Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


How Writing Nonfiction Can Help Your Fiction

By Christa M. Miller
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 magazines.

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 fiction. How?

  • 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 pay.

  • 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, more believable.

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 much stronger.

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.