Improving on Reality by Writing Non Fiction 1 (Why bother?)

Writing falls into two very broad categories; Fiction and non fiction. The conventional wisdom, at least for beginning writers, seems to be that fiction is the way to go because non-fiction is much more difficult and demanding. Non fiction requires that the author be an authority on the subject and must tackle the mysterious and forbidding world of research.

If it’s really that intimidating, it’s a wonder anybody writes non fiction, but is it really that bad?

Well, not really. Nobody who is writing fiction should be afraid to try non fiction. The reason is simple: if you are writing fiction, you are already writing non fiction. Look at it this way. Fiction has to be believable, and that means it has to be firmly grounded in reality. That means the characters have to act and react as real people do; places have to have the look and feel of real places, and details have to be accurate and fit in with the story. In short, every work of fiction must be firmly grounded in non fiction elements. So, if you are writing fiction, you are already writing non fiction.

Well, that’s all well and good, but you still have to have to do all that research and getting the facts right. So why would anyone bother writing non fiction when you can just make things up? Why muck around with all that research and fact checking? After all, with fiction, you are in control; you are the god of your particular universe. With non-fiction, though, you are at the mercy of other people and events. Someone else is calling the shots. Well, there are several reasons you might want to go the non fiction route in spite of its drawbacks:

1- Maybe you just like non fiction better.

There are many readers who won’t touch fiction, preferring the real world and believing they are learning something as well as being entertained. Maybe you are the same way. Maybe you just enjoy the real world more than, say, Hogwarts. If this is the case, you will find non fiction writing more satisfying and rewarding. After all, if you don’t enjoy something, why do it? Certainly not for the money!

2-You want to actually add to the sum total of human knowledge.

When you research a non fiction work, you dig up facts and find sources to shed light on the topic. Sometimes you can find a whole new perspective or theory about a topic.In short, you can actually add to what people know about your topic in some small way.

3- You might want to shine a spotlight on a previously unknown or neglected topic.

Maybe you think the contributions of left-handed Methodists in the Quartermaster Service during the Boer War have been neglected for too long. Well, here’s your chance to make it right. Maybe you think the world is woefully ignorant of barn paining techniques in nineteenth century Nebraska. As the saying goes, you can make a difference. In my own case, I stumbled on the story of Ellis Parker, a New Jersey detective who got involved in the Lindbergh kidnapping case and obtained a signed confession from his suspect…after the state of New Jersey had sentenced someone else! The story was not unknown, but was regarded as a sidelight to the case. No one had even looked at Parker’s life and career in depth, and I thought it was a story worth telling. The result was Master Detective.


4- You are an unknown writer

Look, if you are famous already, you can write pretty much any old dreck and a fair number of people will buy it. If you’re also a good writer, like Steven King or Janet Evonovich, people will buy your work just based on your name and be glad they did. But if you’re an unknown, you have an uphill fight. This is where non fiction comes in, because when people consider buying non fiction, they are not as particular about how well known you are. Fiction buyers often go by the author’s name, and support their favorites. An unknown fiction writer has a hard time getting their attention, much less their money.

Fiction is a crowded field. If the buyer must choose between you and a “name” author, the name author will win every time. If you look through fiction listings, the stuff all starts to look the same. Consider the standard write up for a mystery for instance.

“When (fill in a quirky profession or personal trait here) Mary Smith visits (fill in random town, city, national park, or other quaint location here), she finds more than she bargained for when a corpse in found in the (fill in quirky location and/or position here). As she and her (BFF, mother, accountant, parole officer, fiancee, cat) investigate, they find the old (town, resort, train station, country club, mansion) holds dark secrets that no one wants them to know. Soon, another corpse turns up and Mary wonders if she’ll be next.”

If you are inclined to read something like this, why spend good money on an unknown?

Non fiction buyers, however, are looking for subject matter. If they think the subject of your book is one they would like, they will be far less particular about whether or not your name is well-known. If you are looking for a book on, say, Seventeenth century alternative lute tunings, and there is only one available, who cares if the author is J. Doppler Squidapple, Jr.? Of course, if you are writing a book about quantum physics in your spare time from your job as a billiard ball polisher, you might meet some sales resistance anyway, but by and large, your fame is not nearly as important in non fiction.

So now that we’ve covered why you might want to write non fiction, we’ll talk about how to get started in the next post.

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