3 Ways That Writing Nonfiction Helped My Career as a Fiction Author

December 5, 2022

Fiction is my wheelhouse, my first and last love, my comfort zone, the place where I shine. So, when I noticed Story Embers’ Instagram advertisement for an article writer, I scrolled past it. I couldn’t be the person they were looking for!


However, the idea wouldn’t go away. I set myself to prayer, explaining that I didn’t feel equipped for the task God seemed to be nudging me toward. I even went so far as to apply for the position just to settle matters between us.


Oh, but God has a sense of humor, and I got the job. In His infinite wisdom, He had lessons for me to learn about fiction writing that only nonfiction writing could teach me.


Wait, what?


No, you read me right. Little did I realize the mind-stretching experience ahead of me when I drafted that first article about plot. Fiction and nonfiction aren’t as incompatible as I’d thought, and the crossover leads to beautiful results.


1. Blending Techniques

Remember that vintage Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ad? A woman is scooping peanut butter out of a container with her finger. A man is munching on a chocolate bar. They bump into each other on a busy street, and to their disgust, their snacks mix together. Before they start fighting, they taste the new combo—and love it. 


Nonfiction is like chocolate and fiction is like peanut butter. Two different flavors. Where nonfiction states the moral, fiction hints at it. Where nonfiction breaks a principle into steps, fiction illustrates it. While nonfiction stays laser-focused on a topic with tight sentences, fiction waxes elegant. While nonfiction conforms to a more rigid structure (cause and effect, thesis and supporting arguments, and so on), fiction’s basic format follows a beginning, middle, and end, and the author can wander down as many rabbit trails as she wishes to arrive at her conclusion. 


But what happens when your chocolate plops into your peanut butter?


When writers pull fictional elements into nonfiction, it’s called creative nonfiction. “True stories well told,” as someone once described it. When writers pull nonfiction elements into fictional writing, it’s called…what? No-nonsense fiction? Believable fiction? Or how about “well-told untrue stories”? Nonfiction trains you to communicate succinctly, hone your voice, explore multiple sides of an issue, and drive a point home.


Jesus often threw chocolate into people’s peanut butter. For example, when He urged a scribe to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the man struggled with the concept. So Jesus transitioned to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Cause: the Samaritan cared for a stranger. Effect: his kindness demonstrated that all people are neighbors. Pairing the two methods (instead of relying only on one) helped the scribe understand the meaning of Jesus’s instruction.   


2. Using Every Scrap of Research

Earlier in my career, I submitted an article about rocks to a children’s magazine. Later, when I wrote Meghan Rose Knows It All, I recycled the facts from that piece in a scene where Meghan shows off her rock-solid knowledge during class. My article lent authenticity to her dialogue and provided a bunch of scientific terms I could turn into lame jokes. (What do geologists say to a group of snobbish gold nuggets? You’re so vein.)


Many novels require extensive research, and not all of it will appear in the finished manuscript. But your prep work can serve a double purpose. In my book Inside the Ten-Foot Line, one teen has anorexia, and although I’m somewhat familiar with its effects, I couldn’t portray her habits accurately without additional study. My notes could feed several articles covering the red flags that signal an eating disorder and other types of mental illness. That could even expand into healthy recipes I post on social media or give me the sensitivity to open a conversation with a hurting friend. Nothing is wasted.


3. Building Expertise and Branding

In relation to my previous point, mining and repurposing the information you’ve accumulated will grant you credibility. This year I received an invitation to speak at a conference because of the humor that characterizes my stories and the tips I’ve shared on cracking readers up. The organizers wanted to hear my insights, not the synopsis of my novel. But the silver lining was that I had the opportunity to reference—and thus indirectly market—Inside the Ten-Foot Line in my presentation. Establishing yourself as an expert offers you a platform to discuss your passions, which will naturally intersect with your writing projects.


Besides being on the Story Embers team, I’ve contributed to Christian Children’s Authors, Almost an Author, and Writing and Selling Children’s Books in the Christian Market—from Board Books to YA by Cyle Young and Michelle Medlock Adams. Most of my articles revolve around story craft or making the learning process engaging for children. As a fiction writer, I’d be hard-pressed to brand myself since my stories span from kindergarteners to high schoolers. But I can borrow from the nonfiction arena to identify myself as a humorous writer with a knack for teaching.


Go for It!

As an author, you improve incrementally every day. You accept challenges and work long hours for little pay. It’s the nature of your profession. So even if you have misgivings about wading into the realm of nonfiction, it’s worth trying, if only to see how you might grow. You just have to believe you can do it. I’ve created an acrostic to jumpstart your progress.


Navigate the topics that you’re already drawn to.


Own your expertise and do thorough research so you can talk with authority.


Narrow your focus to clarify who you are.


Find your audience by following people with similar interests and values on social media.


Investigate publications related to your topic and pitch your nonfiction ideas there.


Cite other experts in your quest for more knowledge. That way you can associate yourself with them.


Take time to invest in writing nonfiction. Achieve a nice balance with your fiction writing.


Invite feedback from others on your nonfiction pieces.


Offer your own opinions about your topic on online forums.


Negotiate opportunities to speak or write on the topic.


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