Nonfiction inspiration for your novel

How can nonfiction make you a better fiction writer

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As much as I love fiction, I sometimes have long periods of time where I can only make myself read nonfiction. It’s unfortunate, but I’d rather read something than just wait for motivation to read fiction again.


And while you definitely need to read fiction if you want to be a good fiction-writer, you can still find loads of inspiration for your novel from nonfiction. (Did I use the word “fiction” often enough for it to lose all meaning to you?? Because it did to me.)

Related: How to research your historical fiction novel

Read other people’s life stories to draw inspiration from their experiences

I’m not Chinese, I’ve never been to China and I definitely haven’t lived in the country during the Cultural Revolution. I’d still guess, however, that I could write a pretty believable story – a short story at least – taking place in the time period because of all the books by Xinran I have read. Books like Good Women of China are great for getting multiple perspectives from real people, something you wouldn’t get just by reading history books.

You don’t need to be interested in just China to find fascinating oral history books containing real life stories and anecdotes that could serve as inspiration for your novel. Voices from Chernobyl is another interesting book, and while I haven’t read it myself, I can tell you it’s definitely in my To Be Read pile even if I won’t be using it for research purposes. If you’re more interested in writing about the Great Depression in the United States, then Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression would be a great place to start from.

Whatever time period or event you’re writing about, just write it in the google search bar and add “memoir” or “oral history” after it to find suitable books for you.

How real life stories can inspire your novels

Memoirs and biographies are great for doing research for historical fiction

Memoirs and biographies don’t only tell one person’s story – they’re often accurate portrayals of life in the times that they lived in. And the more you read about the people in a certain period of time, the more connections you’ll be able to draw and the more you understand what life really was like at the time. That’s exactly what you want before you start writing historical fiction, i.e. before you start making things up.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls tells the story of real people who lived in the 1600s, and that is to say, the people were real but everything else is a product of the imagination of the author. Something like that can only be achieved by thorough understanding of what you’re writing about.

I have a degree in nursing, which probably partially explains why I’m so interested in the stories of real nurses and midwives who lived in times where “modern medicine” either hadn’t yet been invented or just wasn’t accessible for everyone.

If you love Call the Midwife TV series and you wish you had come up with it yourself, I’m happy to tell you it’s based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth and they tell you far more than just what it was like being a midwife on the East End. If you do happen to be insterested in both midwifery and recent British history, The Midwife’s Here is another fascinating and eye-opening book.

Writing about historical figures

If you’re more interested in biographies of historical figures who are long gone, there are loads of options to choose from whether you’re going to write about the person themselves or just the time period they lived in.

For example, the wonderful Suzannah Lipscomb has written several books about Henry VIII. 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII is just one of the books to start from if you are equally interested in the king or the history of the British royals.

For literally any other historical figure, just type the name in the Goodreads search bar and see what comes up – you can usually find more serious historical books as well as more accessible books for people who might not have a background in learning about history.

You can find interesting facts to fuel your fiction and to make your stories more real

How nonfiction can help your fiction feel more real

I don’t know how story ideas come to you, but in my case they just appear from seemingly nowhere. Any picture, sound or factlet could inspire a story in my mind and I have no way to control it. I CAN try to feed this invisible idea creator by reading books, watching documentaries, going outside and listening to music. Learning new things about the world around us can also make out stories feel more realistic even if they take place in fantasy worlds.

If you find yourself in a creative rut when it comes to your fiction, you could try reading nonfiction to spark some new ideas. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a very enlightening read whether you want to write about ancient history or not. Author Anne Tyler says that the works of sociologist Erving Goffman have been invaluable for her, and personally I’ve just started reading The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life to bring some authenticity in how my characters interact with each other.

And if you think you need to read academic texts to make your fiction better, I can tell you I read a few chapters of a book called Get the Guy and ended up changing a small detail in my book in a way that my protagonist interacted with her love interest. Yes, even self-help can make you a better writer.

Even nonfiction can have such delightful writing that it can inspire your fiction

Nonfiction inspiration for your novel

I admit, some nonfiction books are straight up boring. The subject matter might be interesting, but if the book was meant to be a text book or if the writer just doesn’t have much creative flair, the reading experience might be informative but not very entertaining. Naturally these books serve their purpose, but they’re probably not going to charm anyone with their language.

Bill Bryson is one of my very favourite nonfiction writers and he has a knack for making me understand stuff that I couldn’t before (I’m looking at you, physics and chemistry) and he certainly has a way with words as well. I recently finished A Short History of Nearly Everything and I marked at least a dozen pages where I met a sentence so good I couldn’t let it go.

The universe is an amazingly fickle and eventful place and our existence within it is a wonder.

Can you write another sentence as true and as poignant as that? I hope you will try.

Where to find story ideas to write about

If you read this post and you still wish you had something incredible to write about, I’ve got something for you that helps you figure out exactly what your next story idea should be.

Your Best Story Idea is a free workbook that helps you uncover what you love to read and write about and then turns them into a story idea you can start working on. What if this time tomorrow you were already working on your novel because you found your best story idea yet? Would be pretty neat.


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