Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Non-Fiction

I am determined to write a non-fiction story for a Surrey Conference Contest. However, it is giving me no end of problems.
If it were a news story, I would start with the conclusion and add facts until the editor cut it somewhere, depending on space available. E.g., Michael Jackson died Tuesday....Michael favoured Crest toothpaste until he discovered Colgate Total.
A romantic fiction story starts with a hero or a heroine with a problem, blows it into a crisis, has a black moment and ends up with them in bed saying trite things.
An essay approach starts at the conclusion and bores you solid until it gets to the beginning which is the end.
A non-fiction story is another matter. I have chosen a murder that I covered for three years (murder, arrest, charge, plea, sentence, inquiry, guy who gets to hold the can).
The choice of POV is a tough one. I am the only person who was in on every part of it plus interviews the police didn't have but I did. However, I can't very well write it in the first person and I was paid at the time to NOT have a point of view. Can't use the victim. He had no staying power. Can't use the police - too many of them with different agendas. Can't use the family - they didn't have access to all the facts. The Crown Prosecutor's point of view is a possibility but he got scalded in the end and I am not sure I can make the story show why and how. How much of his personal POV would be as a participant and how much as the ultimate victim can I write without resorting to fiction? Is that cheating?
What is the story form for a non-fiction story? They can hardly end up in bed and there is really no Black Moment - well, except briefly for the victim. The conflict is between the law and the entire community. (In fact, it went international and even my son in Cyprus read about it). Do I use the world's POV or merely the reaction of a Tibetan Skin Head? Or members of the family who know beans about the law?
What do I do about the victim? I had to describe him as a Cree trapper whereas, in reality, he wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer - more of a spoon in that regard - and his idea of fun was to party in the park on Lysol and hairspray. His entire life was tragic. How does one get that way? Tell the truth or go on about the Cree trapper bit. He actually trapped a few squirrels which he sold so he could party.
The really interesting bit is that the story reveals traditional Indians' ESP abilities but POV gets in the way again, although by hook or by crook, I will work it in.
The upshot is this: we know the form for a fiction story where the truth doesn't rate but what is the form for an entertaining non-fiction story? The actual story ends abruptly nowhere, as the killer turned out to be a police informant, not to mention a loose cannon, and we couldn't reveal any of that. I can't very well end the contest entry with ...
Now all of this is my problem, but, I hope, the problem of switching from fiction to non-fiction may be of importance to you at some point and will give you some thinking material for long cold, rainy summer days. We have enough of those that you should keep a tape recorder handy as you will soon have enough material for an encyclopedia. (Whenever I have to spell encyclopedia, I have to sing the Jiminy Cricket song).
Have you tried to switch after writing plenty of fiction but no non-fiction to writing non-fiction in story form? Would you switch POVs? I have unintentionally used some Black Humour in this blog. (In a law enforcement family, and/or as a police/court reporter, it is that or go stark raving after about your second horrible murder). Is it offensive? What situations would you write about in a non-fiction story? Would first person work for you or would you use the first person's story in the third person? Have you written your own story for your children or grandchildren? You really should. What was important to you in 1962 (Hayley is excused).
I will be very interested in your views. I hope you will forgive me for using blog space for personal writing problems.

17 comments:

Silver James said...

Interesting post, Connie. I'm going to copy and paste your questions and see if I can give you some semblance of an answer. :D

Have you tried to switch after writing plenty of fiction but no non-fiction to writing non-fiction in story form?

Yes. I went from fiction to technical writing/essays and back to fiction. I prefer fiction.

Would you switch POVs?

In the non-fiction story you are writing? Yes. All in 3rd person, I'd start with the victim's and follow his POV until the murder. Then I would take up the cops during the investigation, the Crown Prosecutor's during the trial and then finish the murderer's - why and how he did it and how he got off.

I have unintentionally used some Black Humour in this blog. (In a law enforcement family, and/or as a police/court reporter, it is that or go stark raving after about your second horrible murder). Is it offensive?

Uhm...you're talking to the "choir" here. My background is the same so I wouldn't be offended. The little old lady across the street might be. Who is your audience? Write to their sensibilities. That said, a little judicious black humor never hurts, in my opinion.

What situations would you write about in a non-fiction story? Would first person work for you or would you use the first person's story in the third person?

I've written my experiences as a first responder to the Oklahoma City bombing, among other incidents. In essay form, it was first person. In technical/true crime, always in third person. See my suggestions above about POV.

