Nonfiction writers can learn a great deal about writing from Sherlock Holmes.
True, Holmes never wrote a word. Dr. Watson served as his Boswell, faithfully reporting the stories of the famous sleuth.
Think instead about what made Holmes the world’s most memorable detective? It was not his investigative skill. He didn’t gather a mountain of facts. What he did was to make brilliant deductions based on inferences from a few facts which allowed him to construct a narrative of the entire case.
Why is that important for a nonfiction writer? Because it represents a mindset almost totally opposite to the one most nonfiction authors adopt. They set out to gather all of the facts about a subject and then display them before their reader.
What’s wrong with that?
The most important thing is that all of the facts usually aren’t available. That often causes the author to focus on and be frustrated by what he doesn’t know. He puts his researcher hat back on and the actual writing of the book recedes off into some indeterminate future. The family historian who encounters a period in an ancestor’s life he just can’t account for feels unable to tell the part of the ancestor’s story he does know.
A Holmesian approach would focus on the facts that are known. What inferences can be drawn about the kind of person the ancestor was, what he believed in, and what he valued from those facts? One can know a great deal about a person’s character without knowing every detail of his life.
Pulitizer Prize-winning nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder and his long time editor Richard Todd offered an interesting insight into the process of writing in their book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction when they said:
When it comes to creating the illusion of human beings in stories, writers of fiction and nonfiction still have the distinctive and necessary task of getting the reader to do the necessary work of imagining.
The key is not in marshaling all of the facts to create a photographic picture for reader, but to make the reader an artist imagining his own picture of a character using the limited information at hand. Focus on what you do know. What does that suggest about your ancestor?
If you can’t find the specifics about your ancestor, what were contemporaries who were his neighbors like? Might your ancestor have shared similar experiences, beliefs, and experiences? What happened in your ancestor’s time and place? Is it likely that your ancestor would have participated in these events? How might he have felt about the events going on around him?
Will your inferences allow you to know with certainty about any of these things? Maybe not absolutely, but they will allow you to imagine a pretty good portrait of that person.
Is the picture you and your reader imagine fact? Is it legitimate in nonfiction to speculate about who a person was, or what they might have thought or done? It certainly is. Professional historians do it all the time. They understand that they’ll never have all the facts about people or events in the past. So they gather the facts they have, draw some inferences from them, construct a narrative, and publish it. Do they always agree? No. Look at the wildly different ways historians have viewed a figure like Thomas Jefferson. Does that make the efforts of the competing historians any less valid? Certainly not.
In writing nonfiction your job is to find as many facts as you can about a person or event, recognizing that you probably won’t find everything you would like to, then use your imagination to deduce as much as you can about that person or those events.
Einstein observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Sherlock Holmes would have agreed.
Great stories, fiction or nonfiction, depend not upon gathering every factual detail of a story, but on triggering the active imagination and seeing where it takes you and your reader.