Recently I was asked if it is harder to write fiction than non-fiction. It was a question I hadn’t spent much time thinking about until it was asked. For me the answer is a most resounding yes. Well, probably. For others it may be the opposite.
As a career scientist I’ve spent a lifetime (so far) writing non-fiction, specifically science. Writing science for scientists is a highly precise, technical, jargon-filled endeavor. Words have specific meanings, and those meanings are often completely different from how the public understands those same words. This is why so many great scientists with dozens, even hundreds, of peer-reviewed scientific papers can’t communicate their science to the public. Scientists and the public speak different languages, and scientists aren’t always very good at speaking in public-ese. In one way this strikes me as odd given that most scientists are in fact human. In another way, it makes perfect sense.
While I’ve written outside of my scholastic and scientific work requirements all my life, most of that external writing was still science-related. Hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of newsletter and blog articles tried to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. More and more of my writing became focused on telling the stories of science in ways the general public could understand. I may have a limited reach, I told myself, but I’m going to bring science to the masses.
My books on Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison have followed this premise. Tesla was a brilliant inventor and scientist, but he also was an interesting character with a wealth of stories that touch upon the hearts and souls of non-technical readers. Others have written excellent in-depth, technical-jargon filled books about Tesla that attract technically-minded readers; I wanted to reach people who wouldn’t even have considered picking up those tomes. Edison is known by all, but yet there was tons of little-known information showing the very human side of the man. I found bringing out the humanity in scientists helps the general public understand and appreciate scientists more than a technical book focused on that scientist’s achievements alone.
Which gets me to fiction. Both Tesla and Edison are biographies. Sources are cited and bibliographies are given. They are absolutely non-fiction. But they also tell the stories of these scientists’ lives. Stories are what fiction is all about. The only difference is that non-fiction, whether it be about science or biographies of scientists, is the “capturing of real life,” while fiction is the “creation of real life.”
And that is the hard part about fiction. While some solely fiction authors tell me they feel free to let their imaginations roam as they create new stories, others find that the art of creating entirely new worlds, characters, and situations taxes their mental capabilities. I suppose this is why there are a lot of “I can write a novel” people and many fewer “I’m a published novelist” people. Writing is hard work, and writing fiction is harder work compared to writing non-fiction.
Or perhaps not. Non-fiction writers are constrained by reality. They can’t make stuff up. That can be stifling to many people. How do you make facts less dry, history more interesting, science more relevant? I’m sure many of us remember those days of memorizing historical dates and facts, only to forget everything immediately after emptying your brain onto an exam paper. Making non-fiction memorable can be a challenge.
Bringing science, history, and other “dry” subjects to life is where the techniques of fiction come into play. Telling stories, writing fascinating characters, and inserting unexpected plot twists and “break” chapters help enliven non-fiction topics. Similarly, bringing real history, science, places, and facts into the framework of the story makes fiction more relevant to readers. And that is the key. Readers need to feel relevant to the story, whether it be real or created.
As a predominantly non-fiction writer, and one who finds science in everything (including Abraham Lincoln), I try to write fiction periodically to build my storytelling skills. I still lean on reality for location, background, and character development as I yet haven’t mastered the concept of creating whole new worlds. The thought of Larry Niven coming up with something as original as a centrifugal force-driven artificial planet in his classic Ringworld still boggles my mind. But I find I’m getting better at releasing my imagination, a skill that all writers should develop.
And development is the key. While I suppose there are some “natural-born writers,” most writers work hard to learn, sculpt, and develop their writing skills. We deal with fatigue (physical and mental), writer’s block, and a myriad of other constraints on our time, imagination, and creative flow. We read, we learn, we write. And we write some more. It’s how writing happens.
Now, it’s time to get writing. I think I’ll write some science. Or some fiction. Or perhaps some science fiction.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.