A Note from the Editor:
I’m happy to publish this post today from a friend of the site, Peter Giblett, who won’t brag on himself but was instrumental in the creation of this blog early on. Welcome back Peter, we hope you’ll write more posts here in the future.
Kind regards, Scott
“Part of writing non-fiction means making a commitment to telling the truth.” Prof. Tilar J. Mazzeo of Colby College.
Part of the challenge for writers is the distinction between writing fictional and factual works. Fiction is written using imagined situations, but fictional stories may also spring from real events and involve real people. When writers present factual stories, told as non-fiction they must stay, wholly, in the realm of reality. There is a fine line between the two, explored here.
The Non-Fiction Contract
This is a basic agreement between the writer and the reader that that writer shall present the facts without fictionalizing any part of their story. They may interpret, bring their own experience to bear, in telling the story, but they must keep the story grounded. For their part, the reader will open their mind to what the writer is saying.
Most blogs are naturally non-fiction. Fiction Publishers agree that writers should write a blog, but also agree that fiction writers should not attempt to serialize their stories through their blog. Thus, many blogs by fictional writers are factual in nature. Bloggers, too, share a desire to personalize the stories they tell, yet must live by the limits of the non-fiction contract.
One form of writing that is most challenging is the memoir or historical writing. Telling stories about real events where little is known about what was said or thought is where specific challenges lie. History may know the action and consequences. Why the people did what they did is largely lost to time. Lost letters do pop up from time to time, and family stories abound, but it ‘s hard to know the truth of these handed down stories. Their impact on the reader today can be somewhat like listening to the result of Chinese whispers, the last story told. Stories change with their telling down the generations.
The characters may be real, but writers don’t wish to portray them as flat or emotionless. They want to put words into the mouths of the people involved. This is because stories are often best told through the words and thoughts of participants.
One problem is that two people will remember what happened very differently; therefore, a clear picture can be hard to find. I recall two people discussing an event we had all attended. While I Listened to them, it seemed clear they attended a different event than I had. Of course, they didn’t, neither were they lying, they simply recalled it differently and interpreted it in their own way based on their personal knowledge and experiences. This is a part of the challenge of documenting any event. There is more than one perspective and therefore more than one story that can be told.
Setting the scene.
Fiction and non-fiction both rely on a writer’s ability to set the scene. Part of this may be available from historical records, facts about the place where the event happened, what it looked like, the people present, etc. Documentation for the non-fiction writer must be factual and confined to whatever can be identified through research, nothing more, nothing less. There is a fine line between fact and interpretation.
History may differ to the way things occur today. Knowing what happened is important. The specific event may differ from others that occurred in the same area or at the same time. Those differences may be important and may impact the story being told. The duty of the non-fiction writer is not to invent the story; it can cause a serious writing challenge. Their research has led them to a particular point in time and space, where something happened.
How should events be interpreted? How do we write about things beyond our experience as a writer? Both are valid questions.
Part of the role of the writer is to interpret, to explain. Many things can be difficult to understand, and the writer should aim to bring clarity. Any writer tackling the same subject will tackle it slightly differently, and they may do so without breaking the non-fiction contract. There is nobody alive, today, who experienced what happened at The US Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787. Any modern writer looking back at a historical event must interpret what happened, why people acted the way they did. Though there are a vast collection of notes, diaries, etc., of this event.
Putting an alternative interpretation on a historical event can be very tough. Reality may fly in the face of what people believe happened. Breaking such assumptions may take more than a mountain of research. Changing minds requires solid evidence.
What does the reader expect? An important question for the factual writer. For an answer, we must surely start at the non-fiction contract. By declaring the writing as non-fiction, the reader expects to see facts laid out for them, yet not every fact can be clearly seen.
A Matter of Perspective
Any two people may have entirely different perspectives, in part based on nationality, religion, education, etc. The reader’s perspective will mean that facts can be viewed differently. For example: in the USA, the American Revolutionary War is a great revolutionary war which brought about the birth of a new nation. In Britain, the conflict called the American War of Independence is one of the darkest hours of the great empire and there is nothing revolutionary about it. Each side has a different perspective.
The writer’s background will determine how they would write about this conflict. Similarly, it also impacts how they would write about the people involved. To the British, the members of the Colonial Congress and the Continental Army would be traitors of the highest order. To Americans, they are heroes and the founding fathers of their nation. All a matter of perspective.
Perspective must be regarded as a part of the factual domain. Can it also be a matter of interpretation? Can you find any historical event which can be agreed by everyone as being the truth?
“We write nonfiction, not fiction. The line between them can be a fuzzy one, but we need to make it sharp, and then we cannot cross it.” ~ Daniel Hubbard The Personal Past.
Hubbard argues that a writer may infer but not invent. The reader places their trust on the truth of the words written. A good non-fiction writer should be able to write creatively, yet still tell the story. They provide the reader with interesting points, a perspective which may not have previously considered, but they may never invent.
History is littered with examples of writers who stepped over that boundary, journalists who fictionalized a factual story, then published it. They invent ‘facts’ to make their story more interesting, but it is wrong. The challenge for writers is to stay the right side of the line. The writer’s duty is to bring their characters to life but do so without breaking the non-fiction contract. They can use their experiences to tell the story, yet be narrative in their words.
What is the line between inference and invention?
Above, I talked about differing perspectives and how that may influence what a writer may say. Another problem exists where there are limits to the story or gaps in what is known. If the writer speculates or infers anything, they should make this clear.
Time and further research may reveal the answer, but until then some knowledge may need to be inferred. There are times when information is missing. A hole exists in the story. Given that Non-fiction writers cannot make things up how is this missing information managed?
There is a choice, not to tell it, or build the story so any reasonable person can understand it. In doing the later, they must make it clear to the reader what the writer inferred, based on their research. Give the known facts and show the logical courses of action.
About the Author
Peter B. Giblett is a freelance editor and writer with a background in business and technology management. He is also a non-practising lawyer. English born, now living in Canada. He’s an Alumni of City University (London) and University of West London. Entrant and winner of National Novel Writing Month 2015, a novel he is currently editing. He runs his own blog at called GobbledeGoox, which provides thoughts on writing, blogging, words, and word-craft.
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