How Do You …

Mark Paxson

… write creative non-fiction?

Anybody out there do this? I’d love your thoughts on how you approach stories that are based on real life and real people.

I write mostly fiction. Almost entirely fiction. I’ve written a few short pieces that were “grabbed from the headlines” so they have a basis in reality, but were at the end of the day fictional.

One morning, I got to work to learn that the body of a man had been discovered to the east of our building. I went home that night and wrote his obituary, without knowing a thing about him. Around the same time, I also wrote a short story about a man trying to survive in Aleppo, Syria, as his country was torn apart by civil war. Completely fictional, but I’d like to think there were some elements of truth in what I wrote.

I currently have a barely started short story that is similar to Aleppo in that is based on one man’s efforts to survive in Ukraine as his country is torn apart by a foreign invader. I haven’t got that far because I want to make sure it is different than Aleppo and I’m still pondering that.

That’s about it, I think. I blog a lot about things going on in my life, but they aren’t really “stories.” But … I have a couple of real-life-based stories I want to write and I struggle with the “how” of writing a real-life story.

The biggest one, the most important one, is a story I want to write about my maternal grandmother. I have an opening scene that is based on a lot of facts I remember about her, facts I’ve uncovered on-line (like the manifest for the ship she came to America on when she was 18), and things my mom has told me. But once I get past that scene, I have no idea how to approach the rest of the story.

One more example. I had an assistant in my day job for more than ten years. She lived a fascinating life in her younger years — involving guns and gangs and casinos and well, all sorts of stuff. She kept insisting that I should write her story. To which I kept responding, “I have no idea how to write a real story.”

Part of the problem is that I’m a pantser, not a plotter. Creative non-fiction, or a true biography, likely requires more plotting than pantsing. If it’s based on real-life events, the story is right there before you. As a pantser, that’s just not how I write and typically, when I have figured out the “rest of the story” is when my block settles in.

Another problem, particularly with my grandmother’s story is that there is a lot I don’t know. A lot. As a result, I’d have to make up quite a bit about her life and that scares me. I want it to be as true to her and who she was as it can be, but how can I be sure of that if I have to make up so much of it.

I know that the solution to this, at least with respect to my grandmother’s story, is to use the facts that I have where I can and then be comfortable with fictionalizing the rest, while trying to be as true as I can to her. But … I haven’t figured out how to get over that hump yet.

My question for you then, if there are any CNF, memoir, or biography writers out there, is how do you approach writing a story that is real-life, based on real-life, or loosely reality-based. I know there are classes and programs out there that promise to teach a person how to do this, but I’m not much of a classroom-learner. I just need some ideas, some methods, some concept of how to approach this and then I can go from there.


  1. lydiaschoch says:

    I was so hoping your comment section would have answers to this question by now!

    I’ve dabbled in writing creative non-fiction, but I also struggle to figure out what to do with the details that history has forgotten. I hope you get answers soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kingmidget says:

      Yes. A little disappointed at the lack of any responses. I think the biggest issue is that there is just a wall in front of me on this type of piece. I just need to run through the wall and … let it go. Treat the open spaces as I treat my fiction efforts — an opportunity to be surprised.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s