Blog - Ten Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction


Nick Foster, author of The Jolly Roger Social Club, to be published by Duckworth Overlook on 14th July 2016 (and by Henry Holt in North America on 12th July), offers first-time creative nonfiction writers some advice.

1. Find a great story. How do you know when you've got one? With my book The Jolly Roger Social Club, it happened like this: I discovered a true tale of an American who had, apparently, killed five or more of his compatriots in a vaguely sinister expat community located on a remote stretch of Panama's Caribbean coast. I immediately wondered: Why were these people there at all? What were their motivations? How did it affect things that this was an American crime transplanted, if you will, to Latin America? What kind of culture clash might this entail? My questions went on and on. This is what you need; this is when you know you've got a story that could be the one. Next, the story needs to have twists and turns, a proper beginning, middle and end. A piece of creative nonfiction (or narrative nonfiction, it's the same thing) in the New Yorker might run to 8,000 words. But if you want to write a book of 100,000 words, which is my assumption here, you'll need to know that you can take your story in enough compelling directions to make it worthwhile for a reader to commit. Some of your characters will need to face complications and go through some kind of transformation. They will need to evolve as the story develops, rather like in a novel. Do you have enough of a tale to tell? At the beginning, there's a big slice of guesswork, but go with your gut feeling.

2. A great story is suspenseful. It needs to be a page turner. For instance, suppose you open with the discovery of a dead body in the month of December. Then you take your story back to January of the same year and introduce a group of friends or colleagues or family members. The reader will naturally think: one of those people will lose his or her life. This technique wouldn't be subtle, but you are at least creating suspense. But what if your story is either known to the general public or – as in the case of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm – features an event (the loss at sea of a fishing boat, the Andrea Gail) where the outcome is likely to be guessed by the reader as he opens the book? Well, Junger creates suspense by introducing two other strands flanking his main story: the efforts of a team of rescuers from the New York Air National Guard, and the fate of a recreational yacht and its crew caught on the fringe of the storm. The reader probably doesn't know, and cannot readily guess, what happens in these other strands (essentially, minor stories flanking the main narrative thrust). This helps Junger crank up the tension.

3. Be a reader. It's the only way to find out how good writers do it. Fiction writer E. Annie Proulx has said that for decades she was a reader, and then she became a published writer – but never stopped being a reader. It's just the same with narrative nonfiction. Read the best narrative nonfiction writers out there and ask yourself: how did they put their books together, how did they structure them? The question of structure is of capital importance. If my book just follows me, the writer, discovering a story by interviewing people and uncovering facts, it won't be very compelling – it will simply be an account of me becoming gradually less ignorant about something. To make your story riveting, look how good writers approach chronology and use (probably sparingly) flashbacks. Look how they establish a powerful sense of place, how they arrange their narrative around strong scenes – interviews at a police station, big family reunions, a dramatic sporting event, whatever. Check out what they do with dialogue: whereas traditional journalism uses direct quotes to flesh out an argument or a line of thought, a narrative nonfiction writer will typically report how his characters talk to each other, how they interact. (Truman Capote said that a writer attempting a nonfiction novel needs to be "completely in control of fictional techniques".) And don't worry about being derivative. If you're starting out, this should be the least of your concerns. You can, and should, approach an agent and say, such-and-such a book inspired me to want to write my own. Be inspired by success. (In case you're wondering, it was Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil which – after months spent deconstructing it – made me feel confident I could write The Jolly Roger Social Club.)

4. Access is essential. Leaving historical literary journalism aside (where time spent in libraries and archives will be the key), it's quite simple. You don't have a story unless you have access. By access, I mean you need to figure out who in your story you need to approach and interview. If you want to write a book that concentrates on one character, you need to convince him or her to talk with you. Some characters in your story you will definitely need to speak with; many others will probably be replaceable. For instance, if you want to know about how your main character behaved when he was growing up, and he has five siblings, you may only need to interview one or two of them to get the job done. (Ideally, it would be good to speak to them all, of course.) To make first contact, I find that writing a letter is more effective than e-mail. You must be ready to cold-call. You also need to be able to give your interview subjects the time they need, and deserve, to get comfortable with you, and you must be entirely clear with them from the very beginning as to your motives; they must therefore know that your purpose is to write a book. Not everyone will want to talk with you. You need to be able to deal with rejection. In short, you'll need a thick skin to work in this business. But the reward of gaining someone's trust, and the privilege of listening to their story, is great indeed.

