Writing creative nonfiction involves a process I like to think of as gathering the raw materials. In an earlier post we defined creative nonfiction and introduced 5 common categories—literary journalism, memoir and autobiography, profile and biography, essay, and food and travel writing. When it comes to memoir or essay, you could get by with just writing what you know. You could gather your memories and the things you’ve already experienced and piece them together to form a narrative. But to write in any of those other categories—and to create more comprehensive memoirs and essays—you’re going to need to invest time in gathering the raw materials. This process includes 3 methods (or ingredients): research, interviews, and personal experience or immersion.
When writing fiction, you research events, people, cultures, and locations to develop a world that is believable to readers. None of those things need to actually exist (not even the locations), but they need to reflect reality enough for the reader to believe that they could exist and to become invested. When you’re writing nonfiction, the events, people, cultures and locations do need to be real. But most writers aren’t carrying around intimate knowledge of enough of those things to write a full and accurate story. So how do you gather that information? That’s where those 3 ingredients come in.
The essence of creative nonfiction is a blend of information and ideas. By using research, interviews and personal experience, you can craft a piece of creative nonfiction that educates readers and explores ideas.
The research stage is when you hit the (virtual) books. Scour the library and the web to gather as much information as possible about your subject. If you’re writing literary journalism, take a look at what other writers have said about the topic or event. Find resources that outline the details and make sure you’re pulling from multiple sources to get a balanced view. For writing memoir or profile you can compile biological details to build a framework of the facts for yourself or the subject. For food writing you can research the ingredients, the history of the restaurant, or the cultural context of the type of food. Travel writing can involve diving into the history of the location—geographic details, culture, significant events.
The interview stage is all about gathering different perspectives in order to write a more balanced and informed account. If possible, interview people who come at your subject from all sides. If it’s a controversial topic, interview people from both sides of the argument; if it’s a profile, interview both a professional and personal contact of your subject. When you sit down to write, you don’t need to include the interviewees’ opinions, but conducting interviews will give you a better understanding of the person, event, or theme you’re writing about.
Tip: Use an audio recorder (like a voice memo app) when you’re interviewing so you can participate in the conversation more naturally. You might want to note specific ideas that you know you’ll want to go back to later, but attempting to record everything important your subject says will lead to a stilted interview. It’s also good to prepare a list of questions beforehand, but be open to going off script.
Personal Experience or Immersion
This stage is a given when it comes to memoir, but is often bypassed when it comes to other types of creative nonfiction. Although immersion journalism is nothing new, this idea brings an aspect to nonfiction writing that makes it come alive. If you’re writing a profile, try spending some time with your subject as they go through their day. Seeing them in different situations will enable you to see different sides of their personality. When you’re writing about a travel destination, pass some time just absorbing the culture, people, and scenery. If you want to write an article that explores how university grads end up working as baristas, invest some time on campus and behind the counter of the local Starbucks alongside some of those grads. Personal experience and immersion requires more effort and often involves going out of your comfort zone, but the added dimension it will bring to your writing will be worth it. It allows you to experience one of the best things about writing nonfiction—the ability to see the world from different perspectives, angles and backgrounds.
A balance of research, interviews and personal experience or immersion will provide the fodder you need to write informed, detailed and complex creative nonfiction.
Gathering raw materials is only the first step. Our course The Creative Nonfiction Starter Guide will guide you through each stage—from compiling information and mining for stories to finding your style and format. The Creative Nonfiction Starter Guide will be launching soon. Want to make sure you get all the details (and access to launch bonuses that are only available to Elsie Road Insiders)? Get on the list here.
Ready to jumpstart your creative nonfiction writing right now? Download our free course The Creative Nonfiction Primer and get instant access.