Some of my smart-ass newspaper friends insist I’ve been writing fiction for years. But I couldn’t have made up some of the true stories I’ve reported and written: A man strangles a deer with his bare hands. Another guy goes undercover to catch karaoke jockeys who use counterfeit discs.
Writing non-fiction works like this: You assemble a big, lumpy pile of clay out of interviews, documents, observations, and whatever else you can scrounge in however much time you have to report a given story. Then you hack and carve and whittle the pile down to its essentials. What remains is your story.
Writing fiction is no different insofar as you’re also amassing a pile of clay for sculpting. But that mound is constrained only by your imagination and your memory, by everything you’ve ever seen, heard, read, tasted, touched, smelled, dreamed, or just stumbled upon. That can be a pretty big mound. The carving can be a bit more complicated.
In either case, you have to figure out what happened before you can render it properly as a tale. In either case, that’s a journey of discovery, whether you’re wheedling documents out of a reluctant attorney or conjuring the scene of a strip-club magnate expostulating on the meaning of capitalism.
The key difference—at least for me—is in how I take those journeys.
The journalistic one involves shoe-leather reporting, plain and simple. The novelistic one is about sitting down and writing. I do a little traditional research for my novels, but my day job (that journalism thing again) limits my time for it. Most of my “reporting”—the figuring out of what happened—occurs on early mornings with my hands on the keyboard of my laptop.
The months I spend writing the first draft is the equivalent of the weeks I might spend reporting a complex newspaper story. Sometimes I pretend that, instead of imagining what Gus Carpenter did the night his team lost the state hockey championship, I am remembering it.
After that, it’s all about cutting, shifting, adding, revising, trimming, enhancing–my favorite part, actually, because the hard stuff is behind me. I know what happened. I just have to figure out how best to get the reader into the room and keep her there—and that’s no different whether you’re giving people the facts or making them up. Either way, if you do your job well, you might even approach truth. And either way, you’ll probably have fun.
Bryan Gruley is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of the critically acclaimed Starvation Lake: A Mystery, and its newly released sequel, The Hanging Tree.