Have you written your own story for your children or grandchildren? You really should.

The DH and I have put together bits and pieces of family history, including our own. That's his project. Me? I'll stick to fiction.

What was important to you in 1962 (Hayley is excused).

Hey, no fair just because she's young! 1962. I was nine. Cuba was a hot topic here in the USA and we did lots of "duck and cover" exercises in school. Gotta love that Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We had missile silos around my home town and my dad had a contract to supply propane to them for heating. Viet Nam was a place occasionally mentioned on the nightly news (which was in black & white) and John F. Kennedy was a year away from destiny. Despite all that, being nine and all, the most important thing was that I still wanted a horse and hadn't gotten one for my birthday, so I was holding out for Santa to park one in the backyard on Christmas morning.

Vince said...

Hi Connie:

I am 95% a non-fiction writer.

What I would do, if the situation provided the material, is make the media the POV. I would make the media the villain or ‘fall guy’ by first showing bits of media coverage about the story and then showing what was really happening (on the ground) and how the media was getting it wrong. I would use newspaper headlines and radio & TV news transcripts as well as news opinion columns and commentary.

I would love to find ‘man on the street’ comments in the media from the time in which the common man was getting it right – while the media was way off base.

The Duke Lacrosse case comes to mind here.

The media quotes could be followed with court transcripts, police reports, interview transcripts, and other ‘objective’ sources.

This approach produces two story lines. What really happened in the case and how the media covered it. Ultimately the reader is left with the question of what this says about our society.

If this will not work given the facts, then perhaps another non-human POV would work. Think outside the box.

Good luck,

Vince

Jana Richards said...

Hi Connie,
I don't do much non-fiction aside from an occasional article for the newsletter at work. But it seemed to me that Silver and Vince had some solid advice. I like Silver's approach, moving from one person's POV to another. Vince's idea of "two tracks" - how the media covered the murder vs. what really happened - is interesting as well. I guess you have to decide what slant you want to take and go from there.

As far as whether I thought some of what you wrote was offensive, I have to say that yeah, I did, especially the depiction of the victim. I understand where you're coming from, but no murder victim deserves that fate.

Interesting, thought provoking blog, Connie. Good luck with the writing and with the contest.

Jana

Captain Hook said...

I would love to help you, Connie, but the only non-fiction I have written is memoir-style stuff.

Suse said...

Hi Connie, just from the information that you've given, I would be tempted to write the story from your perspective, since you are the only one who has been in on all the information gathering. But if you do write it from your perspective, I think you would have to look at from a different angle than just relating the story. Instead, how has this story impacted you or the community? What "truths" can the reader take away from reading this story? What's interesting about this story that you want people to know about? Why should they care? Who is your audience other than the contest judges?

Another concern I have is that your nonfiction article can be a maximum 1500 words for this contest. Can you say everything you want in this short word count?

One of the judges for the nonfiction contest, Elizabeth Lyon, is who I have a blue pencil session with so I decided to check her out. She has several writing books out - one of them being "A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction." I know you've had a lot of experience writing nonfiction, but you might want to check out her perspective on nonfiction to target your entry for the contest that she's judging.

This is just my two cents - I know not everyone views the world as I do.

Happy writing and good luck on your entry.

Helena said...

Connie, you've definitely captured some of the problems with writing non-fiction. I have given NF a shot, tho my attempts have had more of a memoir flavour to them. I'm a terrible genre-hopper. Keep coming back to fiction.

One thing I remember from Trevor Herriot's course in creative non-fiction -- he was always urging us to go beyond the facts of the story and look for the issue(s) or significance of the topic. He was always saying, "Dig deeper."

Ah, 1962 ... one of the most important years of my life. My first of three sons was born. That was the best part of that year.

Got our first tv set (b&w) and sat on the living room floor of our little basement suite spellbound with the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis (this was in Alberta, Canada!)

On a lighter note, that was the year the Grey Cup game was suspended because of fog in Toronto; not so light, Marilyn Monroe died that summer.

Thanks for the blog, Connie. Sorry I'm not more help. (Thanks for reminding me of the Surrey contest, don't know if I'll have anything I could submit, tho.)

Molli said...

Hi Connie. I don't have anything specific to offer for advice--I've only done one non-fiction piece and it wasn't a story so much as a bio. Silver and Vince had some good feedback for you. For some reason I am reminded of a movie I saw years ago with Rex Harrison and, I believe, Susan Hayward, in which they both narrated the story after their deaths--I suppose that's not quite the thing for non-fiction, though.

