Why nonfiction writers should read novels

I’ve been stuffing down novels like candy lately, reading them one after another, not happy unless my head is immersed in an alternate world. Recently, my fiction addiction led to a breakthrough on my current nonfiction work in progress.

I was out of town on a book-selling expedition. After a long day of driving, I had checked into a motel in Roseburg, Oregon and was sinking into a warm bath when it hit me. I had to change the ending for my book. Words and scenes tumbled through my mind. Forget the bath. I had to write this down. I got out, wrapped a towel around me and hurried to my laptop, still wet as I started typing as fast as I could.

Outside, night fell. The parking lot filled with cars as people checked in. The murmur of a television filtered through the walls. Unaware of it all, I let the words flow for the next three hours. I had found the key to my book.

What happened? Two things: I got away from the usual distractions of home, and all that fiction I’d been reading seeped into my bones and showed me how to write my creative nonfiction project.

Non-writers chuckle when I talk about writing creative nonfiction. They assume that means I make stuff up. Not true. Creative nonfiction, also known as narrative nonfiction, uses the techniques of fiction to tell true stories. Those techniques include the use of scenes and settings, characters, dialogue, suspense, and rising and falling action that leads to a climax.

The book I’m working on had a lot of these elements in it, but it lacked the through story that would pull readers from beginning to end. It was all bits and pieces, and I interrupted the narrative too often with my research gems. “Info dump,” my fiction-writing friends call it. It was all good stuff, but I needed to make it more of a story, and suddenly I knew how, thanks to all those novels I’d been reading. I could see my people as characters and could see where I could increase tension, add suspense, turn telling into showing, and lure the reader on by making him wonder what happened next.

The writing world is full of books, magazines and websites telling you how to write. But I think we can learn the most from sitting down and reading good books. So go ahead, dive into a good novel. Enjoy the story, then go back and study what they did to make you keep turning the pages. It will make you a better writer.

Then, go write.