The Non-Fiction Contract

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 


By Peter Giblett

“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.

Chinese Whispers

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.

Interpretation

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?

Ethical issues

“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

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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S.W. Biddulph

Scott Biddulph is a published writer, author, and poet from North Georgia. He began writing as a youngster and followed his lifelong dream of reaching people through the written word when he returned to The University of North Georgia in 2013 to finish earning his BA/English with a concentration on publication and creative writing. His publications include the following: an eBook, Apples of Gold: A collection of inspirational short stories and poems (Smashwords, 2010) and a paperback, Voices from the Heart, (Createspace, 2012). His poetry is published in Papers and Publications Undergraduate Research Journal. Vol 3 (2014) and the award-winning Chestatee Review (Spring, 2015), among other places (Check his LinkedIn profile for a full list of his publications). He is currently working on publishing poetry, creative non-fiction, academic essays, and his memoir. ******** Scott has also worked as an intern editor for the University of North Georgia Press. As a freelance editor, he has done the layout and design of several books and magazines. He is currently working with several authors on various publication projects in which he is either ghostwriting, editing manuscripts, or doing the layout and design of their books. ******** Finally, and most importantly, he is a father, grandfather, husband, and dedicated Harley Davidson rider. He and his family enjoy the beauty of the North Georgia Mountains where they live—especially their screened in back porch where they love to bird watch. ******** ~ "I love realism. I love writing about the raw, down-to-Earth, heartfelt realities of life. I love to write in a way that reaches into the human soul—to take the greatest pains and struggles in life, and make them a blessing to others. Fantasy is a wonderful, interesting thing—but real-life situations, feelings, fears, and dreams are an unexplored ocean of stories that need to be told." ~ ~Scott Biddulph~

18 comments

  1. I wrote and self published my memoir. It centers around my experience suffering a brain injury and enduring subsequent surgeries and therapies. As such, my memory around much of the experiences are quite “fuzzy”! I put a disclaimer of sorts- probably obvious to the reader- that this is MY story. As such, it is heavily colored by my own perspective. Traumatic events, physiological brain damage and time all greatly affect authenticity.
    Thank you so much for this informative, thought-provoking article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post Peter! It’s a fine line non-fiction writers (and historians) have to thread. “Any two people may have entirely different perspectives, in part based on nationality, religion, education, etc. ” Indeed! I had read two separate articles on Eleanor Roosevelt. Each writer had a different spin on their interpretation of who they think she was.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Peter, your timing is impeccable. I have currently submitted a three-part memoir to Scott. Part one will be out soon, but of course, Scott has to approve it first. A story came to mind after personal memoirs were posted here on Two Drops of Ink jogged a memory. After carefully considering exposing my story I first consulted my family, mainly my sister to revisit our accounts of the situation. We spent time in conversation filling in timeline gaps because we had those sensitive memories tucked away so long ago.
    Your post reinforced what I felt I needed to do before I even started to write. I took my notes, researched my facts and created a timeline for accuracy. So I thank you, Peter, for your thoughts on this topic. John.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It is to my mind a case of care being required. I am co-authoring a historical novel about one of my wife’s ancestors. For a long time she wanted to write it as factual, yet we could never find proof that certain things from the story actually happened. We had been told about many adventures this person had, but concluded all we could do was tell it as fiction. In that part of the world there is little historical documentation.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Great article. It is very good food for thought, for me personally too, as I am just not finishing up my memoir. I really tried to comb through it to make sure I was factual, but it plagued me the whole time trying to separate “feelings” from others’ intentions and factual events. It was very tricky in fact, especially in cases of family events. Your article makes me want to go through the ms. *again* before it gets a final edit, so thank you. You are certainly correct about that fuzzy, fine line.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Hi, Peter. I’ll echo both Michelle and Scott. You make the case for honesty in writing non-fiction quite well. Memoirs give us, as writers, the ability to reflect and flesh out events, however, it must still be factual. I like that you stressed how any group of people experiencing the same event will naturally have different experiences, sometimes even conflicting recollections of it. However, if all are in agreement that they were present, define their respective roles in the event, and then qualify their interpretation, feelings and thoughts about the event, I’m alright with the various stories generated from that event.

    It’s when a writer distorts their involvement in the event, moving themselves to the central character rather than their secondary role, or puts themselves into an event when they weren’t “there”, but simply researched it and put themselves into it, that is fiction, not factual.

    From your post, “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.” You have summed up the differences in this passage as well, “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.”

    Again, this post is quite timely and some of our thoughts about it are reflective of a recent experience, however, that in no way diminishes the value of this post. It simply gives me a life experience to solidify and reinforce your arguments for differentiating fact from fiction.

    Thank you for this post, Peter.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Marilyn, sadly the ability to put yourself into an event you were never present at is all too easy. 24 hour news often gives the TV based observer more knowledge than the person present actually has. Yet it is ethically wrong for that observer to claim they were present. I am happy to have contributed.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Unfortunately, we just had an experience with a writer that misrepresented himself in a memoir. I was both amazed and excited when I received your submission Peter; it was right on time. As an editor, when I receive submissions, I always check out people’s bios along with the ordinary choirs of correcting grammar, syntax, evaluating if a story fits our blog, or if it is even interesting. I’ve been in the publishing industry since 2010, most writers are honest and just want to tell a story. Some, as your post points out, in part, cross over into the territory of embellishment quite by accident, but, there are those few who intentionally misrepresent things in their stories for other motives. There are some excellent points in this post and good advice for all writers. Thanks, Scott

    Liked by 4 people

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