The Art of Non-Fiction

In my last blog post, I may have seemed to indicate that writing non-fiction required no imagination, but that was not my intent.  As someone who has written numerous non-fiction articles and one book in this genre, I know that it does take some imagination, just not as much as it does when you write a fiction story from scratch.

One day, many years ago, I received a call from a man who liked a letter to the editor (a topic I will cover in the next blog) that I wrote and was published in the local paper.  It was a letter condemning the war in Iraq as being senseless and unnecessary.  We talked at length on the subject during which time I found out that the caller was 99 years old and had been working in Democratic politics for over 70 years.  This made me realize that I was talking to a man who most likely had voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Upon inquiry, he told me had done so–three times.  I was floored and I told him that I was interested in writing an article about a man who had been involved in party politics for such a long time.  I wanted to write a “living history” piece about it.  The man was very humble with his response but agreed to meet with me and discuss the idea.  So we made a date for me to go over to his house; when I got there and met William LeCrone Hammaker, my story idea went into the shredder.

The reason for this was due to the fact that I found out that Bill had a greater interest in another subject than that of politics; he was far more interested in the promotion of peace in our world.  So much so, that was the longest active member in the history of a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) http://forusa.org/  Among his contemporaries in this group was the late Martin Luther King.  After our interview, I went home, read over all the notes I had taken, then let my imagination kick in.  I didn’t change the facts one iota, but I did come up with a catchy title for Bill that stayed with him until his death three years later at the age of 102.  I dubbed him “The Professor of Peace”.  He loved the title and the recognition it brought to his work.  You can read about this remarkable man here: http://www.vcstar.com/opinion/at-100-years-old-william-l-hammaker-still-for  (this is a re-print of my earlier article, it was re-printed on his 100th birthday).

I was lucky that I was doing this job as a freelancer.  Had I been assigned to do this story by a magazine or newspaper, I would have had to stick to the story line but instead, I was able to use my imagination to write the story with a different angle to it and bring some satisfaction to Bill and his family.

When writing non-fiction, the question “What if…” is not so much a factor as the questions of Who? What? When? Where? and How?  By asking them, you can see that the curiosity that drives the mind of a fiction author, also drives the mind of a non-fiction author since most of the time all of these questions need to be answered in a work of non-fiction.  Then they have to be presented in a way that will hold an editor’s and an audience’s interest.

I remember a time when the Why? question came to my mind.  I remember it clearly; I was driving in my car going around a corner in front of the now defunct Montgomery Ward store in my town when a song on the radio ended and the DJ announced that the band who performed the song was The Goo Goo Dolls.  I thought, “Why would anyone want a band name like that?”  So I set out looking for the answer.  Around 150 band names later, I found what I was looking for and I had a large database of band name origins so I decided to add a few hundred more and came up with this book: You’re the Who?: A guide to classic band name origins + rock connections!  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0073YIU30

The only “problem” with writing non-fiction is that you have to stick to the facts whereas with fiction, if a fact does not exist, you can just make it up.  It takes a great deal self-control to keep from embellishing a non-fiction story to make it more interesting so it will produce a sale, but with the right amount of skill and some imagination, you’ll find that embellishment is not needed.

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