The Importance of Non-Fiction to Fiction Writing

N is for Non-Fiction

N is for Non-Fiction

I write fiction. I write a lot of fiction, honestly, and it is largely of a fantastical or supernatural bent. Even when the worlds and characters for whom you are writing are far removed from our world, however, one shouldn’t discount non-fiction as a resource, or as a source of fascinating things to know – and use.

Non-fiction is incredibly important to the writing of fiction, even when you’re creating a whole new world from out of your own head. After all, everything that we write is, in a way, filtering our own world, and the more of our world we know, the more clearly – or distortedly – we can hold that reflected image of another world.

I’m always collecting random snatches of information – we all do, I think, though perhaps I am more prone to chase down something purely because I can than most people I have met. I store those random bits and bobs in my head, whether or not I’ve a particular reason to do so, out of habit.

You might be amazed how often they come out again, either while I’m writing, or when someone else asks me a question for their writing. Even, at times, when I’m reading, sinking into a world fully established by someone else.

When You Have a Story

Say you already have a world, a character, a plot – you know what you’re doing here, at least to some extent. Perhaps you’ve even built this world yourself, so you have great bedrock to build up on.

Or perhaps you have an idea, pieces of a story, and you haven’t yet built the confines of the world in which it will take place, however close or far from our own that world may be. You may need ideas of where you can put your foundations, what is solid enough to support your tale and what needs further development.

In either case, real-world research is an excellent tool to infuse your newly-created world with that little something that makes it oh so easy for your reader to step into – even if you disregard some of the rules of our world.

From the necessary, for example, in broad strokes: textiles, mechanics, weapons-crafting, technology, human and animal biology – to the more frivolous, such as the symbolism of plants, the history of portraiture, the inner workings of a steam engine – the details that you have access to, and work into your stories, can greatly increase the depth and the richness of the tapestry.

So whether you need a bit more fleshing out of a detail or you just want to have a little fun sliding further layers into your story, or neither in particular, I encourage you to pick up a book, or browse through a website, or talk to an expert. You never know what a little reality might add to your reality as you write.

When You Don’t Have a Story

In addition to providing a more solid foundation for a story you are in the process of building, those same little details can even inspire whole new stories or worlds. Think of a fact, whatever it is – that sharks go through thousands of teeth in their lives; the history of the trebuchet; the traditional steps in a particular kind of dance.

Any one of those things could inspire a story, small or large, could send a writer’s mind off spiralling into new ideas and new worlds to explore.

Or perhaps the facts learned will not inspire something new – perhaps instead they will provide a detail that you didn’t know you needed for a story you already have. Perhaps they will ‘merely’ be slotted into a repository of facts, and when you least expect it, prove useful or interesting.

I read anything that’s going to be interesting. But you don’t know what it is until you’ve read it. Somewhere in a book on the history of false teeth there’ll be the making of a novel.
~Terry Pratchett

Whether you have a specific fact to look for or not, whether you have only chosen a subject for a momentary bit of interest in it, or because a directed path led you to it, non-fiction is an invaluable tool to be utilised by any writer of fiction.

What kinds of non-fiction interest you? Have you ever delved into a subject because you were curious about the details as you built a story? What do you think is the most useful facet of non-fiction for a fiction writer?


7 thoughts on “The Importance of Non-Fiction to Fiction Writing

  1. I enjoy non-fiction about people’s lives and history. I find diseases fascinating. Most importantly, I love to read how they all interact and change the world. This is a great post. One of my favorite genres of all is historical fiction, because it gives the flavor of what life was like and you can imagine you were there, even if all of the facts are perfect!

  2. I’m so so so so happy that you wrote about the subject. I’m always studying something. I have created a fantasy world and I need now to go into deeper details, hence I need new information! Also there are a topic I love and when I can I dive into it: pirates and ships!

  3. Great post, I love reading anything interesting – popular science and random facts are my favourite fun non-fiction, from the more serious topics anything exploring the connection between economy, environment and politics.

  4. I write science fiction, so I need to keep up with new scientific/technological developments. I also read about anthropology, history, etc. Sometimes I read about odd things like what people wore in a particular historical era, because that helps make sure I’m not dressing my fantasy characters in generic pseudo-medieval stuff.

    I did a lot of reading up on woodworking originally because I needed the information for a work of fiction; I ended up quite interested in the subject for its own sake.

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