Marissa Lingen raises an interesting question for any writer: How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction?
For me, they overlap significantly. I’m not prepared to say that they’re identical, because writing 750 words on Hilbert spaces for an encyclopedia and writing 750 words of short-short story are not at all similar for me. But, for example, telling a story about my cousin and telling a story about one of my characters are not all that dissimilar. I think most people tell stories about their family and friends naturally, without necessarily identifying what they’re doing or how they’re doing it, so it’s harder to apply it to fictional characters because it feels like your ordinary conversational stories are just saying what really happened, and with fiction, that’s not an option.
I’ve written nonfiction in the form of newspaper articles, longer magazine pieces and a book-length work of narrative history, the last published a couple of years ago as The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. I’ve also written several novels, the first three of which were tyro jobs that will probably never be published, but the rest of which may yet see the light of print via the good offices of my invincible agent.
Personally, I think of fiction and nonfiction as arms strengthening each other. Writing nonfiction instills the necessity for thorough research and good organization of one’s materials. Writing fiction keeps one aware of the need for narrative drive and convincing presentation. (The amateur writer’s last-ditch defense for unconvincing fiction — “But it really happened!” — only works in nonfiction, and not always there, either.)
In my case, research provides fodder for my imagination. I enjoy and admire a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but I have no gift for writing it. My mind tilts toward social realism, and the years I spent in the county courthouse — particularly the times I pitched in on covering trials — fired my imagination in all kinds of ways.
And if my agent can pull some of my projects out of the quicksand of the publishing industry slowdown, you may get a chance to see where that imagination led me.