Linda Cracknell: Five Tips for Writing Narrative Non-Fiction

Category: Writing

Fancy giving narrative non-fiction a go but don’t know where to begin?

Don’t panic! Author Linda Cracknell has shared five of her best tips with us for writing narrative non-fiction. 


1Be selective

Choose something to write about -- whether it's memoir, travel, biography, science -- that not only has an inherent significance, but also excites you. Your passion will gleam out between the words. Be sure to match your subject to an appropriate form. A three-year journey across the Mongolian plains won't want to be told in a 2000 word essay. Even when you’ve hit upon the right subject, select from the entire messy plethora of true-life events to make a meaningful story.


2. Be detailed

Include facts and make sure they are accurate. They may be the measurements of a cruise ship or the exact name of a flower or the particular motion of a man walking with gout. You may well need to do research but perhaps even more importantly, you will be observing acutely.


What is the scent rising from the Nile, or the texture under your fingertips of a mediaeval manuscript?


3. Take the reader with you

If you, or a version of you, are the narrator, and physically present in the story, you want the reader to feel that they experience events alongside you. Give them sensory detail to assist this. What is the scent rising from the Nile, or the texture under your fingertips of a mediaeval manuscript? Make your story vivid and present.


4. Be creative

Although you're writing about things that have really happened, many literary and storytelling devices will enhance the story. Tell it in scenes. Relate dialogue. Reveal rounded characters when appropriate. Build a structure with fiction-like coherence and an arc – a change between the beginning and the end. It may help to think of it as a myth or a fairy tale. Where does the quest begin, or the hero’s ordeal take place? Do you need tension or suspense? The guidance to fiction writers to ‘show, not tell’ also applies. If you want the reader to infer an emotion or an abstract concept, a metaphor may help, e.g. instead of telling the reader I’m afraid and tentative when approaching a partially concealed crevasse, I might write: ‘Aware of the tricksy appearance of the new snow, I creep towards the crevasse a few steps at a time, as if approaching a dangerous animal that might suddenly charge.’ 


5. Revise and edit

Can you express the story in a short sentence? If so, this should guide your revision, showing which episodes you might skip, or where you may need to go to town on bringing it alive for the reader. Finally, don’t release it into the world until you have polished, read aloud and heard it sing. It will seem a great deal of effort but your happy readers will say your prose seems effortless!


Feel ready for a challenge now? Why not submit a story to our Journeys campaign. All the stories we receive are published on our website for the world to read, and a selection of the best stories will be published in a book for Book Week Scotland 2015.


Image credit: Desktop Sketching by Eric Heupel

Linda Cracknell

Linda Cracknell is an author of fiction, radio drama and creative non-fiction. Her novels, Call of the Undertow and Doubling Back: Ten paths trodden in memory were published by Frieght in 2013 and 2014.