Friday, January 16, 2015

Do You Read Nonfiction? Why You Should

For the most part, I write contemporary novels. Modern issues find their ways into my books.

Rightly so, writers like JK Rowling, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury have established the crucial importance of constant reading for anyone to be a decent writer. Read read read read read is the overarching theme; read everything you can.

For a long time, I've thought that only meant fiction. Yet, all the nonfiction that I've read (which isn't nearly enough) has helped to create a more believable and honest depiction of contemporary issues and life.

How does a writer balance reading nonfiction and fiction? And by nonfiction I don't mean narrative nonfiction, I mean actual, academic, fact-based nonfiction.

I have nonfiction books on my nightstand, but whenever my fingers itch to pick them up I grab something else. It's a waste, right? To read nonfiction when reading fiction - as all these great writers have said - is the key to being a good fiction writer. There's little emphasis on prose, no such thing as plot or characterization, and no allegory or metaphors or any such fictional devices. How can we fiction writers learn from nonfiction?

But here's the thing. Apart from it being, in my opinion, required for good social activists or public figures, reading nonfiction might be the key to great fiction writing. Seriously. I think it's the next big breakthrough in fiction writing (shhhh, don't give the secret away).

True, most writing and art is simply an autobiography (it's a cynical view of art, but I've found it to be true), but I assume that most of us aren't writing literal autobiographies. We're writing fiction, and we have characters that go through issues we don't go through.

The key is to portray these characters honestly, whether they be in a fantasy novel, a romance, a sci-fi, a mystery, anything. The problems that living beings face are universal and they have universal nuances and complexities that a simple 'I'll guess my way through it' attitude cannot address. These problems are usually also part of a societal structure, a structure that can be analyzed and understood more thoroughly.

It's one of the (few) problems I had with Harry Potter. How does race play a role in the wizarding world? How do Muggleborns not speak up against the tyranny of owl mail when text messages work so much faster (and would have solved Harry's dilemma of finding Sirius Black quite quickly - and electric objects do work in Grimmauld Place, they only don't work in Hogwarts). Where are all these complexities? The series's saving grace is the fact that it is fantasy. Rowling already painstakingly created such a nuanced world that expecting any more from her is just cruel and unusual punishment. Plus, she is Queen. I just wanted to show that these complexities and nuances (learned from nonfiction based on this world) could be translated to fantasy.

And even further complexities and nuances: gentrification, health care, law, policy, scientific methodology, university structures, etc. These exist in the real world and can exist in fantasy worlds as well.

I've completely revised my novel based on information I learned within the last few months. Pulling up an article or Googling a quick fact for research works well but not nearly as well as really researching and reading the best books on your topic. Not to mention, taking the first bit of information you receive can be dangerous.

For example. In The DaVinci Code, Robert Langdon speaks to a group of prisoners about the Mona Lisa's supposed gender duality. Using the Egyptian god Amon and the goddess Isis (or L'isa), Langdon, a Harvard professor, uses the fact that the two names rearrange to Mona Lisa as part of his proof that Mona Lisa smiles because she promotes the divine union of male and female.

Well. Well. Da Vinci never named the painting. Never. It's called La Gioconda traditionally (yes, not Mona Lisa, we English-lovers!) and was named Mona Lisa centuries after Da Vinci's death. Ugh. Just read this, it explains it all. Harvard professor? I think not.

But the fact of the matter is, how would someone have known the painting's naming history without doing thorough research? It's not a fact that most even imagine to research about. The only solution is to just research everything.

Not only did Dan Brown alienate much of his readership (I almost but the book down after reading that part), but he lost credibility with many people. But you can't really blame him. It's the case of a 'take the first bit of information given and not look into it further'. It's something we all do to save time and make quick decisions.

But fiction writing is not fast. We all know that. It's a slow-cooked meal, and the slower you cook it, the better it gets (unless it's super slow - try being good, but not overly perfectionist!). Do your research. Read nonfiction!

Reading all these books will take long. Reading nonfiction that has little to do with your subject matter is crucially important too, because having a broad knowledge base lets you pick where your novel can go, giving you a much bigger canvas to paint on. I mean, we read fiction books outside our genre, right? Why not read nonfiction books outside our topics? It'll give us the honesty that we all reach for when we write.

First on my reading list, after I finish my current book, is Merchants of Doubt or Alan Turing's biography, still have to decide.

Do you read nonfiction? Why or why not?


  1. Yes! Nonfiction can also be really inspiring. Learn something new, your brain expands, and all of a sudden you've got a new story idea. Neat how that works.

  2. Very interesting! I never thought of this before, but it makes perfect sense. And you are oh so right that you should NEVER take the first bit of information and run with it. I've spent hours researching. But now, thankfully, I have a consultant to help get the technicalities of homicide investigation correct. Other points in the story I'll now turn to non-fiction. Thanks for sharing this secret, S.C.!

  3. This is such a timely and important topic & I'm so glad you wrote about it. I read A LOT of non-fiction. I read a lot as a child, as a teenager and as an adult. Much of it has to do with historical facts, which I love & devour at every given moment. I guess, if I were to give it a %, I read about 40:60% (non fiction being 40%). I recently read People of the Book, an international best seller & winner of two awards, (perhaps more, but two that I know of). Some of the writing was brilliant, stunning & so emotional. Parts of it literally had me in tears. However, in the end, I gave this book a 1-star review (my first ever) Why? For a number of reason but the primary one was the historical inaccuracies. When I wasn't drawn into the characters (and trying to hide real tears in public places like cafes), I found myself saying WHAT? I even said out loud "Oh FFS! Come on!" & caught myself as the people (on the train) looked up at me. I was so annoyed & frustrated by these issues that I felt compelled to write a (long-ish) blog post on my Nestpitch blog explaining why I gave a best seller with awards, that was so good in some parts, a 1-star review. As authors (of fiction and non-fiction), we have a duty to check our facts, spell names correctly, refer to dates in history correctly (etc) because those of us (like me) who get stumped when novels get the scientific or historical references so wrong, will stop reading. And not just the book we have in our hands, but future books. For example, I have no intention of ever reading another novel by this author. No, we (as author's) can't get it right ALL THE TIME. And yes, we, (the reader), will let a few things slide. But if there are numerous issues with reference to history and/or science, then other issues that we would have been ignored simply add to our frustration. Like you, think to be a great fiction writer, the author must set aside some time to read non-fiction.