How Writing Nonfiction
Can Help Your Fiction
By Christa M. Miller
"Start small. Don't expect to start your
writing career with a breakaway novel." You've probably heard that quote
more often than you care to. "Get practice. Send some short stories out.
Build your publishing credentials." All good advice. But short stories
aren't the only way to establish yourself. Think about this back door: trade
Trade magazines, as opposed to consumer
magazines, are published for professionals in particular industries:
firefighters, church workers, computer programmers, and many others. Many of
them are outlined in Writer's Market, and working for them can help your
They help you get to know the trade. This
is critical if you have a plot or character that depends on a trade.
They help you network. Read the
acknowledgments at the beginnings of many novels. Authors often thank
their professional trade sources.
They help you establish your credentials.
Publication is publication.
They increase your confidence in yourself
and your writing ability.
A caveat before I continue: I don't
recommend writing for trades if a minor character works in the relevant
field, or if you really aren't particularly interested in the trade. You're
better off doing an interview under those circumstances. However, if you
intend to stick with the character and his trade over the course of several
novels, and if the trade really resonates with you, then writing for (and
reading) trade magazines could help you learn basics that will help make
your story feel more authentic.
For me, the relevant trade is emergency
services -- law enforcement, firefighting, etc. The novel I'm currently
working on is part police procedural, and I'm planning at least three others
that also feature police work. I've been writing for police trade magazines
for nearly a year, and there's no doubt in my mind that it's helped me with
the five items I mentioned above.
Writing for trades has helped me get to
know the job. When I started, the ridealongs and interviews I was doing
helped, but there was only so far I could take them. Like many other jobs,
law enforcement's been evolving rapidly in terms of technology, operations,
etc. One cop, or even one department, will not necessarily have a handle on
all the trends in the industry. Knowing what's happening in a trade gives
you an idea of the resources your character has -- or doesn't have.
Another way trades help your fiction is
with character and plot work. For every article I write, I interview between
five and ten people for information. Each one is a potential advisor, even a
potential part of a character. Likewise, each anecdote they give is a
potential plotline waiting to add creative detail.
The more interviews you do, the better feel
you'll get for the sources you want to come back to for future details. The
way they answer your questions, relate to you, and talk about their jobs all
demonstrate the extent of their enthusiasm, which indicates the likelihood
of their talking to you again. I have sources I still talk to after two
years (even if only to tell them how I'm doing); other sources lasted only
for one article. The best sources become your partners; you end up feeding
each other bits of information, helping each other in your respective jobs.
How do you find sources? With law
enforcement, I use a number of different modes of finding people:
The Internet. For a piece on school
resource officers, I typed "school resource officer" into a search engine
and from there made a list of about a dozen SROs from around the country. I
also belong to an e-group of law enforcement officers.
Shadowing. I ride along on patrol with
police officers; other authors have shadowed detectives or administrators
(and many others). Most are very amenable to this activity as long as it
isn't likely to harm you or them.
Professional gatherings. Try to find
conferences in your area to attend. You often don't have to pay if you
explain you're just there to network for one day.
Keep your eyes and ears open, no matter
whom you talk to or where you go, to find potential sources. News
(television and print); friends and family; even your mail carrier or grocer
can give you names of potential sources.
Writing for trades can help you establish
writing credentials. Although there's no question that nonfiction and
fiction are two entirely different forms of writing, everything you put into
play in fiction that came from nonfiction makes your work more accurate,
Writing for trades pays. Maybe not enough
to survive on, but depending on how much you do, it can pay a nice secondary
income. This, however, carries its own caveat: do too much, and you may not
have time for fiction! The best way around this problem is to start with
only one or two articles, figure out your comfort level and your income
needs, and go from there.
Writing for trade magazines increases your
confidence in yourself and your writing ability; or, at least, it did for
me. When you write for a trade magazine, you have to think in terms of a
target audience or else the piece won't sell at the end of the month. You
have to think of the police chief who only has fifteen minutes at the start
of his day to read an article, or the cop tasked with a new initiative who
has to read a wealth of information on the subject to know what she has to
do. The article that sticks in these readers' minds is the one that grabs
their attention quickly, holds their attention with well-reasoned and
thoughtful prose, and wraps the whole thing up by making them think. Doesn't
that sound familiar? Put another way, I "noodled" on my fiction for years
without really thinking of my target readers. Writing articles has made me
think of what they will be interested to read -- and has made my fiction
Writing for trades isn't a guarantee of
publication. It will, however, broaden your scope of resources, strengthen
your confidence, and benefit you in ways you may not have considered.