Thursday, September 12, 2019

Non-Fiction Can Improve Your Fiction

For 40 years I wrote non-fiction almost every day of the week as a television journalist. On weekends I wrote fiction just to soothe my soul. That was the fun sort of writing where I got to take those people I wanted to tell off in real life or whose stories I couldn’t change in real life could be turned into stories with a happy ending. In those fiction stories my characters got to tell off their bosses and to dress any way they wanted or to be whatever they wanted to be or whatever I wanted them to be.

That is the joy of writing fiction – You get to be the person who makes all the rules and sets the scenes and say whatever you want the characters to say. 

But sometimes it makes sense to try writing non fiction too. It can actually help you develop as a fiction writer. This week I spent time conducting interviews for a non-fiction biography series. It meant coming up with questions and then making notes about what the people were saying and listening carefully to their words because the stories are going to be real when they appear on the air. As I sat listening, it occurred to me how helpful these non-fiction interviews could be for my fiction writing. Sometimes when you are writing fiction you forget how important non-fiction can be.

I did a Skype session recently with someone half way across the country and the result worked out well for all of us. I got my questions answered and the interaction was more personal than a simple phone conversation.  Actually, listening to people answer questions and then getting those answers down word for word can be useful later. Coming up with the interview questions can also be helpful for a fiction writer – 

Why not interview your characters just like you might interview a real person?  

How would you interview them? 
What would you ask them? 
What would they say? 
 How would they sound? 
How would you tell a story about them from what they say? 

Character interviews can provide valuable information as you describe your character to an agent or editor, but it can also be valuable information for you on a daily basis as you continue to write the story. It can help you to get to know your character better and perhaps understand your hero or heroine more. An interview with the villain might get you to understand his/her motives better as well. The interviews we did this week were about based around one person and while I've suggested interviewing your main character, it might also be helpful to interview peripheral characters or friends about that main character. How do they see the hero or heroine? What drew them to the person? What so they see as his/her goals or accomplishments?  

You might also apply the non-fiction interview to location as well. Think about the questions you might have if you were  doing a magazine story about your story location or visiting a real place. What would you ask to introduce that location to non-fiction readers who might be reading the story and needed to visualize the location?  Actually why not try to get that magazine story sold?  It can be an extension of your writing salary.  

Thinking about how to write non fiction can also be useful in doing your research. What kind of questions do you need to develop to interview the coroner for your murder mystery? What if you are basing your cozy mystery in a bakery? How much do you know about how the bakery operates?  Knowing  how to interview the person in charge can be useful, instead of just floundering around looking for information. Do a Skype interview with someone if they aren't located near you. 

Here are some ideas for conducting those non fiction interviews:

1. Know your questions in advance – people from police officers to bakers are willing to respond to your questions but have at least a few written down in advance so you have a starting point.

2. Research and know at least a little bit about the subject so that your questions are informed. No one wants to have to explain even the most basic elements to you.

3. Let the interview subjects  talk.  Don’t start interrupting immediately. If you think of another question as they are talking, write it down to ask later.  That means…

4. Take good notes or record the conversation so that you have the information available to you later. 

5. Set up the interview in advance. Don’t just show up and expect a person to be prepared to talk to you.

6. Be courteous and thank them and leave your contact information so that they can get in touch with you if they have anything else to say.

7. If you are going to record the conversation, be sure to ask.  Usually they are fine with the idea, but you’re not going undercover here. If you want information for a story, let them know exactly what you’re doing.

These are just a few tips to help you get information. You can also either conduct the interview over the phone or in person. If you are going to do it in person, you might ask a few questions during the set up, just to let them know what sort of things you’ll be asking.

Interviewing subjects and background information can be very helpful to a writer for more than just fiction. Think about writing a blog on what you learned or even an article for a community newspaper. Fiction writing is fun, but sometimes you can find non-fiction writing to be valuable and fun as well!   s

Any questions??  Please feel free to ask!

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