Non-fiction fuel for a fiction writer

Maybe it makes no sense, but here it is: I love non-fiction, and I read more of it than I do fiction. Now that may not be saying much, since I don’t have much reading time and reading often only makes me want to go write, rendering me an embarrassingly slow reader. It also doesn’t help that I book hop, depending on which topic has lassoed my mind at the time.

Why non-fiction? Because I can take questions, curiosities and theories, infuse them into characters and stories, make them real, and experiment with what might happen as a result: What happens when someone possessing sordid truths has the opportunity to really bring them to the people? (Novel #1.) What ramifications are there when a culture forgets its past, and the people forget their story? (Novel #2.)

I can take remote or lost cultures, or experiences that most of us will never have, and transport myself and my readers there, bringing myself and my readers either whimsy or terror: What would it be like to live in a town where singing together by lamplight in a friend’s living room was a normal thing? (Novel #2.) What would it be like to live your days believing you needed to return home by dark, because of what soared through the woods? (Novel #2.) Or how would I find my way after being wrongfully arrested as a threat to the government? (Novel #1.) What if you had ideals as strong as an oak’s roots, but you had to choose between prioritizing your family or your beliefs? (Novel #2.)

If you’re a non-fiction nut like me (or just trying to veer from your usual preference), here are some books that sent my imagination flaring:

Non-fiction influences for my first novel

The Social Contract, by Jean Jacques Rousseau

I read this one shortly after I quit my job at CNN. I came away from that (amazing) experience with so many questions, one of which was: If there is really only one right political system for humanity, why do so many remarkably intelligent people completely disagree on which one it is? I found Rousseau’s approach to human nature interesting, and perplexing at times. You know a book is good when you find yourself writing notes in the margin back to the author: “But what about this? What about this?” People kept asking me if I was doing homework while I was reading this one. Nope.

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, by Ryan Holiday

This one I devoured in college, I think. (My brain hoards information for years–just ask my husband about my weird memory–letting it all percolate together and mix with other ideas.) When I worked at CNN, I saw how the tactics Holiday described could potentially work. However, I did come away from the reading with many questions, not the least of which was: Are you lying about this book, Holiday? Are you manipulating me right now, to spike your sales?

Hook, line, and sinker.

A First Look at Communication Theory, by Em Griffin

Yep, a textbook. My textbook from my communication theory class, which was absolutely fascinating. In fact, some of the theories presented in this book dovetailed with Ryan Holiday’s modus operandi described in Trust Me, I’m Lying. A couple of the theories that really stuck with me were Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory and Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory. I sold back a lot of my textbooks when I graduated, but I kept this one and have referred to it as I’ve written. I need to open it up again.

Non-fiction influences for my second novel

My second novel is a world away from my first (I promise I’ll share titles and descriptions eventually, it’s just not time yet). The first is social science fiction with strong political and philosophical themes, the second is a mystical, soulful fantasy, set in a tiny mountain town with a quiescence whispering of forgotten wisdom and secrets kept with tight lips.

The Foxfire Books, by Eliot Wigginton and his students

There are twelve or thirteen of these amazing books, published in the 1970s by a teacher and his students, who aimed to document and preserve the ways of their Appalachian culture before they became lost to time and memory. Obviously I haven’t read them cover to cover (I flit from one to the next depending on my curiosity or writing needs), but I delighted in the way the students transcribed their interviews with the people of Rabun Gap, writing their speech with such exactness. You can hear their accents just perfectly. And the culture of candy pullin’, barn raisin’, singins and wakes ignited a longing in my own heart for the comfortability of true community peppered with quirky characters. Some of my favorite sections to read were the ones about haints, wakes and burial customs.

Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane

I came across this one via an article in The Guardian, and wanted it ever since. A longtime perambulator and nature writer, Macfarlane has spent years collecting words for landscapes and natural phenomena, words that often are members of dying languages and on the brink of being lost forever. What an utterly poetic (and important) project! One term I particularly loved was from a Peat Glossary that Macfarlane inherited, which contained terms from Scotland’s Isle of Lewis: Rionnach maoim,“the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day.”

Can you not picture that completely clearly?

I’m still in the beginning of his book (and will be for awhile, probably), but I loved this section (yes, this entire section is too good and true not to share):

In 1917 the sociologist and philosopher Max Weber named ‘disenchantment’ as the distinctive injury of modernity. He defined disenchantment as ‘the knowledge or belief that…there are no mysterious or incalculable forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.’ […] Weber noted the widespread reduction of ‘wonder’ (for him the hallmark of enchantment, and in which state we are comfortable with not-knowing) and the corresponding expansion of ‘will’ (for him the hallmark of disenchantment, and in which state we are avid for authority). In modernity, mastery usurped mystery.

(Emphasis mine.)

As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, so we have rendered it less able to converse with us. […] We have become experts in analyzing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us. […] Language is fundamental to the possibility of re-wonderment, for language does not just register experience, it produces it.

Macfarlane’s book is reminding me to pay attention to the little details that aren’t so little, the daily magic and wonder happening around me when I’m outside with my son, and channel that into writing my second novel, to help make its little mountain town delightfully real. Even just the article about Macfarlane’s book caused me to consider the irises blooming in my yard and wonder how to describe their scent.

Do you have any book suggestions for me?

Comment with your favorites–fiction or non–and I’ll add them to my to-read list. When I’m fifty-seven years old and I finally finish it, I’ll rave to you about how great it was and you can look at me with a blank expression because I’m so late to the party. Deal?

Ten tiny reasons for not writing.

Happy (?) Freedom of Information Day