The first thing I ever wrote was non-fiction. I was six and a television documentary about the Battle of Britain so impressed me that I wrote a poem about it. Later I started writing fiction, and for a long time I was a writer in search of a genre, but it wasn’t until I wrote my first non-fiction book that I was published and several more followed. A few years ago I joined a local writers’ group and was inspired to try fiction again.
Many people see fiction and non-fiction writing as very different. Someone said to me recently that non-fiction is often thought of as ‘just looking stuff up and writing it down’ – it is perceived as something very easy that anyone could do! Of course it is so much more than that. I need to make sense of what is often a confusing and contradictory jumble of information, research all relevant background detail, analyse witness statements to look for clues as to which person is truthful, lying or mistaken. I must propose sensible solutions to any mysteries that remain, both practical and psychological, and finally I write the whole thing in a style that not only makes the events clear, but hopefully engages and entertains the reader. None of this is so very far from what the fiction writer does.
The years of researching and writing nonfiction have fed into and informed my fiction. I love the Victorian period, I am fascinated by its beliefs and attitudes, the way that people are so like us and yet so unlike at the same time. With so much of my writing based on recreating the past it was natural for me to want my fiction to do the same, to give readers the feeling that they have arrived in Victorian London in a time machine and are seeing it as it is, with believable people having to cope with all the problems of daily life.
Years of immersing myself in Victorian newspapers, trial transcripts and inquest proceedings have given me afeel for how Victorian people spoke and felt about and reacted to things – a good court reporter was the 19th century equivalent of audiotape! With the events in my novel seen through the eyes of a girl born in 1860, it felt natural to write the narrative in Victorian style.
My experience of nonfiction research has been invaluable when acquiring material for my fiction. I also believe that the detailed analysis of facts and how they fit together logically and the examination of the psychology and motivation of individuals which I applied to my nonfiction work are very similar to the thought processes involved in devising a fiction plot.
I enjoy weaving references to real events, people and places into my fiction, because that is what adds to t
he richness and believability of the picture. Often I discover an event contemporary to the incidents I am writing about which supplies me not only with local colour but the motivation for some of my characters and a driving force for the plot. The little everyday details that I scatter through my fiction are like the highlights a painter puts on a canvas which bring the picture to life. I tend to work with a large cast of characters interacting due to circumstances, chance and the rules of society because life is that complex, so it feels right to me.
My non-fiction will only ever state as fact something I know with good evidence to be true, but this does not mean that fiction gives me licence to do whatever I like. I would not for example have someone enter a public building in 1880 that was not built until later, or use an invention that didn’t exist at that time. It is reasonable however for my fiction to create a place or an organisation where I know that similar ones did exist.
Nonfiction and fiction both have their own supreme pleasures. With factual research there is almost nothing as wonderful as the thrill of unearthing an archived paper which solves an age-old mystery. Fiction, however, enables me to create characters I can take on adventures. Both kinds of writing can involve twisty plots, high drama and springing surprises on the reader!
[Linda Stratmann is the author of eleven non-fiction books. Her first novel, The Poisonous Seed set in 1880 Bayswater and featuring young sleuth Frances Doughty was published by The Mystery Press in April 2011. She is currently writing the second Frances Doughty novel, The Daughters of Gentlemen, to be published in 2012, and a biography of the infamous Marquess of Queensberry for Yale University Press. www.lindastratmann.com]