A few months back I wrote a meandering post about non-fiction that can be more fantastical than fiction. Yesterday Day made a post about what we read as writers, and I mentioned I’ve been on a non-fiction kick as late. The two have been forming together in my head, and more and more I’m considering the idea of how to approach a genre fiction novel from a non-fiction perspective.
The books I’ve read of late, tales of archeological discoveries, theories about crashed UFOs, a biography of a famous stage magician, the history of an island over run by the white man and turned into a state, all of them suggest stories that are larger and more detailed than all but a select few fiction novels on the market. And part of that is our awareness of the outside world, our understanding that while these things were going on there were events taking place all over the earth, most of which were unconnected, but some that ended up tying directly into the stories. The history of Area 51 is informed by the entire reality of the Cold War, even those bits that don’t directly involve aerial reconnaissance. The golden age of magic grew out of an industrial revolution that rewarded cleverness and engineering knowledge, as well as a reconnection with the occult that spread through society. These things are real.
When we read fiction, we can be too often aware that what we are reading is not real. It’s the job of the author to immerse us in the world. This is where I envy the series tie-in novel writers, because they do have a wider world that the reading audience is aware of. Everyone else? It’s time for some world building. And it’s fine line to walk between presenting too much information and not enough. Everything that the non-fiction writer has taken care of for them. We know Earth. We know a lot of its history, its wars, its religions, its people, its climates. We can be told a character is “Christian” and know what they believe, and why. The history of their faith, the major tenants, it’s all part of the collective understanding. But when I tell you that an alien is a “Murxisalist,” what the hell is that? It’s then a requirement to explain what that means, how that affects their decision making processes, and potentially what the alternatives are and the differences.
So where does that get us to the idea of a fictional novel written in the style of non-fiction? It makes us aware that there are shortcuts that any non-fiction author can use in the presentation of a story that aren’t necessarily open to the fiction writer. Or, that it at least requires an intentional choice of not explaining things that the fictional readers of the non-fiction book (if that statement makes sense) would already know. They would know what a Murxisalist is, and when the character then chooses to throw a fish at someone, they understand that’s a direct representation of their faith. The question then is how many readers would feel left behind and confused, and how many would enjoy the little details that aren’t supposed to make immediate sense to them.
It would take a deft hand. Details can still be sewn in, implied, slowly revealed. But that slow reveal means early actions and motives might be left unexplained until far later in the book.
I’m still considering writing this kind of novel in the future, and even have a new focus in mind, but it’s a daunting challenge to be certain.