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Monday, June 2, 2014

Guest post by Author, Teacher, and Blogger: Hope Clark!

Author, Hope Clark

Make It Read Like a Novel

By C. Hope Clark

I ran to the gym this week, was pushing up 45 pounds, wondering if I could venture up to 60, when a lady came by.  “I heard you were an author,” she said. “Can I ask you a quick question?”

“Sure,” I said, dropping the weights and settling in. Any question that started with those words was not going to be quick.

“This older gentleman in his eighties has asked me to write his story, and I don’t know where to start.”

I told her like I tell so many folks writing biographies, memoirs, and historic nonfiction. Write it like a novel.

They always raise a brow when I tell them this, because they aren’t writing fiction, they say.  Their stories are factual, based on reality, talking about something that really happened. To that I shrug and say, “How is that different than writing a novel?”

1)    Novelists do research.

A novel has a setting, whether fictitious or real, and the author does legwork to determine the personality of that locale, often visiting to note the details. My mysteries are set in real places in rural South Carolina. I travel there, taking intricate notes of the simplest items so my story reads genuine. And when I use fictitious buildings, addresses, and businesses, I have a real place mind, so my mind’s eye has an anchor when I write. But I never, ever use all my research. Research is to ground you, make it easy for you to write in that world. Do not use all those intricate details, just the ones that pop, snare or give great flavor.

2)    Novelists open with a lapel-grabber.

What’s the point in writing nonfiction if it’s not a gripping tale? So someone lived and died. Why does anyone want to read about them if they didn’t have an eye-opener of a story? That means starting with action, an anxious moment, an intriguing dilemma, or even a dead body. Draw the reader in. What compels him to turn a page? Open in the courtroom, on the edge of the cliff, when someone’s life went to hell. Textbooks are dry. Novels are supposed to be juicy, beautiful, or suck-you-in overwhelming. Which do you want to emulate?

3)    Novelists avoid backstory.

Your nonfiction story has to flow, the story always moving forward with purpose.  Author Elmore Leonard is renowned for his ten famous rules of writing, one of them being, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Novelists fight to make every word leave its mark, which means avoiding backstory. A memoir, biography, or historic tale is all backstory. However, your job is to make it read as if it is taking place . . . like you’re writing mystery, fantasy, romance or women’s fiction. You don’t have to explain an entire life. We endure a lot of boring moments between birth and death. Leave those parts out.

4)    Novelists develop characters.

Novelists cut characters open and spill them all over a page: the nasty and the gob smacking, the loveable and the despicable, the pretty and the horribly disfigured. Your nonfiction has characters, too, though you may not think of them as such. Novelists draw out character charts, noting all sorts of traits, answering questions about these people, so the author know their flaws, their loves, and where they are most fragile and vulnerable. It’s in those tender places that stories are born and characters become worth reading. Real people need to be split open, too.

Writing about real people and real history may sound simple, but it can be harder than fiction. You have the genuine deal to cope with, and that can often detract you from being creative. Envision your plot, theme, characters, voice and flow just like you would a novel, and your nonfiction can take on a remarkable 3-D life. Not to mention your book becomes more marketable.

Oh, and yes, you are allowed to embellish.

C. Hope Clark is author of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series, published by Bell Bridge Books. Her new Edisto Beach Series released in September 2014. Hope is also editor of, reaching 40K readers each week with her newsletters for serious writers.
The latest in Hope's mystery series


  1. Thanks for allowing me to visit your blog, Camille.

    1. Hope: Thank you for visiting and leaving your professional mark here! I hope that a few of my followers have discovered the indomitable C. Hope Clark here on this site, if they haven't already.

  2. Excellent article! I am teaching a memoir workshop in a few months and this gave me some great ideas.

    1. Hope is one of the best teachers in the U.S. in the writing field. She teaches and shares by example and by generously distributing her knowledge and resources. Her blogs and newsletters are not to be missed. I've subscribed for years and have gleaned so much from her work and her work ethic.


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