When Truth is Stranger

Fiction techniques for nonfiction writers

Let me tell you an unusual story about my dad. When he was a young kid, around 8 or 9, his teacher gave his class an assignment on war.

“Great!” my dad thought. “I know where I can find out about that!” He went home and interviewed his father who’d been alive for World War 1, 2 and the Boer war. He had been a farmer and stayed behind in New Zealand but in the Boer war he’d helped load horses onto the boats for efforts overseas.

My dad sat and listened to his father’s stories and eagerly recorded them for the school assignment, sure he’d get top marks.

The next week his teacher called him to the front of the class and handed him back his assignment. “All lies!” the teacher scolded him. He’d failed the report.

My dad was a shy child so he said nothing to his teacher or his father.

The problem was the Boer War ran from 1899-1902. This was the 1960s and the teacher didn’t believe any child in her class could have a parent who’d been part of such an old conflict.

She labeled his work fiction when it was, in fact, the truth. His father had been a teenager during the Boer War. How?

When my dad was born, his father was 72 years old.

Truth can be stranger than fiction

Writing nonfiction seems limiting but it isn’t as restricted as you think! When you mine your life for stories, there are many moments that read like fiction—moments of excitement, drama, love, mystery, misery…

We can employ fiction techniques to tell them as well. Create a scene, employ your senses, use dialogue—let us be there with you, see it, feel it, experience it.

In my recent nonfiction article about dating and crushes I used an example from my life—a story about my own first crush.

Stories from our lives and the lives of others enrich our writing.

What small story can you tell? When was your first experience of love? What moment did you realize you needed to make a change? When did you last experience a feeling of peace? Focus on a small scene.

My challenge for you:

Tell a small true story this week as if it’s fiction. Let me know how you go! Feel free to send me links if you publish your story.


P.S. If you know another writer who might enjoy some encouragement, please feel free to share this newsletter. I really appreciate it!