By Donna R. Dolan-
First of all, it is possible. Ernest Hemingway and William Kennedy moved from journalism; Sue Monk Kidd from memoir; and C. S. Lewis from essays and treatises. Sue Monk Kidd states that the most frequently-asked question on her book tours is, “How did you go from nonfiction to fiction?” Here are some tips and support to help you make the transition:
You need to transition your reading, as well. Read your most-admired authors and new fiction authors also. Remember, C.S. Lewis says good readers read a piece more than once.
Have a plan. Stagger your writing. Perhaps write fiction and nonfiction on alternate days. Or, write your fiction first, then go back to the nonfiction you’re more comfortable with once you’ve met your word count in the other.
Writing fiction is a discipline for which you have been well-trained through your nonfiction deadlines. Produce five to ten pages a day faithfully!
Try flash fiction first. Because it is short, it is easier to start with and there are numerous contests listed in FundsforWriters newsletter.
Your nonfiction themes can find a home in your fiction. For instance, C. S. Lewis’ themes concerned Christianity which he incorporated into his fiction (Chronicles of Narnia) without being didactic or preachy.
The skill sets you have developed while writing nonfiction will serve you well in fiction also. These include:
1) Attention to detail. Your descriptions of the who, what, where, why and how will help you in plotting fiction and in description.
2) Interviewing. Interview your characters on what they think about — religion, politics or an event — just as you would a source.
3) Sense of place. Your knowledge of a place garnered from nonfiction can serve you well in fiction. William Kennedy reported on Albany, NY first for the Albany Times Union and then set his cycle of Albany novels there. Readers always want to see a place with which they are familiar portrayed accurately, and your nonfiction experience of place sets you apart.
4) Journal Writing. Your journal or dream journal writing can help with both plot and productivity. This angle also falls in the category of “write what you know.”
5) Research. Nonfiction research is helpful to fiction. You’ll get that time or place right, but William Kennedy talks about the danger of research:
“And so I got hooked on research, couldn’t get out from under the library’s microfilm machine until I finally realized I was doing myself a great disservice; because your imagination can’t absorb all that new material and synthesize it easily.“
Finally, William Kennedy describes the difference between nonfiction and fiction: “But the journalist must report on life objectively, and the novelist must reinvent life utterly, and the work has to come up from below instead of down from the top as a journalist receives it. But experience alone will produce only commonplace novels. The real work is a blend of imagination and language.”
Source for quotes: Allen, Douglas and Mona Simpson, “William Kennedy: The Art of Fiction 111,” Paris Review, Winter, 1989.
BIO: Donna R. Dolan is a librarian and aspiring fiction writer who lives in Albany, NY. She often writes about research and online information.