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.

Why I write like I do…

Unlike some authors,  I do not write in just one genre.  I let the story idea dictate which category it fits into so that way I do not force a hard edge sci-fi story like Life In The Fast Lane into a detective story such as A Notary Public Is Missing!.   

The late author, Michael Chricton, wrote the same way.  For example, would the theme of Jurassic Park fit into the storyline of Exposure?  That would be doubtful.  More than likely he, like me, had ideas about stories and wrote them in the genre that served them best.

Unlike this great author, though, I only write short stories.  I have tried to write novels but no idea will stick in my brain long enough to complete one.  I have to get stories out of my fractured mind before I forget what I am writing about.

One other thing about my writing is that I frequently create my stories and characters out of real-life situations and real people that I know.  I only change their names to protect me from the innocent.

For instance, the latest victim of The Prime Cut Killer in my story Tat is based on a real-life bartender who is every bit as beautiful as described in the story. When I showed her the final work, her only objection to it was that she was dead.  When I told her that she would be the lead supporting actress, and possible co-star, if the story were made into a movie, she dropped her objection.  Hollywood is waiting.

Not only that, the story Tat is based on a real-life incident that occurred in the very same bar where she works.

In this blog, I will be going behind the scenes of my works to reveal what lead me to write a story. I have given talks on this matter and people are often surprised at how little an incident needs to be to get me going.  Sometimes it is just a word or a sporadic action that lights the fire and, believe it or not, I never know in advance what it will be.

I will also be talking about the art of writing.  Not so much how to do it but how and where to find inspiration to do it along with examples from my life.  I will offer advice to new authors as well.