5. What's it about, actually? Your book needs to be about something. Here, I'm referring to theme. Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild is the story of a young man named Christopher McCandless who gives away his savings and wanders around the American West, eventually dying of starvation in a camper van in Alaska. But the book spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Why was that? My guess is that Krakauer struck a chord with readers because he uses McCandless's story to ask wider questions about the universal value of doggedly pursuing a career path and the quest to earn money – standard ways of judging a life, after all. When I wrote The Jolly Roger Social Club I told the story of a man, William "Wild Bill" Holbert, who had committed a string of evil acts. As I put together my material, and wrote scenes and dialogue, I knew that this was a true crime book in the traditional sense since there were a number of murders, and the perpetrator was chased and apprehended, and a community was affected. But I realised it was also – indeed, primarily – a book about greed and the impact of greed, and not just Holbert's greed. That way, I found my theme.

6. It all has to be true. A narrative nonfiction book should contain no invented scenes and no composite characters. It all has to come from interviews and primary source material (diaries, e-mail correspondence, letters, court documents, and so on). If you need to change names (to protect a source, for example), this must be flagged to the reader. I enjoyed John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but in his author's note he writes that the book, at times "strays from strict nonfiction" while intending to remain faithful to the "essential drift of events". I would caution firmly against mixing fact and fiction. In narrative nonfiction, it really all has to be true. A couple of other points: Firstly, there will always be a huge dose of subjectivity. For instance, if you interview half a dozen participants at a crucial scene in your story, and leave out the input of two of them, you are making a subjective choice. It's inevitable. (And the mix of people who agree to interviews will push the story in a certain direction versus, I think, the mix you would have got if absolutely everyone you approached agreed to talk, which would be an unlikely outcome.) Second, it is for you to decide how to order your story, how to structure it. For reasons of pace, you can and should leave out details that are not important to your story – you need to know when to speed up your narrative, after all. And you don't have to tell your tale in the precise order that events happened.

7. Be clear. Right from the moment you begin your book proposal, try to make sure that your sample chapter – most agents will expect to see one if you're a first-time author – is written as clearly as possible. Limit the number of characters so as not to confuse the reader. Cut the length of your sentences. Take time with explanations of any complex ideas or events. Try your writing out on friends: do they understand as well as you expect? Or do you lose their concentration with unnecessary detail? It can also help to map out a timeline for your main characters so that you know what they were doing, and when.

8. You need a strong ending. News pieces in newspapers give the headline and add information in layers, in rough order of significance. This conclusion-first technique means they often end limply. Nothing wrong with this in the Financial Times or the New York Times, of course, but as a writer of narrative nonfiction you need to order your story so as to give the reader a satisfying conclusion or payoff. Ideally it should be one that the reader couldn't see coming. To take A Death in Brazil as an example, Robb wrote a thriller that leaves us guessing about the death in his title – and Robb's own reaction to it, when he is given the chance to express it. (No spoiler alert; I'm giving nothing away. Read A Death in Brazil yourself.)

9. First or third person? I'd say use first person sparingly, if at all. The "I" grates with over-use. And the story is not likely to be about you, anyway.

10. Do as you're told. You get into print by, as a first step, writing a book proposal, which you'll send to one or various agents. If you don't have a literary agent, you will need one to approach publishers on your behalf. It's important to pick an agent who has an interest in, and experience in selling, creative nonfiction. This information is usually available on agents' websites. Most important of all, follow the submission guidelines very closely. You will be asked, as a minimum, for the structure of your planned book, so you'll need to provide an outline of what you're going to put in each chapter. You will also probably need to send in a sample chapter, and usually not the opening chapter (so not the exposition). Do precisely what is asked of you. Don't send in three sample chapters if you are asked for one. Don't miss out parts of the submission because you don't have them to hand (or because you think you know best). Do everything you can to appear professional, cheerful and reasonable. Don't ever stray into cynicism. You will need big reserves of empathy to write a narrative nonfiction book. You'll need to immerse yourself in situations and communities you may not feel comfortable in. You'll need to build relationships, cajole people a bit, and smile. Be optimistic, be hopeful. Enjoy it.


© Nick Foster, 2016