As for the Black Humour, I'm with Suse--consider the intended audience. I wasn't offended, but I have some idea why it's prevalent in any field where dwelling on the daily reality would make it seriously difficult to survive without such a release.

Good luck with the project.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Connie, this is the ideal forum for discussing your writing problems.

I used to write historical articles but found them too restricting.

And, I wrote many newspaper articles when my kids were involved in 4H.

But nothing can enthuse me like the creation of a romance novel.

Hope you get your answers, Connie. Good luck in Surrey.

connie said...

Silver James
Thank you!! I have checked out your blog and you are busier than a one-armed paperhanger, yet you took time to give me some indepth and useful help. I very much appreciate it.
Your idea on POV is a good one. I have been influenced by the advice that head hopping is something one can't get away with until in Mary Balogh's degree of fame.
I prefer fiction too since I have been able to burst out and try something new. I find romance a bit tough in that I have been married for more than 40 years. Our son's attitudes have more latitude than our's had.
You mentioned events in 1962 I had forgotten about except that a then boyfriend's soppy feelings about Marilyn Munroe's death caused me to move on. One grandson frequently asks me what was happening in such and such year, hence my question re 1962.
Standard question: where were you when you heard about Kenmnedy's assassination? (I was writing an algebra exam).
Thank you again
connie

connie said...

Vince,
Your advice to think outside the box is a jolt giver. I will take it very seriously.
Your ideas on the media/community/truth is one I will keep in mind for another story, for two reasons: I have a limit of 1500 words and secondly, I was the main source of information as the reporter who covered the story over a period of three years. I double checked everything. My city is very far from any other major cities. Most media sources couldn't afford their own reps so they depended on what stories I sent to Canadian Press. Being accurate was my middle name as a reporter. I was darn sure of my facts and strove to always give a fair version. I must have done fairly well on this story as members of the family are close friends now. But I hear what you are saying.
Thanks
connie

connie said...

Jana,
I agree. Silver James and Vince have some really good ideas. As I said, I will keep them firmly in mind.
Thanks for the honesty re black humour. I think Silver James and I agree that it becomes so much a part of our lives that we forget that it would offend.
Leo was a fairly good example of reservation life's effect on the residents. His family does not live up to their name LaChance (luck) as he had already lost two brothers, an uncle, a sister and two nephews to senseless crime and prejudice. The poverty and nearly total lack of employment opportunities have led to a hopeless situation as you will know from reserves around your city, especially Long Plain.
connie

connie said...

Captain Hook,
Thanks for considering the problems though.
connie

connie said...

Suse,
Your comments promptly clarified three areas I will have to take a second look at now. Thank you!
The first is that justice can easily be sacrificed (for both Leo and the CP) for way less than important reasons. A truth.
I called the book Buried in the Silence because the truth was buried as soon as it was indicated that Nerland was a police informant and he was entered into the witness protection program. Leo is buried in a silent forest cemetery.
The murder shook the community at the time and made many people rethink their prejudices and even, in some cases, their responsibility to protect our city from influences such as neo-nazism.
However, I believe most have forgotten all about it by now. An angle that came to mind from your questions might be the injustice of both Leo and the CP who carried the can for the Justice department and the RCMP.
Thanks for the tip about Elizabeth Lyon. I will look into the infor post haste.
connie

connie said...

Helena
Now I have to add to my 'middle name' "Dig deeper"
Give entering the contests a second thought, even if just for the feedback.
As for 1962, I remember seeing, or in that case not seeing the Grey Cup in clips. Fog in S. Ontario was rare but I remember some doozies. Smog has taken over.
connie

connie said...

Hi Molli,
I am guessing your son's profession gives you some black humour experiences.
Narrating the story from Leo's POV after death might work. I will give it some thought.
Thanks,
connie

connie said...

Hi Anita,
I feel a bit guilty at taking up blog space for writing problem. Hopefully, it was of some use to everyone. I wouldn't mind if others did it too. And, eight heads are certainly better than one!
You're right. It is a great forum and I am VERY grateful for everyone's consideration of the problems and helpful advice.
In the end though, I much prefer researching and dreaming up historical romance. There were no heroes in this story though. Only the evil knight. Nerland had a black cape on display in his shop with a Maltese Cross in red. The only one I have ever seen just like it was in tv coverage of the cult suicide in Quebec some years ago.
Thanks,
connie

connie said...

Thank you everyone. You have been very helpful and I am grateful for your time and thoughts.
connie