A little more than a year ago, my former colleagues decided to do a video interview on my leap from the straight and narrow of nonfiction to fiction (thrillers in particular).
The same questions about nonfiction vs. fiction have been simmering over the past year – a busy one for me: finishing the book with James Patterson, working on a science-based nonfiction book I’m collaborating on as a ghostwriter and working on my own next piece of fiction.
I’ve always said I was interested in applying fiction techniques, like building suspense, in nonfiction, trying to be artful while I portrayed the truth. Doing it for a decade made for great practice. Doing it in a different arrangement – working as a ghostwriter on a nonfiction book and honing my own fiction on the side – has helped me understand more about the fuel that comes from doing nonfiction work.
A couple ideas emerged as I shifted from the everyday interviews and deadlines to a book project where I sometimes spent days at a time delightedly tucked away in my writing room. It was so romantic, for a while. The writing seemed to flow on both fronts, the nonfiction and the fiction, but then I’d slow down until I’d switch back to research and interviews on the nonfiction.
That’s when I realized something I hadn’t picked up on before. I hadn’t understood until this year how much the research I did in person and even over the phone gives me some kind of juice. I’d return to my writing more refreshed – and not just for the nonfiction. Sometimes, I’d have ideas for personality quirks for characters in my thriller; other times, I would just have a jolt of new enthusiasm. I’ve always thought that the muscle you get from writing, on deadline, every day is a worthwhile reward in itself. What I didn’t realize was the excitement I picked up from just talking to other people about ideas. Any ideas. That mojo manifested in my fiction writing, even though, of course, it had nothing to do with the context of the interview for the nonfiction.
But there was something else, something in addition to that connection to real, living other people rather than just the company of my fiction characters. Doing research for the nonfiction work, even reading through concepts that would seem to have no direct tie to the fiction I’m writing, gave something more to my creative efforts. There were times when an idea for a plot twist would seem to jump out of nowhere while I was doing my digging for the nonfiction. There was something about the act of searching and digging for information that fueled the fire in other parts of my brain. Blame the reporter still hidden inside.
It was a cheerful revelation: My ideas, even those that wonder into technothriller territory, come from some bubbling stew that requires regular input. The idea engine starts turning with everyday catalysts, from talking to people or from reading all and any kind of material.
I learned that there are times when you have enough of those ideas built up inside that you can sit down and happen to bump into something valuable that you felt, knew or thought – even without consciously realizing that you felt, knew or thought it. It seems like a miracle, ideas that pop out of nowhere. I believe in those, too, but I also know now that, at least for me, I need to be a constant collector – of strange experiences, random conversations, and diverse “to-read” lists.
Others have said this before, but I had to live it out to really get it. As a writer, you’ll do better when you’re aware that you’re curating a rare and beautiful collection, and not only because you’re intentionally collecting something in a specific subject. Like fuzzy bees picking up pollen, you’ll bring home even more than you shove into your pockets. You’ll brush against sweet, sometimes messy things you don’t even realize are there until you sit down to get back to work.