I’ve now published three fiction novels and written one non-fiction book. I studied Journalism in college, I’ve done two internships as a reporter and blogged for a long time. Writing a non-fiction book turned out to be quite different from what I was expecting. But now that it’s done, I’m going to take the lessons I’ve learned and be more prepared for my next non-fiction project. Hopefully you can use some of what I learned in your own non-fiction writing.
1. Writing non-fiction involves more research than actual writing.
Of course, this depends on what kind of non-fiction book you’re working on, but if it’s a story involving something that happened in the past, true events involving real people, etc., then this applies. I was surprised how quickly the writing came together once I was satisfied with the amount of research I did. Since my book involved a long time period (about 50 years), having a timeline set up in a simple table document was incredibly useful.
Thankfully, I love doing research. When I started researching burglary for the Molly Miranda series, it’s almost certain that I spent too much time researching and delayed the actual writing process by months.
2. When intimate details of an event are scarce, an author must choose between accuracy and entertainment.
The unfortunate fact is that most intimate details used for describing an event aren’t available to us. We don’t know how things were said. We don’t know what a person wore when they said them. Sometimes the exact words aren’t even available. These are the types of details that bring a story to life, and are often not available to non-fiction authors.
I recently read a fantastic non-fiction book about Jospeh Lister, the doctor who developed methods of surgical hygiene in Victorian Britain. Author Lindsey Fitzharris used poetic license to create fictional details and intertwine them into real events, turning a topic that could have been painfully dry and boring into a very readable and enjoyable creative non-fiction story.
For my book, I chose accuracy in order to keep everything short and sweet but I had to depend on wit, casual writing and brevity to keep it from being painfully dull.
3. I really, really like writing dialogue.
I included direct statements in The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII whenever I could because I love dialogue. A few snippets are available to us from the 1500s English court, but not much. Writing conversations between characters is my favorite thing about writing fiction and I missed it terribly while writing my non-fiction book.
Have you written a non-fiction book? If so, what did you learn from your first experience writing one?
Jillianne Hamilton is the author of Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, its two action/comedy sequels, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII. She is also a graphic designer, a hoarder of podcasts and a history enthusiast. Learn more.