Sunday, February 14, 2016

Storytelling style: Blending fiction, nonfiction techniques and skills

By day, I edit manuscripts about geology for scientific and general public audiences.

By night and weekend, I write.

I write crime fiction, of course. But I also write nonfiction for a local magazine that showcases the best of our area—businesses, people, events, nature, culture, and more. I’ve been writing for this magazine for more than a decade, but in recent years, I’ve noticed something: As I grow more skilled as a writer, the style I bring to nonfiction crosses over into my fiction and vice versa.

I felt this difference in nonfiction storytelling in an article I wrote for the Winter 2011 issue of the magazine, “An Affair of the Heart and Feather,” about the oldest pair of nesting bald eagles at a local lake. Take, for example, these excerpts:
“For more than two decades, an avian love story has played out in the skies over Clinton Lake.”
“In the words of scientists, mom and dad became the first historically documented pair of bald eagles to successfully raise young since the turn of the century in Kansas. For the rest of us non-scientists, they’re known as the first nesting pair of bald eagles to settle in our state.”
“Without his mate, the full burden of childcare fell squarely on the male.”
As a younger writer, I might not have chosen to see “an avian love story” in such human terms. I wouldn’t have used the words “mom and dad” to refer to eagle pairs or “burden of childcare” to describe an eagle taking care of its young.

Though limited to the facts and interviews I’d gathered, my writing felt lighter, looser. I felt free to experiment with different word choices, a more carefree style, and grammatical constructions that were not necessarily strictly grammatical to emphasize interesting details or brighten a dense topic. I credit fiction writing with bringing me to this richer approach to nonfiction.

On the flip side, my nonfiction work gives me insight into people and places in a way that sitting all day in an office does not. In one of my favorite stories of the past few years, I profiled Thomas Burns, a commercial fisherman and self-taught naturalist who spent years studying the Kansas River—known as the Kaw to those of us in Northeast Kansas—and the big catfish that inhabit it. Through archives of his first-person accounts of his life and interviews with family and friends, I pieced together a picture of a man who loved the river, loved fishing, and, for much of his commercial fishing career, ran afoul of Kansas laws that banned the particular type of net he and most commercial fishermen used at the time. Evading the law became a game for him.

“He had five or six boats on the river, so they didn’t know for sure which boat he was going to be at,” his daughter told me. “You could say he was just a little on the ornery side.”

Later, the same wildlife officials who tried to curb his illegal fishing turned to him for help when they wanted to understand more about his fishing methods and the river that played such a large role in his life and our community.

As a crime fiction writer, this story of the complicated relationship between Burns and law enforcement fascinated me and provided another lesson for fiction writing: Good versus evil is a false dichotomy. The best, most interesting characters have layers—some good, some bad, some ornery. Shades of gray give a story depth.

Together, nonfiction and fiction projects have made me a stronger writer, a better storyteller. I embrace each new magazine assignment and each new crime fiction story as an opportunity to sharpen my skills and grow as a writer.


  1. Everything in life informs our writing—but only if we allow it. Being open to allowing experiences in one “component” of life to positively affect another can be one of our great growth experiences.

    I love your examples.

    ~ Jim

  2. One of aspects of nonfiction writing I remember from my consulting days is the use of boring verbs! Using verbs with vitality almost seemed sacrilegious because proposals and client memorandums were serious stuff! We couldn't litter our reports with frivolous words that might color the black and white we wanted to portray with color, shades of anything but truth. We had the right credentials, methodology, and format. It was all so serious and boring--I can't help but wonder how many clients fell asleep at their desks reading our mind-numbing words.

  3. So true, Jim. It's taken me a lot of years and a lot of experiences to find that wisdom in my life. :)

    Elaine - I've seen that in my work with academic researchers, too. Even when a vivid verb is appropriate, it can sometimes be rejected because it doesn't seem weighty enough somehow.

  4. I just returned from the "Furry Valentine" pet rescue event in preparation for writing an article about local pet rescue groups.

    I'll think about your articles and the writing issues you've raised when I'm writing the article.

  5. Everything we experience impacts our writing. Switching among various types of writing can enrich it, especially if, like you, we give some thought to what we want to accomplish and review our skills and the tools at our disposal.

    But you've left us with a mystery. What happened to the female eagle, that the male was left with the entire "burden of childcare"? And did he successfully raise the eaglets? I know there was a nest near D.C. where the female was killed, and the male tried unsuccessfully to raise the young.

  6. Good luck with your article, Margaret! A "Furry Valentine" pet rescue event sounds like fun!

    KM - Sadly, we don't know what happened to that first female eagle but the male successfully raised those chicks by himself after she disappeared. And the next year, he came back with a new mate and they've been together for a couple decades (or they had been when I wrote the article). It's a happy ending to an avian mystery!

  7. Julie, I like the way you've changed your articles to a more personal style. I would prefer reading something like that about the eagles or the old fisherman than something that is starkly scientific.

    I don't write articles, but I do research a wide variety of topics for my blogs and add personal touches as well. I think everything new we learn about helps our writing. How can it not?

  8. Thanks, Gloria. I've come to understand that personal, engaging style and nonfiction really do work well together.