Put a little “non” in your fiction

Most of us started out as readers before we decided to be writers. We still enjoy reading every chance we get (when we’re not writing). It’s even recommended that we be well-read in our genre in order to know what’s out there and what’s been done before. But in case you don’t already, make space on your reading list for non-fiction. Just a book or two each year could make a difference.

Why? Well, here’s why I read various types of non-fiction:

History: No matter what genre you write, it’s good to know your history if only for a source of plots to mine. But if your work involves any level of speculation, a knowledge of history can help you ground your ideas in reality to make them feel more real. And if nothing else, it’s good to drop historical references into your work now and then. Familiar historical references can be a sort of short-hand to bring your reader up to speed quickly without spelling it all out. Stories often work better if they are grounded in historical context.Bibliothek_der_Alten_Welt2

Biography: Creating characters with depth is something we should all aspire to. Why not launch an detailed character study by picking up a biography of someone you feel might be like your character? Biographies can give you enormous insight into what might influence a character and how those influences might manifest themselves. As with history (because it is history) you might find a myriad of plot ideas, as well.

Science: Yes, science can be boring to read about, but there are many writers who can make it interesting, and there’s nothing saying you can’t skim. Knowing how the natural world works can keep you from making glaring mistakes in your writing. It can also be a source of ideas, whether for plot or setting, or even character (how would growing up in a desert, for example, influence a person’s personality?).

Current events: It could be argued this is just an off-shoot of history, but I call it out separately for a reason. We all think we know what’s really going on in any current or recent situation because we’re living through it. But in reality we’re usually getting only a small subset of information, filtered by our own favorite biases. Reading someone’s in-depth analysis of a recent event can help you understand what more was likely going on that you never heard about. It can be useful to get a different perspective. It helps us add more depth to our characters when we realize how many different ways there are of looking at the same event.

Those are just a few reasons for expanding your reading list into non-fiction. As writers, regardless of genre, we often need to “know a little bit of everything.” Sure, you can always do your research after you’ve decided what to write. But what you choose to write might improve by simply broadening your horizons and learning more about the world we live in.

If you’ve been avoiding non-fiction I advise you to start. Perhaps just one book for now, just to get your feet wet. If you find reading non-fiction boring,  consider getting an audio book. I’ve found a good narrator can make any subject more interesting. Give it a try and see if you don’t find yourself applying what you’ve learned to your writing.

If you already read non-fiction as part of your regular reading, what books have you found particularly helpful/inspiring? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.


amazing!!!!! thank you for the post. I am reading Second World War stories and I love them.