Narrative nonfiction vs Historical Fiction

I recently was asked the question, "Could you give us a definition of narrative non-fiction? How is it different from historical fiction?"

I'm trying to nail this down because while attending this year's Pikes Peak Writers Conference I was told the middle grade novel I'm writing is narrative or creative nonfiction and not historical fiction as I'd thought all along. When I met with the Viking Books for Children editor she kept saying, "but why are you calling this historical fiction? Why fiction? This story runs on its own. Why fiction?" And I didn't have an answer for her.

Next day I spoke with a publisher at the conference and he gave me the term "narrative nonfiction" and after listening to what my novel is about he said that's what my novel was. I've asked this question in other author lists I belong to and have receive some great URLs that talk about the difference between narrative nonfiction and historical fiction.

The best definition of Creative Nonfiction I've come across is from the book The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind.

Creative Nonfiction may include dramatized biography, compilations of articles and essays and book-length memoirs. CNF must go beyond an expression of the self. The personal experiences should connect with the rest of the world and include some kind of research (i.e. secondary research of primary research where the writer interviews other people about the experience) and thus connects the personal experience to the rest of the world. CNF includes such fiction techniques as dialogue, description, point of view and character development.

Lee Gutkind's website is a veritable storehouse of information on creative nonfiction. His books are also worth looking into.Click this link to access Gutkind's books at amazon.com. You probably can get them from your public library as well.

Besides Gutkind's website, these are other ones I've come across. Please send me other URLs you know of that explain the difference between these creative/narrative nonfiction and historical fiction. Also, check out my "Narrative Nonfiction Middle Grade Novels" blog and add your titles there. Thanks! Use the "Comments" link to add to this list other URLs that explain what narrative nonfiction is:

  • Creative Nonfiction -- Lee Gutkind
  • Lines in the Mud: Exploring Creative Non-Fiction -- Aaron Pope
  • Narrative Nonfiction: The Art of Being There -- Edward Humes
  • What is Literary Nonfiction? -- University of Oregon

    Creative non-fiction man holds flag that proclaims, "TRUTH!  (sort of)"

    1. Hi Olgy:

      My first post on a blog! Hope it all comes through okay.

      This narrative nonfiction vs. historical fiction is really interesting. This is the first time I've heard of "narrative nonfiction."

      I'm writing what I am calling historical fiction. I created the main character, plus some other fictional characters, within the context of a historical event, including real people who are part of the story.

      The definition you included mentioned one criteria for narrative nonfiction: "dramatized biography." Since I have fictional characters (especially the MC), I wonder if *that* would be the key element that puts my story in the category of historical fiction.

      I'll be interested to check out the other sources on this topic that you included in your blog.


    2. Hi Linda,

      Yes. Based on what you mention I believe your novel would be historical fiction. Nancy Oswald recently published Nothing Here But Stones, and when I wrote her asking whether her novel was narrative nonfiction or historical fiction she replied,

      "Stones is definately over on the historical fiction side. Two reasons: not all of the characters are based on real people even though the ideas for them and certain character traits germinated from them. And: all the characters names were fictional."

      Good luck with your novel!

    3. I'm still confused here - sorry! Linda, you sound like you are writing the same thing I am. A novel where some of the people in it really lived in that era, and what they are doing in my story is what they did in real life. However, my main character is "made up", as are many others.
      If I was asked by an editor, I could supply a long list of my sources - a bibliography - but it sounds like that is what is required in narrative non-fiction.
      Is it the editors who want to make these distinctions, so the books can be clearly differentiated in the classroom?

    4. That's a great question you posted, Sherryl, who indeed is making up these distinctions? The question first came up in my mind because a publisher mentioned to me that though historical fiction is hard to sell these days, both editors and publishers are looking for good narrative nonfiction.

      I googled your questions, "who decides whether historical fiction or narrative nonfiction?" and several good sites came up.

