Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I love reading and writing fiction, I love reading and writing nonfiction – as do many of my fellow INK bloggers.

So Rosalyn Schanzer’s blog earlier this month (April 6) on fiction vs. nonfiction got me thinking. I don’t mean to argue with Ros – I agree with everything she said about nonfiction. I guess I just squirm a bit at the “vs” in her title.

The Case for Fiction

Ros and I both write historical fiction and all the delights she described for nonfiction apply. (I expect she would agree.) My first novel, about Elizabethan London, is coming out next year, and I had a glorious time traveling, meeting people, discovering stories, and learning new things – all her nonfiction perks. I’ve got a contemporary novel in-progress and I’ve done all those things for that too.

All my published fiction has been based on actual historical events around which I build a story. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds – I can fill in the gaps and elucidate the history by creating extra characters and scenes, but I can also lean on history to help me construct the plot. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. (Few things about writing are easy.)

Complaints, Complaints

When I get stuck writing fiction I often complain (to myself) that nonfiction is a whole lot easier, because I know what happens all along the way. When I get stuck writing nonfiction I often complain (to myself) that it’s so much harder relying only on historical evidence – or the lack thereof – and if only I could make it all up! However, after I finish ranting (to myself,) I admit that each genre offers an equal number of challenges – and rewards.

What I Like Best About Each Genre That The Other Doesn’t Offer

Fiction: I love creating dialogue, letting my characters talk it out, joke, complain, argue, and reveal themselves through their conversations.

Nonfiction: I love digging through my heaps of research and turgid first draft to discover the theme of a biography or general nonfiction topic, all the while staying within bounds of the evidence.

As I think about it, writing both fiction and nonfiction probably increases my facility in each genre. Because I write fiction, I find it a bit easier bringing historical figures to life and constructing a narrative arc to tell a nonfiction story. Because I write nonfiction, I know how to ferret out the details of period and setting to enrich my fictional world.

I’ve heard industry folks say that it’s not a smart career move to wander back and forth through the genres – not to mention age levels – because they can’t “place” you in the market. But it’s a habit I’m not about to break. I’ve having too much fun.


Jessica said...

Really great post,Gretchen. As a nonfiction writer currently trying my hand at fiction for the first time, this is all really helpful info. Of course, my #1 issue (as you pointed out), is not being able to rely on facts to help drive the story along. But knowing that my nonfiction 'backbone' can ultimately help is quite nice!

I've also heard it's unwise to work in both genres, but feel compelled to try it anyways - it's great to see you're so successful at balancing these two forms of writing- Thanks for posting this!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Fun post, Gretchen, and thanks for mentioning me and my blog in your own blog on this subject. But I have to add a correction! I do not write historical fiction. With only 4 exceptions for much earlier books of fiction, all of my books for the past 13 years have been pure nonfiction!! (Of course I'd love to have your option of creating entertaining dialog, but I don't. I do love adding amazing quotes form the real folks though. And like you, I like to use a storyteller voice to make history come to life, even though every word is true.)

April Pulley Sayre said...

Gretchen, terrific post! I'm so glad you mentioned this. Historical fiction writers, fantasy writers, and so many other kinds of fiction writers do a lot of research for the physical and emotional details in their books. I remember one fantasy writer telling about researching birds of prey and caves in order to write about dragon-like creatures. So it's not just the territory of nonfiction. I don't think we nonfiction authors should get on our high horse about being the only researchers in the field.

Carmela Martino said...

Very insightful post, Gretchen. Like you, I like to ground my fiction in real-life events, whether my own or those of others. My problem: I love the research aspect of both fiction and nonfiction so much that it can be huge distraction at times. :-)

Anonymous said...

As a reader, I can appreciate an author who writes fiction and non-fiction. If your researched your topic well for that fiction piece, writing that non-fic will verify your expertise and make me want to read the fiction that much more.