Blogger: Michelle Ule
Sitting in for Wendy Lawton who is traveling.
Writers are always given advice about how to write and what to write about. One recommendation for novelists is to read the genre you’re writing.
Romance writers should read romance novels, for example. Regency writers need to be well informed in the conventions of regency novels, and if you’re writing speculative fiction, well, reading fantasy, science fiction and similar genres would inform you of ways to conform your writing to that genre’s standards.
But what can a novelist learn from reading nonfiction?
I’m a novelist myself, but I read a lot of nonfiction. Here are four reasons.
1. Story ideas
Novelists by definition tend to have imaginations that wander the universe. Their job is to dream up stories–and the best stories have conflict, often fear, and change.
It’s important to be looking for examples in the world around you.
Nonfiction can provide those.
Indeed, one of my history teachers back in the dark ages, Julie Klocki, once shook her head over our class. “I don’t know why you spend your time reading fiction. You should read history. The stories are not only more fantastic, but they’re also true!”
Many writers have done so over the years, including Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and even Charles Dicken’s Bleak House.
If you’re in a slump over what to write about, consider nonfiction as a source of inspiration.
For my five novellas and one novel, I’ve started my writing by reading nonfiction.
That may be obvious for someone writing historical fiction, but my contemporary novel, Bridging Two Hearts, required a lot of research–because it was written about a Navy SEAL.
In order to get a “sense” of what life was like for my hero, I needed to submerge myself into his culture–which was different from the 20 years I’d spent in Navy submarine circles.
I read books about SEALS, memoirs by SEALS, and spent plenty of time on the Navy SEAL webpage.
I did NOT read any other novels about SEALS.
I use primary source material, not someone’s interpretation of the truth.
That doesn’t mean a novelist shouldn’t use fiction in their genre or area when preparing a manuscript; it just means that if you’re looking for authenticity, you need to start with those who have lived your character’s life.
Other novelists can provide insight and some facts if your subject is obscure, but they should not be the first place you start. (See my post about Amelia Peabody)
3. Craft Technique
The finest book I’ve read in the last five years was Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction Unbroken.
By examining how she constructed her retelling of Louie Zamperini’s life, a novelist can learn about the use of detail, the stringent importance of research, the arch of the story, the act structure and the techniques Hillenbrand used to make her characters/real people believable and knowable.
Zamperini was on that raft for 47 days–how did she sustain my interest and the tension?
Here’s the opening:
“All he could see, in every direction, was water.
“It was late June 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Force bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had withered down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.”
(Will I ever forget sharks bumping a raft 24/7?)
See how Hillenbrand sets the mood, puts us immediately into space and time and piles on the tension?
Note her detail: bodies stained yellow from the raft dye.
This reads like a novel, except, you know it’s not.
4. Staying connected to current thought
Nonfiction is up-to-date, using current ideas, terminology and research.
Nonfiction authors need to stay focused on their subject, while expanding their stories to include ideas readers may not have considered before.
It takes creativity to come at a subject–particularly a well-studied subject like, say, the Civil War–to engage the reader.
Reading nonfiction also enables us to enter the social conversation and learn what’s important to people. Is it any surprise that World War II novels have become even more popular since Unbroken was published in 2010?
You can learn negative lessons from nonfiction–for example, don’t use static vocabulary and solely declarative sentences.
Reading recent nonfiction enables the writer to stay connected to topics important to people right now. It’s thought-provoking in a different way, but opens avenues to consider “what if?”
Many science fiction writers in the 1960s, for example, drew their inspiration from the Apollo program and the advances in technology taking place at that time.
Nonfiction works can be an excellent place for fiction writers to expand their craft and consider their subjects from different points of view.
What have you learned from reading nonfiction?
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