      I'll add the links to the original post as well but here are some of what I found:

      Literary Style, or Historical Accuracy --presents strong views on the idea that only folks belonging to a particular culture/ethnic group should write about that group. Ends with a powerful quote, "Every book is intended to impact its audience in a particular way. This is true for nonfiction as well as fiction, and this fact is often forgotten by readers. People always learn to not believe everything they hear, but many still believe that everything written in a book is a concrete fact." Wow!

      Penguin Classics Teacher's Guide reviews the 1988 Pulitzer Prize & other award winning novel Beloved and lists it as "a work of historical fiction." Would this be where your story fits, Sherryl? Ficticious characters set within a historical setting?

      The Line Between Fact and Fiction This article by Peter Clark comes from the Creative Nonfiction site managed by Lee Gutkind, the guru of creative nonfiction knowledge! In the article, Clark talks about... "Historical examples of nonfiction contain lots of made-up stuff." Then he quotes John Hersey, author of Hiroshima as drawing an important distinction between fiction and nonfiction, "subjectivity and selectivity are necessary and inevitable in journalism. If you gather 10 facts but wind up using nine, subjectivity sets in. This process of subtraction can lead to distortion. Context can drop out, or history, or nuance, or qualification or alternative perspectives. Clark summarizes Hersey's points by giving two cornerstone principles that need be followed for the work to be nonfiction: Do not add. Do not deceive. Then he goes on to explain what he means by this. He ends the article by saying, "If you try something unconventional, let the public in on it." Does that mean that if we're writing a novel, based on historical facts, and we make up one character to state those historical facts but tell the reader somewhere in the intro or appendix that that one character is made up then our work is still narrative nonfiction? Or did the addition of that character moved our work into the historical fiction camp? The plot thickens!!! Will have to keep researching this. :-)

    5. Anonymous7/09/2005

      Allow me to weigh in on this - the topic is new to me too, although I've read a lot of narrative non-fiction and historical fiction. Trying to distinguish the two, esp. for the writer, seems a real challenge.

      I've been working on a novel for 18 months. For the most part, its complete. (are they ever?) The whole time I was writing it, I looked at it as a work of historical fiction, which might have been a mistake.

      Though my work takes place against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War, and includes several historical characters, it is not about these things. It concerns a much smaller story, of which there are only two or three written accounts I was able to use for research (any other research had to do with the period itself, so as to make my details convincing)

      The story I am telling is about people who may have lived through a series of events that history seems to have largely forgotten. So, not only are many of my characters entirely fictional, their thoughts and those of the few historical characters are entirely mine, based on what I learned about them and the events that transpired.

      Sure, I broke with historical fact more than once, and some would say that's enough to put me on the Fiction shelf. But I only did this when the historical records came up empty, and I felt I had some interpretive freedom to say "what if? This must be a lot harder for someone writing more contemporary narrative nonfiction, where there is sometimes a surplus of records and documentation. With me,it was the opposite.

      Interesting thread. Thanks!


    6. Hi brooks,

      When we were discussing this topic in the books4children listserve not too long ago, award-winning author Mary Peace Finley posted a note that applies to our current discussion. With her permission I'm posting her comments here.

      "Re. the discussion about historical fiction and writing about people who have actually lived, giving them dialogue and action that is not recorded: I have done this with both notable historical figures and those we know very little about. Once I used two brothers who were criminals involved in a robbery and murder. Not much is recorded about them, except that they weren't captured. I changed
      their names in the story, but used the actual historical incident. In my Author's Notes, I tell a bit of the true story, and disclose the brothers' real names. Out of the blue I received a surprising e-mail from a great-great-great aunt of the two criminals. She had hired someone to do genealogy on her family. Somehow, he had found reference to these two guys in my Author's Notes. The aunt wanted to know how I found the information and I was, of course, glad to tell her. She, in turn, told me what she knew about them. This turned out ok, but I suppose it could have been less pleasant. I'm glad I drew on that particular crime and those two criminal-brother because it let me weave in an actual juicy historical event and I love to do that when it works (without convoluting my story line.) Would I risk it again? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably. It seems fairly safe when the people lived in the mid-1800's---but then there are those great-great-great aunts."

    7. Thanks for your comment, Velda. YES!!! I would very much like to link to your blog on writing. I've already done so. :-)