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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Narrative History

By Dave Hood

Instead of writing the personal narrative, many writers turn outward, and write true stories about the past, including stories of historical people, historical places, and historical events. They write from many perspectives: as a victim, as a witness or observer, or as historian or lover of history. For instance, Erik Larson recently wrote the bestseller “The Devil in the White City,” a true story about the 1893 World’s Fair and a serial killer. To write the narrative history, Larson used newspaper accounts and trial transcripts. Historian David McCullough has written several books of historical narrative, including “1776,” “Truman,” and “John Adams.”

Writers are not required to write books of history. Many writer craft creative nonfiction essays using the techniques of historical narrative. To write about history, using the historical narrative approach, writers must conduct extensive research and then write their story using the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices. The historical narrative is highly descriptive, and so scene and description must be used. Writers are not suppose to fabricate dialogue or events. As well, they are expected to complete rigorous fact-checking. No fact should be included that has not been verified through fact-checking.

In this chapter, I’ll discuss creative nonfiction as it applies to writing about history. The following will be covered:

  • Definition of history
  • Perspectives on history
  • Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
  • Nonfiction history versus creative nonfiction
  • Gather material through research
  • Writing style for the historical narrative
  • Additional reading

Defining History

There are many definitions of history. Here’s my view: The historian or lover of history studies the past, collects, analyze, interprets facts, determine cause and effect, and share the significance of the past, in an effort to teach humanity not to make the same mistakes again and to learn how to recreated the achievements of the past. Writing about history involves writing about past events, such as the Civil war, World War I, Roaring Twenties, Viet Nam War, War on Terror. Writing about history also involves writing about historical people who are now deceased, such as Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and many more. As well, the writer can share a story about ordinary events and ordinary people, providing the story is interesting.

How can the you craft narrative about history? Four popular ways to write about history are:

  • Writing a Memoir. It is writing about a period in the person’s life, not their entire life. Often political leaders write about their experiences in public office. Anyone can write a memoir, providing it is interesting and unique.
  • Writing a biography. You can research the person and their life, and then write a life story, including details of obstacles and setback that were overcome, achievements and accomplishments, significance to the present day. Historians often writer biographies about public figures, such as presidents and prime ministers and generals, icons of popular culture. For instance, David McCullough wrote biographies of “Truman” and “John Adams.” Other writers have written biographies on Ghandi, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, President Bush, Prime Minister Trudeau, Reagan, and countless others.
  • Short Profile or Biography Sketch. Instead of writing a biography, many writers write a biography sketch or profile of a historical figure, artist, politician, writer, photographer, even an ordinary person. The sketch is much shorter than autobiography or biography, usually between 500 to 2,000 words. Unlike the books of biography or memoir, the profile or sketch is published in magazines or newspapers.
  • Narrative History. You can use the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and figurative language to tell a true story about a person or event in history. You can write a creative nonfiction essay, based on historical narrative, or a book of narrative history.

Perspectives Of History

When writing from a creative nonfiction perspective, instead of writing a personal essay,  you are writing about another person, place, event, idea, or topic in history. You are also applying the research methods and writing techniques of creative nonfiction. You are moving outward, viewing the outside world, instead of looking inward to your “self,” and those memories that are part of your past. You can view the world as a witness to history, as a victim of history, or as an author of history.

When writing as a victim of history, you are writing a true narrative about how some historical event impacted you and your life . For instance, all of those who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had friends and families, who were victims. Suppose you are a victim, a family member who lost a loved one in the attacks of 9/11. You could write about 9/11 by sharing historical facts of the event, by explaining the causes, and by contributing your personal reflections.

When writing as a witness of history, you are an observer of the world, watching it unfold before your eyes. Every year, you are witness to many global events and public figures of historical significance, which will become stories in history textbooks, for future generations to learn. For instance, President Obama is the first black president of the United States. To understand the significance of this, you must have a sense of history–the civil rights movement, racial discrimination of blacks in American throughout history, the Civil War, and slavery of blacks.

