The Key to Writing Good Novels? You Use the Reporting Skills of a Good Journalist

By Laura Elliott

Mark Twain was first a journalist, then a novelist, and here’s how he explained the difference: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Fiction has to make sense.”

It’s easy to imagine Twain making this pronouncement with a wry smile and an emphatic puff of his cigar. Real life sometimes makes no sense, and if a journalist has written a solid piece, he can legitimately shrug when questioned about the lunacy of his subject’s actions and say, “Just reporting the facts.” A novelist, on the other hand, will be attacked by critics if she hasn’t planted clues throughout a narrative that once strung together in a reader’s mind explain why a character acts as he does.

I started as a journalist and now think of myself as an accidental novelist. A few years back, I’d written a magazine article that an editor encouraged me to expand into fiction, allowing me to use the symbolism and commentary a novel provides. I assumed that the novel, Under a War-torn Sky, would be my only one. But I was lucky with it because it was about  World War II, a time that provides such rich material—countless anecdotes showing both the absolute worst and best in human nature. I just reported it and the book publishers asked for more. Their finding value in my fiction had everything to do with my first being a journalist.

Why are Twain, Hemingway, or Dickens so good? Because of the authenticity of place, time, character, and dialogue in their works. They captured and reflected—like prisms—human quirks, pathos, and capacity for valor; our ways of speaking; our triumphs and tragedies. They knew how to do all that because they spent years reporting—observing, analyzing, and then explaining, often using heart-breaking anecdotes, what they saw.

Journalism teaches a writer to be quiet and watch, to absorb, to question what he’s seen, looking for answers.  The thinnest articles—or novels—come from sitting at a desk, deciding what a story is supposed to be about. A stint in journalism helps a novelist avoid self-infatuated or one-dimensional writing. It teaches a writer to search for outside wisdom and insights to add to and inform his own.

A journalist collects details to show rather than tell. Fly-on-the-wall articles, following a profile subject for weeks, reporting a long court case, watching medical procedures and interviewing family and friends about the impact on them, these kinds of stories hone that detail-gathering skill. Details, added one atop another, build a sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, just like a child constructing a drip-sand castle on a beach.

Authors who first were journalists are prepped to create spot-on dialogue because they have interviewed people, recording answers word-for-word. A good journalist will make note of how a person speaks, his colloquialisms and mannerisms. Sometimes the way someone responds—if he shifts uncomfortably or becomes animated—is as important as the words.

An example: I once wrote an article on domestic violence that morphed into a non-fiction book. The original magazine article became much stronger as I did more interviewing. At one point I noticed that the wife, the victim of the violence, would nudge furniture as she chatted and moved round the room. After watching her one afternoon, I asked why. She blushed and explained that if the legs were not precisely embedded in the deep impressions they’d left in the high-pile carpet, she’d get in trouble. She had been separated for years from her domineering husband, but she couldn’t stop worrying whether the furniture was in exactly the right place. From there came a flood of memories about the psychological warfare she’d endured.

Journalists-turned-authors know they need a compelling lede, a dramatic opener or a voice that is so evocative from the get-go a reader can’t resist. We double-check facts, which can lead to all sorts of thematic or character-development brush-strokes. In my first WWII novel, my pilot-on-the-run could only plausibly eat indigenous food, available in the 1940s. Frenchmen in the countryside didn’t automatically have croissants. So I found a guide to regional French foods and discovered walnut wine and a kind of pungent blue cheese that allowed me to write a scene to show just how hungry my Tidewater-born American farm boy was, and how polite, to gag down the food his French protectors offered. All I’d been looking for initially was an authentic list of groceries.

In practical terms, journalism insists on output. There’s no patience with gazing out a window mulling over truth to the point of becoming stymied. A journalist writes to deadline (a habit that can surprise and delight fiction editors).  She learns to stop obsessing over that one paragraph and finish a story. It demands clarity. It requires writing to space. It forces a writer to accept and appreciate editing. Everyone needs an editor. Authors who have only written fiction seem more likely to see editors are unnecessary or adversaries.

Former journalists-turned novelists tend to see themselves as a craftsman, not artistes. They seem better at adopting an attitude that actress Meryl Streep expressed when accepting her 2010 Golden Globe for her portrayal of Julia Child. Stunningly, given her talents, Streep modestly said, “In my long career, I’ve played so many extraordinary women, I am basically being mistaken for one. Really, I am the vessel for other people’s stories and other women’s lives.”  All authors would do well to remember we are primarily mirrors. We are not the real story.

I’ve heard so many journalist colleagues say they could never do fiction. Pshaw. It’s just good reporting, adding a dash of imagination and fashioning a story that reveals a larger truth. Toggling back and forth between journalism and fiction would be an ideal writing life. Doing both can strengthen both.

Finally, writing fiction can be great fun. Be prepared, though, for something Anna Quindlen said in a speech at Wake Forest. Laughing, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist said that when she wrote her factual magazine columns she often was accused of making things up, while many now speculate that her novels are simply thinly-veiled recountings of her own life.

Laura Elliott was a senior writer for The Washingtonian magazine, twice a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and author of two non-fiction books for adults. She has published five young adult historical novels and four picture books. The awards for her fiction include being named a Jefferson Cup Honor Book for Historical Fiction, a NCSS/CBC Notable Book in Social Studies,  an IRA/CBC Teachers’ Choice, and a Bank Street College of Education Best Book. Learn more at www.lmelliott.com

Comments

  1. Martin Cahn says:

    Thank you so much for this. In a way, I’m the reverse of the post. My writing background was mostly in fiction (unpublished science fiction and fantasy) while working as a radio announcer for 14 years and then another five years as an administrative assistant. I came to print journalism late, but brought the combination of writing experiences (fiction, radio, education [both bachelors and masters degrees] and corporate) to the newspaper where I work.

    Certainly, however, what you’ve said here is true: a good journalist should make a good novelist as long as they take their craft and have a fertile imagination they can let fly.

  2. Great piece! Love the Anna Q. quote….

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