A reader of the Ask the Book Doctor Blog recently asked, “What's the difference between narrative nonfiction and memoir?”
It's an important question for family historians as well as memoirists.
Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications responded, “All memoirs [family histories] and biographies are considered narrative nonfiction...”
For authors seeking contracts terminology is important. Slotting the book – the industry term for how to market the book and shelf it in the bookstore – is essential in pitching a book to an agent or publisher.
For authors who are planning to self publish the term is not so critical, but what is important about what it says about what makes a good memoir or family history.
The key word is narrative. Merriam – Webster online say it's “the representation in art of an event or story.” Too often memoirists and family historians see themselves as writing a historical record, or as just reporting the facts. As a historian myself, I would suggest that the narrative style of a writer like David McCulloch or Barbara Tuchman a generation earlier, who present history as a story is far more pleasing to readers than authors who employ a purely factual, academically reportorial style.
Christmas advises, “Well-written memoirs [and family histories] include vignettes or scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends and include action, dialogue, narrative, settings, and other elements of fiction to make readers feel as though they are watching the story unfold.”
The family historian who tells the stories that lie behind the facts of pedigree charts and GEDCOM files can draw readers into her account. That's why genealogy research should always be accompanied by the search for family stories to bring ancestors to life. It's also why we often advocate employing the techniques of creative non-fiction to make tell those stories more vividly.