Writing Fiction VS Non~

I just received the cover of a new nonfiction book that includes an essay I wrote, and that had me thinking about the differences writing fiction vs non-fiction.

It seems obvious at first glance. Fiction is driven by a writer’s imagination and creativity, all the fantasies and “What if?” games one plays. When I write crime fiction, I know all the secrets. I know who did it and why. I know who is the patsy or the red herring to throw readers off. And I know the motive and how the crime was accomplished.

A writer’s real-life experiences and/or research form the backbone of nonfiction, grounding it in reality. A writer may go heavily into personal experience in memoir or autobiography, or simply give her perspective on a topic, whether it’s in a narrative form, or even an argument for a particular viewpoint. It could even instruct others on how to do something.

Of course, there’s some overlap. My visits to real places I use for settings inform my fictional world, but my characters, their visage, habits, and backgrounds are my creations within that real setting.

In writing my essay for Writing the Cozy Mystery, edited by Phyllis Betz, my essay “Handling Diverse Settings,” explains my experiences writing the Nora Tierney English mysteries, which as the series title suggests, are set in the UK. As I wrote the first draft of that essay, I only had to draw on my memories of how and why I chose to set a series in a different country. (To find that out, you’ll have to read the essay in the book when McFarland publishes it soon.)

One difference that stands out to me though is that when I’m writing nonfiction I’m speaking directly to the reader. I don’t worry about creating a character or working out a plot, or adding suspects or any of the other myriad things a fiction writer will do. Nonfiction seems to be about what IS, or maybe what COULD BE or ought to be in the real world.

Fiction writing revolves around what ISN’T real, as my characters reveal themselves to the reader by talking to each other as I move them around my chosen setting with action. I’m a huge Neil Simon fan, and remember his autobiography Rewrites. Something that’s stuck with me was his description of attending a bar mitzvah, holding a plate of food, and standing against a wall soaking up the speech and mannerisms of the people there, like a sponge, instead of carousing with his teenaged friends. His writerly genes were already developing.

Or course, if you decide to write historical fiction, you’re doing a crossover between a real moment that’s occurred and insinuating your fictional character into that past event to create conversations between the people of the time. Now that’s a real challenge and where I’m headed next!





MIss Demeanors


Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries. Her story “Quiche Alain” appears in the Anthony-winning Malice Domestic Anthology, Murder Most Edible.  Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press, she’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Triangle SinC, Mavens of Mayhem SinC, the NC Writers Network, and the International Crime Writers Association.


  1. Sometimes I feel that writing non fiction is like homework… could be fun, but could be a drag. For me, fiction is the only reason to write. Otherwise, I’d rather read :-).

  2. I could relate to this, Marni! I used to write a lot of nonfiction for work and thought those skills would give me a head start when I began writing fiction, but I was so wrong! Still, the learning curve was worth it in exchange for the fun of letting my imagination lead me around. I’m looking forward hearing more about the historical project you’re tackling next!

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