When writing as an author of history, you are researching the past, and writing about it. Either you are a historian or lover of history. Each of these roles requires that you become a subject matter expert. You must immerse yourself in the life of the person or the historical event, reading everything you can, visiting the places of historical significance, immersing yourself in the past by reading diaries, journals and notebook, watching historical film footage, gazing at vintage photographs. As an author of history, you are the historian, sharing facts, anecdotes, description, narrative, interpretation, and analysis. Your purpose is to educate, inform, and entertain.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

To write about history as a creative nonfiction writer, you must embrace the advice of Lee Gutkind, expert on creative nonfiction. And so, you must do the following:

  • Write about real Life. Your topic will be real people, actual events, and real places. Nothing is fictional or fabricated.
  • Conduct extensive research. You will gather facts and information and impressions from the library, interviews, Internet, immersion, and more.
  • Write the historical narrative. You will use the elements of fiction, such as the narrative arc, literary techniques, such as showing and telling, and figurative language, such as simile and metaphor, to write the true story of history.
  • Share personal reflection. You will share personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives with the reader.
  • Learn about the person or event by reading. You must read autobiographies, biographies, and other informative books about history.

Gathering Material Through Research

When you conduct research, find the answers to the following: who? what? when? where? why? how? To answer these questions, gather information from the following:

  1. Immersion. Visit the place where event occurred or museum that contains artifacts and other historical material.
  2. Interview subject matter experts. Contact an expert and interview them, such as historian. Or interview eyewitnesses. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
  3. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazines, articles, newspaper clippings, journals, and take notes.
  4. Use the Internet. Conduct a search of your topic using Google search, to learn what historians have written about the person or event or issue. The search results will also reveal where there are books and magazines and journals on the topic, or subject matter experts. As well, visit History Matters
  5. Reading on your own. During your leisure time, read books, magazines, newspapers, and articles about historical events and historical people.
  6. Read primary sources to understand the person and place. Read diaries and letters and journals to understand the person who is now deceased.

Nonfiction History versus Creative Nonfiction History

Both creative nonfiction and nonfiction writers inform and educate readers. A nonfiction history presents the facts and causes and effects, and significance. In contrast, creative nonfiction does the same, but also adds narrative history, including storytelling, dialogue, setting, character development, vivid description.

The writer of nonfiction history uses an authoritative tone and third person POV (he/she). The writer of historical narrative can use the first person POV (“I”) third person (“He/she”) As well, the creative nonfiction writer uses a friendly, conversational tone, and personal reflection.

The writer of nonfiction history tells the story using formal language and a matter-of-fact presentation, without personal reflection or use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery. In contrast, the creative nonfiction writer puts into use personal reflection and figurative language.

Both methods and approaches require extensive research, including immersion, interviewing eye witness or experts, reading books and journals at the library, viewing public records. Both the historian, who writes nonfiction history, and creative nonfiction writer, desire to inform, educate, and entertain readers.

Writing the Historical Narrative

Writing about history requires that you determine your approach. Are you writing as a layperson? Are you writing as an expert? Next, narrative history essays are stories about actual people, actual places, and actual events.  You’ll reconstruct the important people and events using the narrative arc and scenes. You’ll use the elements of fiction, literary techniques, vivid descriptions, and figurative language to write the narrative. As well, always revise your first draft.  Here are a few tips on how to write the historical narrative:

Word choice

Don’t use jargon or clichés. Use familiar instead of unfamiliar words and simple rather than fancy words. As well, use action verbs and concrete nouns.

Elements of Fiction

All stories unfold in a particular setting. Include the setting details— time and place and context.

A narrative history is structured as a narrative arc. It includes:

  • Inciting incident
  • Conflict, either internal or external
  • Turning point or climax
  • Resolution. End of the story.

If you are writing a profile on a person, develop the profile by describing the person’s appearance, action and reaction, and by using dialogue.

Point of View

Write the historical narrative using either the first person POV (“I”) or the third person POV (“he”/”she”).

Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection

Use one or more scenes (showing the reader what happened) to show what happened and to describe behaviour. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, POV, and sensory details. Use summary to explain, to summarize, and to tell readers. As well, use personal reflection to share personal opinion.

Figurative Language

Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Allusion

Vivid Descriptions

To reconstruct setting and events and people, use sensor details, writing descriptions of what the reader will see, hear, smell, taste, touch.

Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.

Facts not Fiction

When writing true stories of history or historical people, don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, don’t add any facts without first completing fact-checking.

Writing Style

Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

Revision

The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).

