’t get out of this discussion without mentioning the necessity to read. And while I know you’re reading widely and eclectically, be sure and avail yourself of all the great books in this genre.
Nothing helps to show how to accomplish your goals as much as seeing how others succeeded (and failed), and why.
In the end, to write creative nonfiction others love is like writing anything—it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Even if this is the only book you’re intending to see in print, all the elements of great writing apply.
Now, dive in, and go create your life story!