A few days ago, I finished reading a nonfiction book I particularly enjoyed for its discussion of large fish and how they impact river systems. It got me thinking about how nonfiction books can help improve my fiction writing. Too often it feels like new writers are focused on reading “how-to” writing books and their genre of choice instead of reading diverse genres and nonfiction. The important thing to learn is that all writing–good or bad, fiction or nonfiction, genre or literary–has something to offer to help you improve your writing. So today, I will focus on three ways in which nonfiction can help.


You are sitting down to write a character that captains a boat. You have read a handful of books with ships as their settings. You finish the novel, get excited as your friends read it, and then something happens. Your sailing buddy didn’t like it. He points out dozens of flaws in your descriptions of boats and the way the captain runs the ship. But you read books with captains and boats. What happened?

The issue here is something like the children’s game Telephone. The first person who wrote a novel with a ship knew what they were saying. The next person didn’t do their research and learned the lingo from the first book. It was passable but had some flaws. Then as the lingo diffused throughout the culture, the books you read didn’t get it right. I think we have all read something that makes us think, “This author didn’t know how X works.” I see flaws in computer lingo frequently when reading novels, and I am sure women can spot men writing women rather quickly.

The lesson here is, that you don’t have to be an expert in something your character does, but your character has to sound like they are.

Stacking Conflicts

What do we do if we want to add depth to a plot? A lot of plotting follows the “yes and” or “no but” structure. This helps drive momentum along a conflict arc. But this structure can often lead to stories that follow one singular plot line. The resulting stories can feel shallow or simplistic. Yes, the plot is long, but it only follows one conflict the entire time. Nonfiction can help solve this problem.

To add depth to a plot it is better to stack conflicts. People enjoy stories where characters have to deal with several conflicts at the same time. It’s not enough that the character has to rescue the love interest, but the character also has to protect the village and figure out why the crops aren’t growing where they used to at the same time. Stories with stacked conflicts add depth to the plot and the character.

So we need to have multiple conflicts, but how do we come up with those conflicts? Nonfiction can be a great reference for real-life examples of stacked conflicts. Biographies or memoirs are great places to read about how people dealt with many different problems at the same time.


World-building can be tough but rewarding. You spend all your time building out a world with complex religions and political structures. You invested months in coming up with local mythologies for each town your characters will travel to. But something is lacking. You don’t just want to rely on the same dragon and unicorn tropes. What can you do?

Nonfiction is a great way to learn about the complex and strange world we live in. I recently read Zeb Hogan’s Chasing Giants and learned a ton of interesting facts about how large fish add to river ecosystems. I also learned about how damming rivers prevents large fish from migrating and spawning, which could reduce biodiversity in rivers. I can take the things I learned from Chasing Giants and add them to my novels. The river characters have to cross may be filled with “monster fish” that might be dying because of barriers the antagonist has added. This adds conflict and biodiversity to my novel.

I’m going to leave the Bonus way nonfiction can help you to the video. You will just have to watch and find out. I’ll see you next time!

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