Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Guest Post: Loree Griffin Burns on Identifying Nonfiction Genres

By Loree Griffin Burns

Not long ago I talked with a writer friend about the difficulty of dialogue. I was working on The Hive Detectives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and having a heck of a time threading quoted material into the text.

I knew that including quotes presented an opportunity to reveal my story’s characters, reinforce the themes in my book, and nudge the story in certain directions, but since the story I was telling was true, the words I chose had to accomplish those goals and at the same time be completely accurate. I had to stick to words people actually said when I interviewed them.

My friend was surprised at my frustration. “What are you so stressed about?” she asked with genuine confusion in her voice. “I thought you were writing creative nonfiction.”

As if the creative part of that phrase meant that I could make up dialogue.

As if making my nonfiction entertaining was reason enough to insert made up dialogue into it.

As if I should know all this.

The truth is that I can’t make-up quotes. I can’t make up names, dates, weather conditions or any other detail either; if I did, the work would be fiction.

Instead, the creative part of creative nonfiction refers to creative storytelling, the use of compelling scenes, dramatic tension, telling dialogue, pacing, and a host of other writerly tools to craft true stories that read like novels. Always, always, the nonfiction author must stay within the bounds of recorded fact. It’s a tricky business.

In the years since this conversation, I’ve come to realize that confusion over the nonfiction genre in general, and the term creative nonfiction in particular, is somewhat widespread.

Even on the NF for Kids listserv, a wonderful virtual gathering place for nonfiction writers of all stripes, there has been heated debate over what should and shouldn’t be considered nonfiction, particularly in children’s books.

No matter where you fall in this debate, it’s handy to know what the genre terms actually mean. And so I’ve begun compiling a list of them:

Creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, new journalism, literary journalism

These terms are used somewhat interchangeably and refer to literary works based on true events and shared with as much emphasis on fine storytelling and literary style as on factual reporting. The terms can describe many forms, including memoir, personal essay, food writing, travel writing, biography, and more. They are used to distinguish works with a literary slant from more straightforward journalism or technical writing.


In the context of this list, the bare bones reporting of true events for print, television, radio or internet media.

Technical writing

Articles and manuals of a how-to nature, for example The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Publishing by Harold D. Underdown (Alpha, 2008).

Historical fiction

Stories and novels based on historical figures, events, and time periods, but including fictitious characters, for example, Nory Ryan’s Song by Patricia Reilly Giff (Yearling, 2002).

Science fiction

A genre of fiction containing speculative and/or imaginative events and situations, usually based on actual scientific knowledge, for example, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (FSG, 1962).

Sciency fiction

A term I picked up from Jacqueline Houtman; it refers to fiction that relies heavily on accurate scientific information, for example her own The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street, 2010).

Eco fiction

This is fiction with an explicit environmental slant, for example Who Really Killed Cock Robin? by Jean Craighead George (HarperTrophy, 1973) or Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, 2002).


Books of fiction based heavily on curricular subjects, to the point that they are often shelved in libraries and bookstores as nonfiction. Joanna Cole’s Magic Schoolbus books fall into this category, as does one of my daughter’s recent favorites, This is Your Life Cycle by Heather Lynn Miller and Michael Chesworth (Clarion, 2008).

Tall tales

Fictional stories that may be based on actual people and/or events but relayed with fictional extravagance, for example, The Trouble with Henry: A Tale of Waldon Pond by Deborah O’Neal and Angela Westengard (Candlewick, 2005).


Refers to works of nonfiction about nonfiction, for example, this article (an essay on the topic of nonfiction), or the picture book Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by John Hendrix (Schwartz & Wade, 2008), which uses a heavily researched historical anecdote to introduce young readers to the concept of historical research.

The list is a work in progress. If you have additional relevant terms, or thoughts about the definitions, by all means say so in the comments. I’ve labeled this post a work of metanonfiction. We’d better make sure it is completely accurate!


Anonymous said...

This post introduced me to some new non-fiction concepts (Faction). I think I've probably become complacent with the term non-fiction. You definitely helped me better understand - as a reader and a writer - the texture of non-fiction. Thank you! I bookmarked this post.

Loreen Leedy said...

Thanks for a great post!

We've discussed this issue on the I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) blog...though the word faction seems logical versus fiction, it unfortunately already has a popular meaning (dissenting part of a group.) It doesn’t seem to have caught on for literary purposes, at least as far as I can tell.

The term I often use for my picture books with facts + fictional characters is informational, which seems to get the idea across.

Michelle Cusolito said...

Thank you for this informative post. I just completed a non-fiction manuscript and this has helped clarify my thinking about my book.

I also want to say that Hive Detectives is a FANTASTIC book. I'm a backyard beekeeper and I learned so much about the research into CCD from the book. I passed it around to other backyard beekeepers, as well. My 8 year old son loved it, too. I also shared it at the Bioneers by the Bay conference when we watched a screening of the "Vanishing of the Bees" last October.

On a related note...
Last November, I posted photos of a baby bee being born in my hive. I hope you'll check them out!

"Dr. Fred" Bortz said...

I recently had an e-mail exchange with Loree where I discussed another sub-genre, which I call speculative nonfiction. It is solidly rooted in science and technology but looks ahead to where that may take us--as nonfiction, not a novel.

