Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Crime fiction versus crime non-fiction

Amanda Berry
I woke up this morning to news out of Cleveland of three girls (now women) who were kidnapped and held prisoner, one for over ten years. Being who I am and doing what I do, I read several accounts and watched some video on the subject. To say the least, the details were gripping – and we barely know anything at this point. (I would also like to go on record as saying that I’m thrilled at the escape/rescue of these unfortunate souls. What a marvelous thing for them and their families.)

I’m sure like many other crime novelists, I couldn’t help but think what a marvelous basis for a plot the story would make (all the while feeling quite guilty about my thought processes). But it really could make a gripping novel, wouldn’t it?

Having a very large graphic design project on the go – not to mention the two novels I’m currently writing – I’ve put in several hours of work, but all the while thinking about the situation in Cleveland. Since it’s getting late in the day, I decided to flip over to writing my weekly post to Type M before the dinner hour is suddenly on me.

One of the things that occurred to me is that this story will see print, probably multiple times. In fact, it would not surprise me if there are enterprising writers probably already at work on it. If a writer of sufficient stature has pitched an idea to a publisher, I can easily imagine contracts for a non-fiction book may already being drawn up. Let’s face it, first book out of the blocks will probably win this race.

Something else got me thinking, though. Which would be more difficult to do: a novelization of this story, or a reporting of it, ie. a non-fiction account?

Never having written non-fiction, I find it an intriguing concept. I do know what it takes to write a novel. There is the initial idea, the finding of appropriate (and compelling) characters to populate the plot, and then there are the myriad of details, the blind alleys, and all those other things and ideas that crop up in completing and polishing a manuscript until you have a finished product. It is a very hard slog.

In writing non-fiction, there are numerous difficulties, as well. First and foremost, you have to wait and watch the story develop, and with the justice community involved, you will have to wait for those slow wheels to grind. Also, at the very least, you have to get hours of interviews, wade through the eventual court transcripts, fill out the details.

Writing non-fiction (I get this from people who do it) is more of a research project that involves writing, as opposed to fiction which is a writing project that (usually) requires research.

I think it takes a very specific kind of person to do either, and rare it is to find a writer who can do both well. For me, I would find it the height of frustration to wait around as more information slowly comes to light over weeks, months, even years. With a novel, as long as you don’t get a writer’s brain cramp, you can just keep sailing along at your own speed.

I will certainly be keeping my eye on this story, and I won’t be able to keep myself from cogitating on how I would spin what I learn into a plot for a novel (which I will probably never write).

But what is really serendipitous about this story coming out now is that one of my current novel projects actually involves a kidnapping/hostage situation. You can bet I’ll be taking notes.


j welling said...

Interesting to read this post-

I'm reading _Good Prose:The Art of Non-Fiction_ by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd at the suggestion of an editor friend.

I am surprised by how much of the coaching on prose and story presentation in this non-fiction book translates directly to fiction. It seems obvious after reading it that a well-cast story and clean language is immersive.

I'm certain you and the Type M crew could do well in non-fiction crime as well.

Good stories take the eye for perspective: what is the story here?

That distillation seems functional in the fiction and non-fiction story.

Good luck with the hostage plot.

Rick Blechta said...

I don't know about writing non-fiction. I have a really tough time telling any sort of story and not embellishing it – even just a little. It goes without saying that good writing is good writing and you need certain knowledge and chops to be able to pull it off, and keep readers hooked.

You're soooo right about honing in on what the story is, regardless of what you're writing about. If you can't do that, you'd better learn before you hang out your shingle as a writer.

Thanks for the tip on that book. I will certainly check it out. I'm always up for learning new things.

Toe Hallock said...

Dear Rick: This event seems almost too obvious to use in fiction at this point in time. However. Do you remember a case where a then
14-year-old who was kidnapped at a much younger age finally escaped. He also rescued a 5-year-old when he realized the toddler faced the same future as he. One of our many TV crime series used the basic plot, but the ending was less up. Didn't see the connection until now. Yours truly, Toe.