Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fueling Fiction with Nonfiction

My novel involves arson, and my agent suggested I read the nonfiction book, FIRE LOVER, by Joseph Waumbaugh. I'm not an avid nonfiction reader, and I approached this assignment with trepidation. After finishing the book, I realized how effectively nonfiction can strengthen our fiction. Here's how:
  • It goes well beyond the cursory internet search. Yes, we can gather information from Google, but a biography or real-crime thriller delves deeper into motive, personality, and childhood issues.
  • Word choice bonanza. Holy cow. This book was a treasure trove of unique words regarding my book's subject. I plucked out great words, and now I'm sprinkling them in my manuscript. I found slang, synonyms, and words with more zing. Clever words changed the whole tenor of the book.
  • World building. My husband is a firefighter, so I thought I knew all there was to know about arson and the firefighting world. I was wrong. After finishing this book, I realized I only knew surface information.
  • Nonfiction deepens character. What motivates someone to start a fire? Or rob a bank? Or abuse a child? Or commit suicide? Nonfiction explores the why, and helps a writer create complex & believable characters.
  • It teaches how to distribute important information. Nonfiction is full of valuable details, but if the writer did their job, it's layered, built upon, and interesting. FIRE LOVER read like a novel, avoiding information dumps. Even though I knew the outcome of the true story, I was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes scoop.
Reading this book took precious time, something writers have little of, but for me it was time well spent. My hope is that it'll enrich my story.

Have you ever read nonfiction to support your fiction? Did it help?

45 comments:

  1. I've read a lot of non-fiction to support my writing. It's amazing how much information you can get.

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  2. I am doing more nonfiction reading now too. Like you, it's never been what I normally gravitate to, but if it's done well, it can be just as entertaining as fiction.

    As such, I'm not consulting nonfiction more often in order to bolster my writing.

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  3. Definitely! I think it helps make a more rounded world. A great tip!

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  4. I read up on spiders and other animals when writing a fantasy novel, but haven't read many non-fiction books like "Fire Lover."

    I love the idea of highlighting new words, though. I don't know if I could bring myself to mark up a book, but I'm always on the look out for new juicy words to steal!

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  5. Very interesting tip! I've been writing for years and rarely hear of something new and exciting to help with my work. I often read nonfiction for research but this is a different approach to doing that.

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  6. That's a great tip! I'm writing a thriller, and nonfiction would be a great way to help get into the mind of my antagonist. Thanks for the tip!

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  7. This is so true. I'm really big on research even though my stories are fiction also, I love throwing some facts and even some history in my stories. I think it just makes everything blend better. Whenever I read a novel laced with facts, I admire the author so much more. Glad this worked out so well for you.

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  8. Awesome post, and so true. Every little thing we learn helps strengthen our writing, but it's the big things that deepen the subject. =o)

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  9. No, I never really have. I've enjoyed lots of non-fiction, and used some science books to help on fiction but not something like this. Thanks, Julie, for this great post!

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  10. I have always read nonfiction along with fiction. I also write nonfiction, so yes, it does inform my fiction writing. I think I would gravitate towards it for research more than anything else.
    Karen

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  11. Since I read & write both fiction & non-fiction I always do my research. I do both online & library research & then there's the stuff in the kitchen when I really test out my bath & body recipes!

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  12. Absolutely! I wrote a book that took place in Peru and although I'd spent some time in the country and had several "expert readers" to help me with culture, language, and setting, I also read Inca Kola by Matthew Parris. It provided me with a wealth of information that I could only have obtained from someone traveling through the country as an outsider. That book is dog-eared from all the time I spent digging through it!

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  13. I read non-fiction for research all the time! I love it. Aside from experiencing something myself it is the best way to go. I've learned a lot of really interesting things that way.

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  14. One more thought :)--I've found that personal accounts and stories are usually more helpful for my writing than, say, a travel guide or how-to book. Although I need facts when I write, I have a greater need for the personal angle--how individuals experience a place, event, or activity.

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  15. What an excellent point that hardly anyone ever brings up! It's another, and far more detailed form of research, right? That makes me think... perhaps I should look into some non-fiction for my WIP

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  16. Great point! Nonfiction is a wonderful research tool. It can help to make your fiction realistic, and the better ground your fiction is, the better the story is overall. Wonderful post!

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  17. Awesome post. And yes! Usually my stories have something that needs to be researched. And just reading one or two books I find a treasure trove of great sensory details, plot threads, and word choices. Definitely worth taking the time to read nonfiction for your story!