Staying Informed

Writer about history requires that you learn about the past and stay informed about the present. Here are a few suggestions on how to stay informed:

  • Read biographies of famous people, such as Hitler, Mao, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Bin Laden, Thatcher
  • Keep a history idea journal. Events unfold every day, and so record the details–your opinions, impressions, and observations of what you see or hear in the media.
  • Keep a history file. When an event of historical significance happens, read relevant newspapers and magazines, and save the important magazine articles and newspaper clippings.
  • Learn about history by visiting History Central .
  • Read creative nonfiction books, which focuses on historical people and historical events.

Additional Reader

For additional information on writing narrative history, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed American by Erik Larson
  • 1776 by David McCullough
  • John Adams by David McCullough
  • Truman by David McCullough
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
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Writing Creative Nonfiction: On Popular Culture

Aug 6 2013
By Dave Hood

Instead of writing a personal essay or memoir, creative nonfiction writers often craft literary journalism essays and reviews about popular culture, including film, art, photography, famous people, fashion, and music. For instance, the popular magazine, “The New Yorker,” publishes literary journalism essays as profiles of public figures, perspectives on current events, essays on topics in the news, as well as film, music, and book reviews. “Harper’s” and “The Atlantic” are other magazine that publishes literary journalism essays. As well, many literary journals publish literary journalism essays, including Tin House, Epiphany, Witness.

The literary journalistic essay, as it applies to writing about popular culture, involves writing true stories about people, places, events, film, books, music, photography, art, and so forth. Writers craft this category of essay by completing research and then writing the narrative using the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices. Writers usually narrate the story from the third person POV (“he/she”) and include scene, summary, and personal reflection.

Sometimes a creative nonfiction writer will play the part of a reviewer or critic, reviewing a film, concert, painting, or book. This review will include a description or summary, share the pros and cons, provide opinion and recommendation. For instance, a writer might write a literary review of a book that’s just been published, and the reader will use the review to decide whether to purchase the book.

The purpose of the literary journalistic essay and review of pop culture are always to inform, educate, and entertain readers.

In this article, I’ll discuss popular culture as it applies to writing literary journalism essays and reviews. The following will be covered:
• Defining popular culture
• Perspectives for writing about popular culture
• The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
• Gathering material by completing research
• Writing a review
• Writing a literary journalistic essay
• Tips for writing about popular culture
• Additional reading

Defining Popular Culture

There are many definitions of popular culture. Essentially, popular culture refers to the contemporary popular culture of a particular society, such as Western pop culture. It deals with the contemporary aspects of film, photography, art, sculpture, painting, cuisine, genre fiction, poetry, music, fashion, trends, fads, influential people, such as political leaders, rock stars, sports heroes, Hollywood starlets, video games, anything to do with the current popular culture.

From pop culture, we define our tastes, likes and dislikes, identities, fashion, leisure time, beliefs, values, norms, and much more. Pop culture includes many institutions, such as Hollywood, where many motion pictures are produced. An important element of pop culture is the mass media: television, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, film, Internet. These institutions create brands that people can embrace and relate to. A particular “brand” can become an emblem of pop culture. For instance, anything Apple is now part of the pop culture of contemporary society in 2013. These institutions also shape our values, views, opinions, beliefs, and behaviour.

The physical artifacts of an era are an aspect of popular culture. Digital technologies play an important role in defining our current popular culture. Most people own either a smart phone, tablet, such as iPad, or digital music play, like the iTouch. Most people surf the Internet for work, or entertainment, or leisure. Many people use the computer to access social media, such as Facebook, to connect with friends and share their lives. Many use the computer to access YouTube to watch and post videos and Flickr to view and post photographs. It seems that young people now spend more leisure time surfing the web, text messaging, visiting Facebook than watching television. The masses have embraced digital photography, capturing an endless stream of snapshots with their smart phones or point-and-shoot digital cameras. Everyone is now a digital photographer. Digital technologies pervade the popular culture of 2013.

Serendipity often creates pop culture. Fads and trends happen by accident or chance. For instance, in the late 60s and 70s, long hair was fashionable for men. Now many men “crop” their hair as though they are enrolled in the army. Men and women adorn their bodies with a coloured tattoos. These trends arrived by accident, pure chance. At some point, the trends will depart, and be replaced by something new.

