I’m a novelist by trade; the current count stands at nine. That count ranges over the various genres of action, romance, fantasy, western, spiritual and satire. As you can see, I like variety and I will tell any kind of story that grabs me by the throat, drags me to my chair and insists on being written down.
I’ve also learned that every story will demand a different voice. The romance novels will often have a more flowery style to them while the action stories are more clipped and direct. My spiritual novel, Goddess Rising, demanded an almost archaic voice, while my satire of romance novels, The Pits of Passion, bounced irreverently between gushing descriptions and off-the-cuff puns. The voices seem to arise naturally out of the story and require very little effort on my part.
So when I was inspired to write the true story of my aunt, an Army nurse and a prisoner-of-war during World War II, I thought, “No big deal.” I’m an author; I should be able to “auth” any kind of story there is, right?
I quickly found out that writing non-fiction was an entirely different ball game. While I was used to turning a story this way or that (or at least suggesting a direction; sometimes the characters had different ideas!), writing non-fiction meant staying rigorously aligned to the facts and not deviating for any reason. Because this was a family story as well as a true story, I felt doubly pressured to write as objectively as possible, neither embellishing nor diminishing the facts either for dramatic effect or for my own emotional comfort. Finding the right tone of voice for this project quickly became a challenge.
Except for the addition of some family stories, I had to become almost an observer, assuming a detached, journalistic voice. The fact of the matter was that I had no personal experience with any of the events about which I wrote (although I knew the people well enough), and there was no reason for me to pretend that I did. I was as much on the outside looking in as any of my readers. Luckily the research material I had at hand contained a wealth of information, so “all” I had to do was string it all together in a way that kept the amazing story moving toward its fated end.
What I found liberating about writing non-fiction was the constraint.
Yes, that same constraint I mentioned earlier about sticking to the facts. Because the story was true and had already played out, I did not have to worry about the arc of the story, create the characters or figure out the resolution. It was similar to the security a child feels by having clearly defined boundaries. Yes, you may help yourself to a juice box from the refrigerator; no you may not play with the flame-thrower! Understanding these constraints left me free to laser in on the facts, assemble them in chronological order and connect them in as compelling and suspenseful a way as possible.
Interestingly enough, I found that I liked this non-fiction business. I enjoyed the challenge of hammering out the journalistic voice, of “reporting” on these events from one of the darkest times in our history. Of course, since this is a family story, it was also a labor of love, but I’ve realized that I will not shy away from another true story if it happens to capture my imagination.