Genre tips / research / writing

8 Tips for Creative Nonfiction Writers

CREATIVE NONFICTION‘Creative non-fiction’ is defined by Lee Gutkind–founder of Creative Non-fiction Magazine–as “true stories well told.”

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.

To write creative nonfiction, you take the facts and tell them accurately, but add ‘educated guesses’ and logical extrapolation as to what the dialogue would have been (who really was there when Washington crossed the Delaware), setting (if you’re writing about a man lost in the Alaskan wilderness, that area arguably has not evolved since your character survived there), drama of the situation (those details are lost to history, but can be guessed at as long as they’re based on fact). Think of Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Killer Angels--both classified as fiction, but  you feel like you learned a lot about history from them. I have no doubt both authors worked tirelessly to make the history accurate as they fictionalized the characters, setting, and story arc details.

I doubt either book would have sold as many copies if they had been released as ‘creative nonfiction’ rather than ‘historic fiction’. I’m guessing, based on the fact that there are few best sellers in the creative nonfiction genre.

Read these snippets from reviews on Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, a historic recounting of the death of one of America’s greatest presidents:

Killing Lincoln is a must read historical thriller

[Killing Lincoln] is nonfiction, albeit told in white-knuckled, John Grisham-like style

This genre teaches history with a spoonful of sugar.

Does this approach sound familiar? Have you checked your child’s classroom lately? The curriculum may sound similar to what you learned, but the delivery is more and more often done via carefully-selected games that teach the topic. It’s called the ‘gamification of education’ and is intended to keep students in school, graduate a greater percentage, and enable them to remember what they’ve learned long enough to use it in college and career. Studies prove students pay more attention, work harder, and retain material better via games than the traditional ‘sage on the stage’ approach.

early manHere’s my challenge: I’m writing a series based on man’s evolution over the past 2 million years. I want to share the uniquely human characteristics–problem solving, visualizing, decorating our bodies, belief in a higher being–allowed us to survive a world that was stacked against us. Obviously, there are no records to draw on other than paleo topics related to climate, geology, anthropology. This means much of what I posit is an extrapolation of fact. Let me ask you: Does that make my saga ‘creative nonfiction’ or ‘historic fiction’?

Before you decide, check out these tips for those who write in this genre:

  • include accurate and well-researched information
  • hold the interest of the reader
  • potentially blur the realms of fact and fiction in a pleasing, literary style (while remaining grounded in fact)
  • writers attempt to observe, record, and thus shape a moment(s) from real life. Writers thus extract meaning through factual details—they combine the fact of detail with the literary extrapolation necessary in rendering meaning from an observed scene.
  • dwell on sensory details and “show show show
  • the union of storytelling and journalism
  • Includes personal essay, memoir, literary journalism, academic/cultural criticism, narrative history, feature articles, documentary drama
  • tends to be more informal and personal than other types of nonfiction writing
  • Poynter says creative non-fiction relies on:
    • Documents (public and private records)
    • Tools of literary realism: Scene-by-scene construction; Dialogue: Point of View; Status details (Wolfe)
    • Description (Sense of place, character, time)
    • Reflection
    • Narrative frames (Chronology; parallel narrative; In media res)
    • Segmentation
    • Extra-literary design
    • The “line between fact and fiction” and John Hersey’s “Legend on the License” — None Of This Is Made Up

Now that you’ve seen these tips, is my story historic fiction or creative nonfiction?

More Genre tips:

18 Tips for Memoir Authors

8 Tips for Historic Fiction Writers

14 Tips for Young Adult Writers

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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22 thoughts on “8 Tips for Creative Nonfiction Writers

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  4. I never thought about historical fiction and creative non-fiction being similar, but I do see it now thanks to your thoughts on the topic. That helps me alot to calm my inner voice of guilt when writing my memoir for not remembering the exact words in a 40 year old conversation. We can share the gist of the conversation as best we can recall the situation. I think remembering the emotions at the time is the most important thing to express truthfully.
    JQ Rose

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    • It’s spoonful of sugar to make the dry history more palatable. I love history, but love it more when it’s entertaining. Our ancestors had it right–fables, stories, plays.


  10. I’m in a big confusion now Jacqui, whether my book is a non-fiction novel or a historical novel. The book is based on my own and my family’s experience of being chased out of our birthplace after the partition of India and how we spent our days in refugee camps. I don’t want to write a memoir, so is it a ‘non-fiction novel’ or ‘historical-fiction/novel’? Arun


    • Creative non-fiction uses all the facts from a narrative, but adds drama, dialogue (extrapolated from facts)–that sort of fiction details. Historic Fiction is based on a historic event/characters, but essentially fiction (though authors stay true to the historic facts.

      There is definitely overlap.


  11. Most useful thank you, especially as my WIP can use these tips. I will check out gamification of education and whether it’s used here in schools in South Africa. I can ‘see’ the benefits.


    • Oh, it’s wonderful. Here’s a link to a long list of free education games (a few fee-based). I’m sold on it. –


  12. Thanks Jacqui. One of the two books I have published is non-fiction. It is about the business I was associated with for a long time. Though I have used humour/satire in a few places, it was done with some trepidation, for fear that it will detract from the “educational” nature of the book. Still unsure how it would be perceived.


      • I have two books Jacqui. “What happens in office, stays in office” is fiction, a collection of satirical short stories. The other is “Some Method Some Madness: Managing BPO in India” which is about the BPO business that I am associated with. Which one did you buy?


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