Influential people, such as Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, or Bono of U2 also create popular culture, and shape how we dress, think, and act. For instance, Steve Jobs was the “mastermind” of the digital technologies which pervade contemporary life, such as iPad, iPhone, and iTouch.

Zeitgeist

Any definition of popular culture most include Zeitgeist. It is a German word, which means “the spirit of the age” or “spirit of the time”, and refers to the cultural, political, ethical, intellectual, spiritual climate of a culture during a specific era or time frame. The spirit of a particular era will include the shared views, shared attitudes, shared feelings, shared tastes, shared morality, and shared preferences toward war and technology, political movements and religion, economic conditions and types of work, new scientific discovers, or anything that is part of society.

Think of zeitgeist as the “collective consciousness” of a particular generation. To understand it, you’ll have to conduct research on the Internet and in the library, uncovering the significant events and people and artifacts. Then you’ll have to analyze this popular culture and write the essay, providing examples, which illustrate the idea of collective consciousness. For instance, a decade from now, people will look back and see that digital technologies, such as the iPhone, iPad, Internet, social media, were important aspects of our collective consciousness.

To assist you understanding the “spirit of the time,” use the Google Search called Google Zeitgeist . It will tell you what is on the minds of people. For instance, in 2010, according to Google Zeitgeist, the iPad, Master Chef, Justin Bieber, were some of the most popular searches, and on the minds of millions of people around the world. You might then ask: Is there a spirit of hope or hopelessness, progress or regression, optimism or cynicism, alienation or inclusion?

Perspectives for Writing about Popular Culture
When writing a literary journalistic essay, writers use popular culture in several ways: They use popular culture to provide context to a story. They write as subject matter experts on some feature of popular culture, or as a witnesses to some aspect of popular culture, such as film, art, photography. Play the role of reviewer and write reviews on books, film, music, art, theatre, and more.

Pop culture can provide context to personal narrative or literary journalism essay. Often when writers craft essays that include setting, they allude to the music, film, fashion, values, beliefs of the time period. This provides context to the story. How does a writer find out what happened twenty or thirty years ago? Writers can use a timeline, which shows the significant events, popular culture, and influential people for a particular year. A good website to find context for a true story is http://www.history central.com

The writer, often a subject matter expert, writes a commentary or opinion on some an entertainment personality, film, music concert, event, issue.

The writer might write as a witness. For instance, the writer might craft a personal narrative about a visiting to the Art Gallery, such as the Museum of Modern Art or attending the Bruce Springsteen concert, or what it feels like to cheer for a losing football team, such as the Buffalo Bills.

The writer can play the role of reviewer or critic. For instance, experts in film write film reviews, ,experts in music write music reviews, experts on art write literary journalistic essays about painting, sculpture, photography. To review some “art form,” the reviewer must experience the art. For instance, if the writer is writing a book review, the writer must first read the book. If the writer is writing a film review, the writer must first watch the film. If the writer is writing a review on some painting or sculpture or installation or photograph, the writer must first attend the exhibition.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

Writing about pop culture requires that you follow the advice of Lee Gutkind’s “Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction:” He suggests the following:
• Write about real life, real people, actual events, real art forms, and actual places.
• Complete research, collecting facts from the library, interviewing experts, reading essays on the Internet, watching television or film, listening to music, immersing yourself in the “art form.”
• Write an essay or review about some feature of popular culture. Use immersion and other tools of research, facts, and fact checking to write the essay or review.
• Include personal reflection. Share your personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives about popular culture.
• Read widely and deeply. Read books, magazines, articles, essays, commentary, Internet blogs to understand to the topic, issue, event, or person.

Gathering Material to Write the Literary Journalistic Essay

If you intend to write about pop culture, you must stay informed and conduct research whenever you have a topic to write about.

Staying Informed
Here are a few publications that will help you learn about pop culture and stay informed:
• Music. If you intend to write about the music scene, including singers, song writers, artists, bands, rock, pop, soul, rap, jazz, begin by reading “Rolling Stone” magazine.
• Art. If you desire to learn about modern or contemporary art and artists, read “Canadian Art”, “Art in America,” and “Artnews.”
• Film. If you want to learn and write about film, turn the pages of “Sight and Sound” magazine.
• Fashion. If you desire to become an expert on fashion, read “Vogue” magazine (for women) or “GQ” magazine (for men).
• General entertainment news. Stay informed by reading “Entertainment Weekly” and “The New Yorker” magazine, and by reading the entertainment section of your newspaper.
• Literary journals. These are specialized publications, illustrating the best of some an art form. For instance, to read short fiction and poetry, read the journals Granta, Epiphany, Witness, Tin House.

