A lot of people think creative nonfiction is an oxymoron.
If you are writing a memoir, a family history, reporting on current events or historical ones, you are writing about things that have already happened. Your job is to recount the facts of those events as they happened. You are a reporter. Where’s the creativity in that?
It’s in the way you choose to deal with the facts. Think of the way a young child recounts what happened. He presents a list of “This happened…” then “That happened…” statements as if the meaning of the events should then be self-evident. But meaning is really seldom self-evident. It is the role of the writer to turn the accounting of what happened into a narrative which captures the dramatic nature of the past and attempts to interpret its meaning.
Events in the past often appear chaotic and random. The writer imposes order upon them in the way he chooses to tell his story. In creating a plot or narrative arc he decides to focus on dramatic moments or turning points in the story. In doing so the author seeks to follow novelist Elmore Leonard’s advice , “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” What’s left is the basis for scenes that appear in the book.
In the scenes the author has chosen to include he employs all of the elements a fiction writer would. It all begins with strong characterization focusing on the protagonist’s goal and motivation for seeking it and the obstacles that stand in her way. Telling that story effectively requires creating a sense of time and place which involves both a description of the setting and the historical context for the unfolding events. A little targeted research helps the author recreate the world in which the events occurred. Diaries, journals, letters, newspaper reports and interviews can all help the writer to create the dialogue that might have occurred as the actual scenes unfolded.
What about chronology? The past has already happened. We know the order in which events occurred, you say. True, but a good story teller doesn’t always relate things in such a linear fashion. Kurt Vonnegut, in his rules on story writing, advised, “Start as close to the end as possible.” Using flashbacks and nonlinear narrative can make the story much more dramatic. Recognizing that events that will be responsible for the story’s conflict often occurred simultaneously and dealing with them as such can heighten the impending drama as the reader sees an impending collision as it approaches.
Most importantly a writer telling a story about real events that have already occurred must interpret them for his readers. This happened. So what? It is another element of good fiction – theme - that will help to capture the meaning of events. A well-written narrative has an important lesson or insight for its reader. In thinking about the events in your book what is that take away?
If you want to see some masters employing these techniques look at narrative historians like Bernard DeVoto or Barbara Tuchman, biographers David McCullough and Stacy Schiff, or memoirists Frank McCourt or Cheryl Strayed. All of them show creating an account of factual events is only enhanced by employing all of the tools at the story teller’s command.