I have a work in progress that is highly speculative, and I have a chapter in my latest book, Seven Wonders of Space Technology (Twenty-First Century Books), that speculates about "Moon Water and Moon Bases," based on recent surprising discoveries about a very slightly damp Moon.

Speculatively yours,
"Dr. Fred" Bortz

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

So glad you found it useful, Bufflehead!

Loreen, we're a bit out of my own writing neighborhood, but as a reader, I like the term "informational" and agree that it's a lovely fit.

Michelle, good luck with your manuscript! I'm so glad you enjoyed Hive Detectives, and I'll be sure to check out the link. Thanks for sharing.

Fred, speculative nonfiction works for me! Congratulations on Seven Wonders of Space Technology and good luck with your work in progress!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Cynthia.

Loreen: 'informational' may indeed work better than 'faction'; I'm going to include that on my list.

Michelle: Your photos are AMAZING. And thank you (and your son!) for loving THD. And good luck with your nonfiction manuscript; what NF genre did you decide it fell into?

Fred: If we'd had the conversation back when I wrote the article, I would have made the connection sooner, but YES!, speculative nonfiction should officially be added to this list.

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for including sciency fiction! I coined the term, but it was later independently coined by a blogger for the scientific journal, Nature, referring to books for grown-ups.

He was reacting to another term, "lablit" because not all science happens in a lab.

"Dr. Fred" Bortz said...

Thanks, Cyn and Loree, for agree that Speculative Nonfiction is a useful sub-genre.

Now if I only hadn't left out the .htm at the end of my previous link.

If I may indulge in a little additional self promotion, here's the corrected link:

Seven Wonders of Space Technology.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for giving us background on the term 'sciency fiction', Jacqueline. It fascinates me, and is the sort of information that can get lost so easily.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thanks again, Loree, for sharing your thoughts!

Jacqueline, I like your term very much. It makes great sense to me.

And Fred, thanks for sending the corrected link!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thanks again, Loree, for sharing your thoughts!

Jacqueline, I like your term very much. It makes great sense to me.

And Fred, thanks for sending the corrected link!

Anonymous said...

Cynthia: Ha! Google doesn't like it. Every time I search for sciency fiction, it tells me I mean science fiction.

It'll come around eventually.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the term 'sciencey' in a Horn Book magazine article today. It was used in a similar context (although not to describe sciency/sciencey fiction). Clearly we should figure out how to spell it before it catches on!

Thanks again for the invitation to guest blog, Cynthia.

All best,

Michelle Cusolito said...

Thanks Cynthia and Loree. I'm glad you liked the photos.

My ms is definitely in the "creative non-fiction/ narrative non-fiction category." Set in a rain forest in Ecuador, the central text describes what happened when I met my biggest fear- a poisonous snake. Lots of extra materials provide background information and enrich the story. I envision these journal entries, photos, daily schedules, scientific facts, etc. as sidebars or insets.

Loree, I'm happy to "meet" you here- I'l be taking both of your workshops at the NE-SCBWI conference in May.

Cynthia, I saw you last year. Loved your speech. I began following Cynsations after seeing you.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Michelle, that sounds really exciting, and informative, and, um, a little scary.

I'm glad it ended in a book!

I'm also honored that you enjoyed the speech. Thanks for reading Cynsations!

Anonymous said...

A surprise meeting with a poisonous snake will certainly lend drama and tension to your nonfiction book! (To say nothing of your life.)

Looking forward to meeting you in person come May, Michelle. Be sure to remind me we met here.


Alexandra said...

Hi Loree, I'm trying to figure out where Mosquito Bite and SNEEZE! fit in--not Faction or Sciencey Fiction (I love these terms!) because my books are straight-up science, illustrated with electron micrographs, yet they also include made-up stories (a staged hide-and-seek game, for example, and photos of kids pretending to sneeze). Should we invent another category?

Anonymous said...

Interesting question, Alex. We may need a new term, but I don’t know what to suggest. My next book (CTIZEN SCIENTISTS, Henry Holt, 2012) is mostly straightforward nonfiction, but each chapter opens with a second person narrative that is technically fictional, although based on the actual sights, sounds, odors, tastes, and touches I encountered while out in the field exploring. And I read recently about Chris Barton’s new book, CAN I SEE YOUR ID? (Dial, 2011), which sounds excellent and, it seems, also incorporates second person storytelling to pull readers into the narrative.

I think all four books (SNEEZE!, MOSQUITO BITE, CITIZEN SCIENTISTS and CAN I SEE YOUR ID?) can be classified as “creative nonfiction,” although it is tempting to group them together since they use similar devices (fictionalized frames and narrative sequences) to catch and hold a reader’s attention. But is this a true sub-genre, or just examples of a specific approach to non-fiction storytelling? It’s hard to say.

What do you think? Can you think of other examples of this sort of NF?


Anonymous said...

One last thing: this discussion over at Marc Aronson's blog may be of interest. Marc started out talking about a place for nonfiction authors in language arts curriculum, but the comments venture into a discussion of the importance of identifying genres of nonfiction:

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thanks, Loree! I'll be sure to take a look at the link for my Friday round-up.

Michelle Cusolito said...

In case folks haven't seen it, yet, the March/April Horn Book focuses on non-fiction. I haven't finished it, but so far there's lots of good stuff.