Conducting Research
A literary journalism essay is based on facts, gathered from research. Writers can use different methods of research, including:
1. Interview subject matter experts. Contact an expert and interview them. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
2. Immerse yourself in the story. Attend a music concert, or watch the film, visit the art gallery, and then make notes.
3. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and take notes as you read.
4. Use the Internet. Conduct a search of your topic using Google search, to learn what has been written on the subject and where there are books, magazines, journals, subject matter experts.
5. Complete primary research. A primary source is a record created as part of, or during an event, crisis, or time period. For instance a letter, diary, personal journal, and government records and governmental report.

Writing a Review

Before writing a review, you should first experience the art form, such as viewing the painting or seeing the film. You should also have a good understanding of the genre. For instance, if you`re going to write a film review, you should have a good understanding of movie terms, concepts, film making techniques, movie stars, and history of film. Writer William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” provides some suggestions for completing a review:
1. Love the art form or medium you are reviewing. In other words, if you don`t like film, be sure not to write a review. It will be tainted.
2. Don`t tell the readers everything. For instance, if you`re writing a book review, don`t tell the readers the ending. Provide them with only enough detail to convince them to read or ignore the book.
3. Don`t use adjectives to exaggerate your impression of the art form
4. Use a minimal writing style to express what you think and observe.

As well, when writing a review, do the following:
• Summarize what you observed, heard, or experienced with your senses.
• Share pros and cons.
• Give you opinion. Tell readers whether you like it.
• Make a recommendation. Should the audience see the film or read the book or visit the art exhibition.

Writing a Book Review

There are many ways to write a book review. Just check out the Globe & Mail or The New York Times, and you will see that each newspaper includes them. Lovers of books desire to read them. All book reviews should include a summary of the book, identify the book’s strengths and weaknesses, specify the publishing information (title, author, page count, price), and determine whether the reader ought to read the book. Here is one method you can use to write a book review:

Before Reading the Book
Before reading, scan the book and make notes of the following:
• Title. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Preface. Does it tell you the purpose of the book?
• Table of Contents. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Glossary. Does the book include a glossary? Does it appear useful?
• Index. Does the book include an index? Is it useful?

After scanning through the book, jot down your impressions. Next, research the author to find out what his/her biases, views, expertise, and other books he/she has written.

Reading the Book
While reading the book, make notes on the following:
• Your impressions
• Author’s argument
• Author’s main points
• Facts and evidence
• Topics covered
• Theme
• Strengths and weaknesses

Writing the Book Review
Your first paragraph needs a hook, which grabs your reader’s attention. You should also include the name of the author and title of the book. The body of your review requires a summary and should identify some of the most important strengths and weaknesses of the book. You should conclude with a recommendation.

Your book review also requires the following publishing information:
• Title of the book
• Name of the author
• Name of the publisher
• Page count
• Price of the book

Most book reviews include information about the author, such as the author’s views and biases, the author’s expertise on the subject, other books that the author has written. A good book review identifies the types of readers who will enjoy reading the book, and it indicates whether the information in the book is useful to the reader. Many good book reviews also state whether the book expands on the existing body of knowledge.

Writing the Literary Journalistic Essay

Writing about popular culture requires that you determine your approach. Are you writing as a witness? Are you writing as an expert? Or do you only want to use popular culture to provide context to a personal narrative essay or literary journalistic essay? Or are you writing about popular culture as a reviewer? Follow these suggestions:

Word choice
Don’t use jargon or clichés. Use familiar instead of unfamiliar words and simple rather than fancy words. As well, use action verbs and concrete nouns.

Elements of Fiction
All stories unfold in a particular setting. Include the setting details— time and place and context.

When you narrate a true story, use a narrative arc. It includes:
• Inciting incident
• Conflict, either internal or external
• Turning point or climax
• Resolution. End of the story.

