Why Nonfiction Writers Should Try Writing Fiction (and Vice Versa)
Abbott Kahler on How Real Life Informs Fiction
In 2019, I watched a fantastic (in both senses of the word) documentary called Tell Me Who I Am. It tells the story of Alex and Marcus Lewis, identical twins whose lives were upended by an unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, form of amnesia. As a teenager, Alex suffered an accident that destroyed his memory; he remembered nothing but Marcus’s face and name. In this tragedy, Marcus saw a chance to give both himself and Alex a gift: he would concoct a new history, replacing the truth with a bright and lovely fantasy.
The documentary haunted me for several reasons. Beyond Alex’s heartbreaking predicament and Marcus’ shocking web of deceit, there was the singular nature of the story itself: a stranger-than-fiction true narrative based entirely on lies. I had written four bestselling books of narrative nonfiction that focused on history’s seamy underbelly, its subversive characters and dark corners, and this story about inseparable twins and shadowy secrets naturally appealed to me.
I wanted to write about it, but the story had already been told; there were no archives for me to explore. Like many nonfiction authors, I’d always dreamed of writing fiction, but the genre change would require an entirely new set of skills and tools. For the first time in my career, I mined my own life and unusual family history for inspiration.
While writing Where You End, I imagined what my mother and her sister might do in such an extraordinary situation. Like Alex and Marcus Lewis, my mother, Katherine, and her sister, Judith, were identical twins. More than identical, they were mirror twins—a rare type of identical twin in which the twins seem to be mirror reflections of one another, which occurs when the embryo splits later than usual.
My mother is right-handed, while my aunt was left-handed, and their hair parted naturally on opposite sides. Their similarities extended beyond the physical: both worked as emergency room nurses, smoked Vantage menthols, and loved to gamble in Atlantic City. They communicated in ways no one else could understand.
In my fictional world, Katherine and Judith became Kat and Jude. Kat, like Alex, suffers a rare form of amnesia, and trusts that Jude will help her relearn her identity and history. Like Marcus, Jude spins fanciful tales of an idyllic childhood. But after a series of unsettling incidents, Kat, like Alex, begins to suspect that Jude has been lying all along.
During the years it took to write Where You End, I found myself comparing the processes of writing fiction and nonfiction. In nonfiction, it’s impossible to write bad dialogue, as the words exist, immutable and perfect, in the source material. You can’t go awry with your plot; it is predetermined for you, written by history. My outlines, which are sometimes longer than the books themselves, give me a clear blueprint of scenes and the narrative’s trajectory.
But dead people are stubborn. They don’t always do what you want them to do, or say what you want them to say, or make decisions that generate dramatic twists and turns. Chronology can also be a challenge, since world events and dates are annoyingly immovable.
Fiction, on the other hand, bestows a terrifying freedom—there are so many potential pitfalls and narrative dead ends—but it is also thrillingly liberating. In Where You End, a novel inspired by fact, the genres seemed to collide and blend. Some research remained vital: the appearance and vibe of Philadelphia in the 1970s and ’80s; the philosophy and tenets of an insular New Age community.
“Good fiction is the truth inside the lie,” as Stephen King has said, and I tried to respect the genres’ symbiotic relationship—evading truth, while also feeding on it.
But other components of my nonfiction writing didn’t apply at all. After writing a comprehensive outline for Where You End, I quickly realized that my characters wanted to rebel against it. This was, at first, disconcerting; my nonfiction characters never needed to be cajoled or corralled. But Kat and Jude, inspired by real, breathing people, themselves became real, assuming control and behaving in unexpected ways.
When I had internal dialogue with them, asking why they held a certain belief or felt a certain urge, they, unlike my nonfiction characters, answered back. But with this realization, nonfiction and fiction melded once again: I became merely the recorder of the story rather than its creator, strictly beholden to the truths my characters decided to share and the paths they wished to follow, heedless of the danger they might find.Fiction has taught me to be ruthless in my editing, avoiding long sections of backstory that don’t propel the story forward. Nonfiction has given me a respect for intense research and vivid details that can make a fictional setting feel authentic and real.
I’m now working on both a second novel and another nonfiction book, applying lessons learned from both genres to each other. Fiction has taught me to be ruthless in my editing, avoiding long sections of backstory that don’t propel the story forward. Nonfiction has given me a respect for intense research and vivid details that can make a fictional setting feel authentic and real.
In the end, though, the goal is the same: everything in a narrative, from the color of a character’s shoes to the overarching architecture of the plot, must conspire to capture your readers’ attention and keep them eager—hopefully, desperate!—to know what happens next.
Where You End by Abbott Kahler is available via Holt.