This article was first published in Red Herrings (July 2018) - the magazine of the Crime Writers' Association.
Mention "creative non-fiction" in educated company and the reaction is invariably disapproving, sometimes downright antagonistic. A literary work is either fiction or non-fiction. Indeed, you probably classify your current work as a crime novel or true crime. To suggest there might be something in-between is as offensive as someone elbowing you in the ribs as they jump the queue.
Let's take a step back. What is creative non-fiction? It is a work based on a true story, but in which the writer uses his subjective vantage point to relate it, or interpolates imagined conversations and thoughts of real-life individuals. The latter is also called a non-fictional novel and some distinguish it from creative non-fiction, although Capote's In Cold Blood is cited as an example of both. The point of creative non-fiction is to tell a true story in a compelling way and engage the reader, as in a novel.
So creative non-fiction consists of fact blended with certain dramatised elements. Those getting hot under the collar at the mere thought of this unholy union should pause for thought: a crime novel is no different. If it is contemporary, the work will closely follow current police procedures for the investigation of the inevitable murder, adhere to current medical knowledge for the post mortem, and involve characters who interact as real people do today. They will be subject to the same physical and biological laws as we are in reality; an unfortunate victim who is decapitated will not pick up their head and walk away from the crime scene. If your crime novel is historical, it will closely follow the historical facts of the era in which it is set. For example, if we're talking about a murder mystery in 1665, your characters do not drive BMWs, Novichok is not the choice poison of rogue states, and a course of pills will not cure the bubonic plague sweeping the country. Your crime novel, the epitome of fiction, is a craft bobbing on a sea of fact.
You might agree, but still insist that the depicted characters and events are fictional, not real. Accepted. And this allows organisations such as the CWA to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction in its celebrated Dagger Awards, for example. But the point stubbornly remains: there is more fact and reality to your crime novel than you might suppose, undermining the claim that there is a rigid separation between non-fiction and fiction, and never the twain shall meet. As the philosopher Wittgenstein famously remarked, there will be "a family resemblance" among non-fiction books, and also between fiction books, nothing more. A grey area exists, and only those who insist on polarising the world between black and white will fail to see it.
But, it still might be argued, non-fiction has no imagined elements, and this redraws the sharp line between the two. Is that true? No. First, take the example of two true crime authors writing about an unsolved murder, each advancing incompatible theories about the identity and motive of the perpetrator. Even though each theory is plausible, and fits the known facts, at least one is wrong. Regardless of intent, one author has imagined a narrative that is not true, the very definition of fiction. And if you believe this scenario is unlikely, the Ripper case (1888) and the Wallace case (1931) are two famous examples among many.
Second, if a historical crime is dramatised, following all the known facts of the case and contradicting none, there is likely to be imagined dialogue or narrative when the facts are unknown. After all, apart from a trial, we rarely have a transcript of what was said between real people participating in real events. Again dramatised elements intermingle with fact.
On the other hand, creative non-fiction is not a licence to allow authors to indulge in unwarranted revisionism, rewriting history on a whim. I suggest there are two key rules to writing creative non-fiction.
1. Never contradict fact
The golden rule is that a fictional element is always understudy to truth, used only when there are gaps in the historical record and a particular fact is unknown or open to interpretation. Creative non-fiction always hugs facts and never lets go. The task of the writer is to join the factual dots with plausible lines of narrative or dialogue, but always leaving the dots where they are.
The latitude for creativity is strictly limited, and there is a lurking danger that imagination becomes the driving force and historical fact is distorted or ignored. Two examples. The screenplay writer of the movie U-571 depicted American marines boarding a German U-boat to capture Enigma code machines, which were vital in defeating the Nazis and ending WWII. In actual fact, the Enigma machines and codebooks were seized six months before America entered the war. Fiction replaced fact. In one of her books about an unsolved murder, a true crime writer (now deceased) changed the known statement of a key witness to support her theory. Again, fiction replaced fact. Both are egregious violations of the golden rule. In my opinion, both are examples of fiction promoting historical vandalism.
There are three ways to ensure you do not break the golden rule: research, research, research. You can never do enough. A writer can only decide to employ creative non-fiction techniques from a position of thorough knowledge, never before. The best research not only includes secondary sources, such as books, but primary sources. For example, in my genre, historical true crime, this entails looking at the original police files, including police reports, witness statements, inquest testimony, and other documentary evidence. This invaluable, first-hand history provides the most sought after commodity for any non-fiction writer: detail.
2. Be honest
Always. In Did She Kill Him?, about the infamous Maybrick poisoning, Kate Colquhoun italicizes the dialogue taken verbatim from historical documents and assiduously uses endnotes to cite sources for important facts. This is a sound approach, but not the only one. Even better, in my view, transcribe some of the original primary research in an evidence section. This is the approach I adopt in the Cold Case Jury books. For example, in my book The Green Bicycle Mystery, there is a scene describing an important conversation between a police superintendent and the prime suspect. The conversation is dramatically reconstructed based on a police document that was only recently released to the public.
But why dramatise events if the original evidence is also included? The purpose of the reconstructed conversation is to add more detail and provide insight. In this case, the conversation occurred when the suspect returned to the police station to collect his personal effects. From another document, taken from the original prosecution file, I unearthed a list of the suspect's sequestrated possessions, so was able to be authentic in describing which objects were handed back. Further, by attributing thoughts to the superintendent, it was possible to highlight important points of the conversation in an arresting way. The result, I hope, is a memorable scene that is far more engaging than simply analysing the original document, although it makes the same points. And by providing the text of the original document in a separate section of the book, readers can see for themselves the basis of the reconstruction. Nothing is hidden.
Creative non-fiction blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction but only at the periphery of knowledge, where fact and truth are unavailable or obscured. It is most definitely not a dramatic license to change what we know. That would be "fake history", to coin a phrase. But when it is used responsibly, it allows a writer to approach factual material with a greater degree of creativity.