If you are writing a profile on a person, develop the profile by describing the person’s appearance, action and reaction, and by using dialogue. Always answer the question: Who is this person?

Point of View
Write the literary journalistic essay on popular culture using either the first person POV (“I”) or the third person POV (“he”/”she”).

Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection
If you’re writing a narrative, write one or more scenes (showing the reader what happened) to show what happens. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, POV, and sensory details. Use summary to explain and tell readers background information. As well, use personal reflection to share your impressions and emotional truth (How does it feel to you?).

Figurative Language
Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:
• Simile
• Metaphor
• Personification
• Allusion

Vivid Descriptions
To reconstruct setting and events and impressions of people, use sensor details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.

Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.

Facts not Fiction
When writing true stories of popular culture or people of popular culture, don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, don’t add any facts without first completing fact-checking.

Writing Style
Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

Revision
The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).

Tips for Writing about Popular Culture
Popular culture is never static. It is always evolving. New things are continuously being introduced, such as film, music, art, and technologies. And so, to write about popular culture, you must stay informed. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Schedule a “Creative Date” each month. Examples: Visit the art gallery, go to a concert, buy tickets to watch a movie.
2. Stay informed. Read the entertainment section of the newspaper to find out what is going on in your city or town; read pop-culture magazines, such as “Entertainment Weekly”; watch the news and listen to the radio; read articles on the Internet, including the blogs and websites; watch YouTube videos and connect to Facebook and other social media.
3. Keep a writing journal. Make regular entries about pop culture in a writing journal.
4. Become and expert. Enroll in a photography, art, poetry, film study, music course.
5. Consider writing a speculative narrative. For instance, you might see a piece of art in a gallery, and then write a description using sensory details, and then rely on your imagination to determine the meaning of the art.
6. Remain aware of the fads and trends. Regularly, Ask yourself: What are the fads? Trends? What’s popular in your culture? How does film, fashion, music, art influence you? How have books influenced your life? How has the smartphone, tablet, digital music player, or digital camera altered your lifestyle?
7. Make popular culture part of your life. Immerse yourself in film, art, literature, photography, music, and you will see view the world from a different perspective, a viewpoint that will enable you to write about popular culture.

Additional Reading

For addition information about learning creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
• Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second edition by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
• Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
• You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
• The Best American Essays Series 2012, edited by David Brooks and Robert Atwan
• The New Yorker magazine

Writing Creative Nonfiction: A Toolbox of Techniques

Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.

There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.

Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.

In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.

Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for  writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?

Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:

  • Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
  • Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
  • Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
  • Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
  • Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.

As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure,  resulting in a new structure or shape.

Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.

Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.

Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll  recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.

Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you  must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:

  • Setting-time and place of the story
  • Action-something happens.
  • Dialogue-someone something not always
  • Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
  • Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
  • Point of View-first, second, third person.
  • Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
  • Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end

Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.

You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.

Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.

Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:

  • Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
  • Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
  • Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
  • Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
  • Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
  • Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
  • Theme-the meaning of the story

The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.

Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism
  • Personification
  • Imagery
  • Assonance and alliteration
  • Allusion

Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.

Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:

  • Personal thoughts and feelings
  • Opinions
  • Ruminations
  • Personal perspective
  • stream of consciousness
  • Mediations

Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.

 Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction.   Avoid using clichés and jargon.

Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:

  • Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation.  A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
  • Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
  • Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind,  to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
  • Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
  • Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
  • Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.

Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:

  • Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
  • Parallel Structure
  • Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
  • Alliteration and Assonance
  • Sensory Imagery

Resources.

For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin

The Elements of Fiction: Plot

The fiction writer uses the elements of fiction to create a fictional story, either a short story or novel. The nonfiction writer uses the elements of fiction to tell a real story. The casual reader uses these elements to gain a deeper appreciation of a novel or piece of literature. Students in English literature are required to learn the elements of fiction to analyze how the writer constructed a short story or novel. And the aspiring writer must have a good understanding of these elements to create his or her own stories, narratives that must be interesting and memorable.

The writer uses several elements of fiction to construct a story. These include:

  • Setting
  • Plot/plot structure
  • Character
  • Point of View
  • Theme
  • Literary devices, such as symbolism and imagery
  • Style and tone

 

This article discusses one element of fiction: the plot and plot structure.

Plot/Plot Structure

What is the plot of a story? It is the series of events that give the story meaning and effect. A good story has several events that complicate, increase the tension, and create suspense within the story.

