“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”
Charles Dickens’ iconic opening lines to Hard Times make nonfiction sound staid and dull. Small wonder that so few of the writers I know commit to reading and writing nonfiction as much as they do fiction. However, it’s time to abandon the restrictive notion that writers only write stories. Yes, many of us do. Yet we can also write journals, essays, reports, encylopedias and so much more.
When I was a kid, I hopped between fiction as an escape and nonfiction as enrichment. Nonfiction was fascinating to me. I fully intend to read it voraciously in 2018 and challenge us all to commit at least 50% of our reading to nonfiction.
1. “But I’m a fiction writer. Why should I read nonfiction?”
You’ve just answered your own question! Behind every great fiction novel lies an even greater work of nonfiction. It’s called real life. Everyone’s heard the saying, truth is stranger than fiction. No matter how escapist and fantastical the story, your readers connect to what they know and experience outside the page. The more reality you put into your fiction, the stronger your story will be.
Before you pick up a pen to write, “It was a dark and stormy night”, you need a ton of real life knowledge. I recommend all writers research science and psychology, regardless of genre. How else will you know how people react when they fall in love, how to distinguish murder from natural death, or what the laws of physics will allow when two intrepid explorers are stuck on Mars with a dwindling supply of oxygen? You don’t want to be called out by readers who know more than you do.
As a lifelong fan of crime fiction, I’ve had to brush up on my science. No police officer will outline a dead body in chalk, or handle evidence without gloves, or get lab results back in a day (sorry, CSI). How do I know that? Nonfiction.
2. “But nonfiction is dull!”
Maybe in 1958, but today? Oh no. Within the last few decades, nonfiction has become far more accessible. Techniques borrowed from fictional writing have helped with this. Using tighter sentences, hooks, stronger characterisation and deeper viewpoint have made nonfiction works all the more engaging. Historical biographies, for example, can now read like mysteries or thrillers that happened yesterday rather than centuries ago. Add the wonderful advances in photography and graphic design, and nonfiction is often visually entertaining as well.
Also, nonfiction has fewer limitations than fiction. Novelists must consider genre demands, plot structure, and length, while the nonfiction writer can delve as deeply as they choose. Encyclopedias are designed to weigh a ton and stretch into infinity. Romance and crime novels are not. Even fantasy has to end somewhere. But encyclopedias, almanacs, and anthologies are expanded year after year, often in new and more attractive formats.
Just look at the popularity of coffee table books and infographics, both formats that suit nonfiction. I’ve seen fact books designed like the Periodic Table, books with pop-ups, holographic designs and more. Don’t take my word for it — visit a local bookstore and see for yourself!
3. “Okay, but I don’t want to write nonfiction. I’m a playwright/poet/novelist!”
Tell that to Stephen King, author of On Writing, a bestselling book on writing technique. Or PD James, who wrote Talking About Detective Fiction. Or Maya Angelou, best known for her poignant autobiographical series, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. No writer ever grew by confining themselves to one corner. Read the author biography in your book and be amazed.
From a publishing perspective, having written nonfiction is a bonus. It helps build that essential platform, and marks you out as knowledgeable in your field. Publishers and readers gravitate towards writers with a proven track record, and writing nonfiction is a powerful way of showing you know your stuff. Fiction writers can only prove this by weaving in their research with the narrative.
Backing up your novel with a chunky nonfiction book, journals, articles, and/or essays is highly impressive. Ayn Rand was a novelist, but also wrote several nonfiction works explaining the Objectivist philosophy that underpinned her fiction works. And who hasn’t heard of author memoirs?
The more diverse your output, the better. Motivated by certain subjects, you may choose to write nonfiction later in your writing career. You often see this with journalists who collate their articles into an anthology, or write a book expounding on a particular subject that affects them or the world today. Since journalists face strict word counts and deadlines, they often transfer this experience into attractive and engaging works.
As I said, there are no limits for writers and what they choose to explore. Nonfiction can be an inspiring and motivating path for writers to express their viewpoints, ideas, and experiences.
4. “But it won’t sell! Who buys nonfiction, anyway?”
Who doesn’t buy nonfiction? Your local library needs it, as do schools, universities, students, research faculties, writers, think tanks, journalists, governments and so on. Many of these categories could survive without fiction, but not nonfiction. Indeed, nonfiction shows you how to write fiction; writers need technique books. So do artists. Gardeners, midwives, mathematicians, linguists, lawyers and so on all have a pressing need for specialist nonfiction relevant to their field. Fiction? Not so much, though I bet quite a few lawyers like John Grisham (who is an attorney).
Given how quickly life changes, nonfiction must constantly be updated. Few fiction authors need to rewrite another edition of their books to keep up with the latest trends and research. They would simply write another book. But nonfiction writers, even outside of academics, must often amend and write new editions of their works. This ensures a regular stream of income, as well as a worldwide audience.
This isn’t limited to subjects like Tort Law and ancient Greek. In historical biographies, you see a stream of new works on the same old people: Henry VIII, Lenin, President Lincoln… Why? Research is neverending. Excavations, lab tests, preserved documents, new artifacts, and uncovered witness statements all add to, update, or completely overthrow our existing knowledge. More information, more books. Nonfiction feeds that demand more so than fiction, which more often responds to timeless themes in society, such as love, adventure, mystery, and moral instruction.
5. “But I don’t have time for chunky nonfiction books!”
So read an article instead. Watch a documentary, follow a journal, listen to podcasts, buy a magazine. Specialists aren’t just pumping out books; they also contribute to bite-sized snippets you can fit into a busy day. I buy The New Scientist regularly and highlight articles I need for my crime fiction. And even though we’re well-cautioned not to believe everything written online, there are numerous accredited sites in almost every field where experts can give you the facts. And, should this information change substantially, an update is just a click away. Far easier than amending a bibliography or appendix!
I’m a huge fan of documentaries. The presenters often have written nonfiction books, too. Again, modern audiovisual techniques have brought complex subjects to life, many of them under an hour long.
You don’t need to be an “expert” to understand nonfiction. And what are experts except people who sit down and read more than everyone else? You don’t need a degree, or to declare yourself a nerd to read nonfiction.
This was a huge learning curve for me: I used to hate science and mathematics. Now I can’t get enough of either. People limit themselves far too often, and I see nonfiction as a powerful tool to push the boundaries and bring the world to us on a platter.
On that note, I’d like you to imagine all the ways nonfiction could enrich your life. Can you think of any new subjects you’d like to explore? Research topics that might improve your fictional works? Remember: there are no limits to nonfiction. Maybe you’ll even publish your own someday!
Other articles on reading and writing nonfiction:
Cait Reynolds| If You Write Fiction, Read Nonfiction
Nonfiction Authors Association | The Real Benefits of Writing A Nonfiction Book
Self Publishing Advice Center | 6 Good Reasons To Write A Nonfiction Book
Barbara Doyen | Why Write Nonfiction
Deborah blogs at Story Scribes. She loves Victorian murder mysteries, steak, and Mathematics. Not all at the same time.