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  18. I think reading non fiction is a great way to get a handle and a firm one on a topic that might not come naturally to us. . . or even one that feels totally foreign at first. Good post.

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  19. Anytime I can learn something REAL from fiction, I feel that much more ahead. Nice post.

    Lois
    Life of Lois

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  20. Laura Pauling made a great point about sensory details. This book had tons of those also.

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  21. I've never read a nonfiction book for the purpose of learning more for a story I was writing--but I probably should. It sounds like a great way of getting information!

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  22. As a matter of fact, yes. Right now, I'm reading a book on Wicca so I can make my book with witches more authentic. I too have used Google, but it only gets me so far. Sometimes I have to use books, interviews, and Lydia Kang's Medical Mondays.

    Good luck with your research!

    P.S. I get into nonfiction sometimes. Depends on the subject and how it was written.

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  23. Great post!! I'm really connecting with your #2: Word Bonanza. It makes sense, like 'Right out of the mouth of babes.' :)

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  24. Excellent post. I read tons of history books to mesh in the era I write with the story and characters.

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  25. Great reminder, Julie! Aren't we lucky to have so many interesting and different books to draw on? I haven't read a lot of non-fiction in the last couple of years, but need to start again.

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  26. It is a great resource, you can truly get in the head of the characters. It's a very common practice for TV shows, actors in a crime drama will do a 'ride along' for behavior, material and just in-depth insight. Reading non-fiction, visiting locations or hanging out with those in our character roles are our equivalent 'ride alongs.' Great find.

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  27. I'm reading a really good non-fiction book right now about false repressed memories, excellent fodder for a serious suspense story.

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  28. I read a lot of guide-books on Paris, and then changed to art history books dealing with Paris around Picasso's era, as this was far more the feel I wanted to inject into my novel. I'd never thought to read something more technical though...
    Lx

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  29. Nope. Like you I am not a big nonfiction reader. I do see (after this post) how it can help get a better understanding of the world we are trying to create in our fiction.

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  30. It's cool to find a symbiotic relationship between your MS and a non-fiction work. I agree with you that non-fiction knowledge adds great layers to a MS.

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  31. Yes, I do research anything that calls for it in my fiction so I get the details and facts correct. I don't believe I've ever read such an extensive work for research, and it sounds like quite a gem and will enrich your ms. Sounds like it's creative nonfiction. That's cool that your agent recommended that you read it.

    I keep a journal of every book I read and jot down any cool words that I want to use. Just the act of writing it down helps me to remember it better.

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  32. I read about a few disorders for my new wip that's out on submission right now. It helped me more than internet research ever did.

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  33. Great idea, Julie. I will definitely keep that in mind.

    -Jimmy

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  34. Great post, Julie. Now I'd better go back to that biography of Theodore Herzl (research for my YA fiction).

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  35. I don't read tons of nonfiction either - but you're so right about it. It can enrich and enhance our fiction writing. This one sounds like a winner!

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  36. I agree. I'm reading some nonfiction now to give my YA story added authenticity. I've been amazed at some of the details and texture I've gathered. I'm sure I'll use some of it to enrich my story. I expect other bits will inform my writing and give me added confidence during the process.

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  37. I read a little non fiction to enhance my book and add authenticity. I was surprised at the information and research I came across.Wish I had the sense to read the non fiction before, but better late than never.

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  38. How interesting. I've done research for my novel project, and I read the SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR. It really helped me understand one of my characters better.

    Good luck with revisions! :)

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  39. No, I haven't, and now I'm wondering why. What an excellent source of info. :)

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  40. Great post - something I should keep in mind when it comes to my own writing!

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  41. Great question. All the time. I read Michio Kaku all the time. What an inspiration! Same with Stephen Hawking. I would not be where I am today without non-fiction like this.

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  42. Very cool, especially the vocab angle. I have definitely read up on book topics before as my books are often mysteries and so book elements aren't just details to enrich the characters and scenes, they are often clues as well, meaning I have to know all I can about what I'm scribbling about to make it work with the plot. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  43. I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction. I think it's just that I enjoy learning stuff. I've never thought more about targeted reading though, like you suggest. Sounds like a good idea.

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  44. That's so great that this nonfiction book helped you so much. I would definitely read a nonfiction book if the subject would help me make my book better. I think it would be fun, especially if I'm fascinated by the topic.

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