A typical story begins with an inciting incident. (For instance, a murder.) From this inciting incident, the rest of the story progresses to its conclusion.

All stories require a conflict. This conflict can be internal—within the mind or psyche of the main character or protagonist.

This conflict can also be external to the protagonist. The protagonist can confront another character, typically the villain of the story. The protagonist might also be at odds with society, or in conflict with technology, the setting (storm, desert, cosmos, desert island, ship wreck), something spiritual (ghosts), or religion, or the supernatural—such as God or an alien being.

A good story also has a plot structure. A good plot structure includes an inciting incident (the main event from which the rest of the story progresses), a goal or desire that the main character wants to achieve, challenges and obstacles that prevent the protagonist from achieving the desire or goal, a climax or turning point, and resolution of the story, where the writer ties up loose ends, answers all unanswered questions, and resolves the conflict.

Suspense

Suspense is often a common aspect of plot and plot structure of a story. The suspense is initiated with a threat: The protagonist is threatened by some event or character or other antagonist—such as the setting in which the story takes place. (E.g. lost in the woods) The reader then asks: What will happen next? Who did it? How did it happen? Will the protagonist survive? The threat to the protagonist results in a state of confusion: The protagonist may or may not know the origin or nature of the threat. Eventually, the protagonist or main character realizes the origin and nature of the threat. He/she must then take action to survive.

There are several ways a fiction writer can create suspense. One method is to use time constraints.  Essentially, the writer creates a story in which the protagonist must work against the clock. For instance, the protagonist must defuse a bomb within a certain time, or it will detonate.

The writer can create suspense with a crisis. This crisis must be devastating to the world of the protagonist. For instance, the protagonist must save his wife and son from the burning family home. If they parish in the blaze, his life is irrevocably changed.

Another method the writer has to create suspense is by using insurmountable odds. The writer creates a story in which the protagonist must use all his/her resources—such as skill, expertise, knowledge—to deal with the challenges and obstacles. Otherwise, he/she will not survive.

Methods of Telling Story

The writer has several methods of telling the story. These include:

  • Chronological order
  • Total Flashback
  • Combination: Flashforward and chronological
  • Flash forward/ Foreshadowing

 

Many fiction writers tell their stories in chronological order. The story progresses in a linear fashion. First, there is the inciting incident. This is followed by all the events that are caused or related to the inciting incident. The most important event besides the inciting incident is the event which causes the climax or turning point in the story.

Another method of telling a story is to use total flashback. The writer can use total flashback to refer back in time to important events took place. Or he can use it to provide background information about the character. Often the writer begins the story in the present, and then tells a story that happened in the past.

The fiction writer can also tell a story by using both flashback and telling the story in chronological order—in the order that the events occurred. Often the fiction writer uses flashback to tell the reader about an important event that occurred in the past, and event that impacts or effects the current situation. However, the fiction writer tells the story in logical or sequential order, the order in which the events occurred, progressing to the climax and resolution of the story. Essentially, the writer tells the story by moving forward in time, but makes reference to important information that happened in the past.

The fiction writer will use flash-forward to move the narrative into the future. The writer uses this device to tell a story about imagined, expected, anticipated, or possible events. Foreshadowing is a literary device used by the fiction writer to provide “hints” or “clues” about might/will happen later in the story. Essentially, the writer “drops hints” about the plot or a possible outcome.

The fiction writer needs to ask himself/herself why the literary device of flashback is being used to tell the story. The foreshadowing can be explicit, such as dialogue, or implicit, in the form of a clue. Often, the writer uses foreshadowing to create suspense in the mind of the reader. Sometimes the writer provides a clue to mislead the reader. This is called a red herring. Other times the writer foreshadows a possible ending—but then ends the story with a plot twist. Sometimes the writer uses symbolism to foreshadow something that will occur later in the story. (A symbol represents something other than its literal meaning.)

Resources for Writing Fiction

There are several good books available to help you learn the art and craft of writing fiction. The following books—and resources that I recommend— were used to research this article:

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing by Colin Bulman
  • The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
  • How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins

 

For the next several posts, I will be writing about the other elements of fiction. Next, I will discuss “setting.”

If you have an questions or comments, please post them to this blog.