Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Fictionalizing Nonfiction

By Popular Request

I see on Susan Thomsen’s blog that she would like me to take up the subject of fictionalizing nonfiction. Sure. And, by coincidence, I happen to be working on a faux manuscript — a book that claims to be the journal of a 1849 Gold Rush prospector, and includes many artifacts from the time, and has paper that seems to be aged, but is, of course, being written now. So I can tell you a bit about how I juggle those questions. But what exactly does "fictionalizing" mean? I can see three different meanings — and perhaps there are more.

1) Historical fiction — a novel set in a particular time and place in the past. 2) A biography or other book that defines itself as nonfiction but which includes imagined scenes, or interior emotions the author has dreamed up. 3) The area of what is now called "realia" — faux books like the -ology books, or the one I am working on. I will write about historical fiction in another blog. And while it has its issues, I am sure many of you are aware of them: how spunky, for example, can a medieval girl be and really be medieval? What is the claim of appealing to the modern reader versus matching the experience of the time. So lets go to 2, fiction in nonfiction. As a first choice, I’d urge author to turn to research. For example, in my recent book on Race, I spoke about the Gettysburg Address. To make the scene more vivid, I wanted to find out what the weather was like that day, so I could describe the clouds, the sky, the setting. Well I hunted around and I found out. I was inspired to do that research from a class I once took where the teacher showed us how Robert Caro, in one of his books on LBJ, figured out exactly how the light fell at a particular time and place, so he could — entirely on the basis of research — fully paint a scene. So don’t assume you need to imagine something in order to supply details that might seem impossible to track down, like the weather, or how sunlight would fall, at a given hour on a particular day long ago.

What about thoughts and feelings? Research may yield a diary, or a letter, in which a historical actor tells you about his or her interior state. But say it doesn’t. I do not object to an author experimenting — adding an imagined scene to a biography, say — but the author needs to do two things: set the scene apart, — for example, put it in itals so it is clearly distinct from the main text, the way the glass in front of a diorama at a museum constantly reminds you that you are facing an exhibit. And then have a note in the book that spells out what is known and not known about that scene, and how the author came to craft it as s/he has. I know some feel kids can’t tell real from unreal and won’t read notes. Maybe. But today we have fan fiction, we have alternate histories, we have genres like "steam punk" (like cyberpunk, but set in alternate 19th centuries) — we have the whole universe of people taking a given work, image, fact, and making it their own. I think modeling to young people how you can do that responsibly is not a bad thing.    

I am a historian, so of course I prefer my history pure — straight, no chaser. But I also do feel that, so long as you, the author, are responsible in how you do it, you should use every tool you have — your mind, your adult knowledge, your imagination, your writing skill, your awareness of young people, even your instinct — when you write history. Put your whole self into it, then tell readers how you did that. I feel that invites a similar investment from the reader. If you invent a scene, you have to give the reader room to picture it a different way. You are not saying what happened, but what might have happened. So long as you are clear about that, why not? Just give the reader the tools to understand the limits of your knowledge, and also give him or her the freedom to see that moment a different way. 

Readers who are interested in this question might take a look at Dead Certainties by the historian Simon Schama, which explores some of these issues in a readable and engaging fashion. (I don’t mean to favor Amazon, just the easiest listing for me to find)

More soon.


  1. Susan Thomsen says:

    Marc, thanks. This is quite interesting, and I appreciate your taking the time to comment on the subject!

  2. Liz B, Tea Cozy says:

    I read a lot of those fictionalized biographies as a kid (you know, the childhood series?) and all it took was reading one real biography to realize it was fiction. Yet, they were in the biography section.

    Like you, I prefer my history pure; my rule of thumb is, “would it be OK to use the text of that book, or that particular part, in a research paper”? Could you cite it for support that someone did this or that, or that such and such happened? If the answer is no, then its best placed in historical fiction.

    That said, I love historical fiction that stays as true to history as possible, and appreciate those authors who in endnotes point out resources and what was changed for the purpose of the book, whether its “we don’t really know about X’s first ten years” or “there were actually three brothers, but for purposes of this story I combined lionel and henry…”

  3. Tricia Stohr-Hunt says:

    Hi Mark,
    The CYBILS panel I am serving on right now (picture book nonfiction) is grappling with these very questions. We have received a number of books that appear to be fictionalized nonfiction, yet they are not cataloged as fiction. I’m so glad you have taken up this topic. While it may not help us advance our CYBILS conversations, it will certainly make things clearer for me when I help my students (preservice teachers) examine informational books for math, science and social studies.

  4. Kelly Fineman says:

    Thanks, Marc, for this article. I’m moving on to read the next installment, and ordering the book you recommended here. I’m currently working on what a “portrait” of Jane Austen in verse using period terms. The research has been staggering (and great fun), and continues as little bits and bobs need to be nailed down. Your article has given me something to think about (and some validation, too, for the amount of research I’ve put into this so far).

  5. Betty Carter says:

    Many years ago I looked at historical fiction about the Revolutionary War. These were books that had been recognized by NCTE’s “Your Reading,” a print source recommending reading for many years. The publication came out every five years, and from publication to publication the recommendations changed. I realized after reading all the books recommended from the 1960s through the late 1980s that they reflected the times in which they were written more than the time about which they were written. In fact, my conclusion was that if kids read Johnny Tremain, My Brother Sam Is Dead, and Sarah Bishop they wouldn’t know they were reading about the same war. I wonder if the same kind of biases/points of view are present in biographies. Think about Lincoln, for example …