ABC’s of Fiction Writing: N is for Nonfiction

Posted by on Mar 15, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Nick MancusoBefore you stop me and put up your hands, I know. I know, you thought this was the ABC’s of Fiction Writing, and here I am, opening with “N is for Nonfiction.” Bear with me. I’ll make it worth your time.

My native style is fiction, and frankly, I feel a discomfort with nonfiction. There’s an insistence on honesty and an inability to bend the characters and events to fit what you’re trying to accomplish. I get it. As uncomfortable as this alliance with the enemy is, trust me, when you take that risk and venture into the unknown territory by adding the spice of nonfiction, I know you’ll significantly boost the flavor of your story.

The truth of the matter is, without nonfiction, fiction is very often flat, one-sided and unrealistic. Despite how compelling you may believe your characters to be, without a grounding in reality for the reader to stand on as they watch the drama unfold, you’ve already lost them.

Let’s take a second and try an exercise. Close your eyes (it’s hard to do while reading, I’m aware). Think about your favorite novel or short story. What was realistic about the story? Was it the characters? Was the setting a historical point in time? Was the character a specific occupation? What about it made it seem real to you?

In one of my favorite novels, Saturday, Ian McEwan writes the story of one Saturday in the life of a London neurosurgeon, Dr. Henry Perowne. Yes, it’s a Saturday, but it’s not just any random Saturday. McEwan chose Saturday February 15th 2003 specifically, and conducted in-depth research into what transpired on that day. Henry Perowne gets stopped in traffic by an anti-Iraq-War protest, the largest in Europe that took place in London on that day. He witnesses an emergency landing of a plane at Heathrow. By using these real-life events in text, and showing his character’s reaction to it, McEwan grabs us by the collar and pulls us into his narrative. I immediately recalled watching the news about the protest in London. I remember the long pan over the crowd on the news, their breath frosting into a cloud. The thing is, by tapping in and using this real-life event, I believed everything else about Perowne’s world. It was like a confirmation, an endorsement; if we know the protest happened, my brain postulated, is it that hard to believe that there is a London neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne? Of course it isn’t.

Beyond McEwan, for us as fiction writers, assigning actual dates to some events in text can be enormous help to building and showing character. (See my last contribution to Spry, C is for Character.) When I first started writing my novel, I knew I wanted it to take place in the late 1990’s, and I wanted the characters to grow and age over seven or eight years. Midway through the planning, I realized that my characters would experience watching the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. This entirely reshaped the last third of my novel, and it allowed me to immerse my own memories and emotions into them, to deepen their characters, to make them grieve along with the rest of the nation.

Adding nonfiction is also great for adding plot drama. In one chapter, I had a character bring home a new girlfriend to meet his family in Maine. I knew it would take place roughly in September 1999. I ran a quick Google search on that month and discovered Hurricane Floyd made landfall in Maine in mid-September. Suddenly a scene emerged in my head, the family at wit’s end with each other, their frustrations and anger boiled to the surface, all the while trapped in their home as a category two hurricane raged outside. It made for one of the strongest chapters in my novel, simply by googling historical events for the approximate month the chapter was taking place.

Really what I’m getting at here, is that by peppering in nonfiction, your reader, a real person who lives in reality, is given something on which to stand. It gives them a foothold, a foundation, a grounding that assures them that the world they’re reading about, no matter how fantastic or magical or foreign, is the same world they occupy.

When nonfiction is woven into fiction as seamlessly as it is in Saturday, we find our lives held up in front of us in a mirror. It’s reflected in a way so perfectly because of research and study. As we stare, we aren’t aware that what we’re seeing is a facsimile at all and we believe that this day of the week, this random, chilly day, in February is as real as any Saturday we’ve ever known. That’s some pretty powerful stuff.

Nick Mancuso earned his Bachelor of Arts in Literary Studies from Bryant University, and his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. Despite being a Connecticut native, he presently lives in and is learning to love Boston, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Rhode Island Small Business Journal and the Garbanzo Literary Journal. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

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