Thursday, December 5, 2013

Miranda Paul on the Blurred Line between Fiction and Nonfiction

Over a year ago, in an effort to become more involved with the children's writing community, I volunteered to become a judge on a writer's website offering critiques, line-editing, and other writing services. That's how I met today's guest, Miranda Paul, the founder of Her forthcoming picture books include One Plastic Bag (Millbrook/Lerner Publishing, 2015) and Water is Water (Neal Porter Books, 2015). 

*   *   *

Blurred Lines
By Miranda Paul

When I speak of “Blurred Lines,” I’m not referring to the Robin Thicke song that has topped Billboard charts despite its controversial message.

I’m talking about that controversial gray area between fiction and nonfiction. You know, that one in between research and invention.

With the rise of more creative nonfiction and historical fiction, especially in #kidlit, there has been a lot of discussion over authors taking “liberties.”

Where exactly is the line? Can the two be mixed?

Here’s my short answer: Just about every good story is a mix of truth and imagination.

My long answer is: The rest of this post.

Whether you write novels, creative nonfiction, historical fiction, sci-fi, picture books for the very young, or even memoirs, there is always research involved. (Or, there should be.)

My first two picture books, due out in early 2015, are both books that blur the lines between traditional nonfiction and poetry and fictional storytelling.

The first, entitled ONE PLASTIC BAG, is about a group of women in West Africa who began a grassroots recycling project. These women are real—and I’ve met and interviewed them all. I’ve gathered photographs from the project’s beginning and been to their village several times. However, in between meeting the women and writing the story, one of them passed away. Others revealed events from their efforts that I felt were too complex or wouldn’t translate well to a young audience. Others remembered things slightly differently from one another. And so on.

For the sake of writing a compelling story that captured the magnitude and essence of what they had accomplished, I pared down their stories to a sequence of events. I made the choice to invent dialogue, with the help of one of the women. We came up with things they might have said to each other back then. In essence, I took a few liberties. If that makes it fiction, that makes it fiction.

However, I have an author’s note at the end that identifies the fact that the story I shaped is inspired by true events. If you’re going to take liberties with writing a story about a historical subject or figure, make sure that you have an author’s note at the end separating fact from fiction, or supporting your fictional choices with reasons.

Candice Fleming did a great job of including an author’s note in her book Papa’s Mechanical Fish. In the back matter, Jonah Winter also 'fesses up to the fact that he’s blurred some lines between fact and fiction in The 39 Apartments of Ludwig Van Beethoven, because there are so many unknowns even after extensive research.

Remember that an author’s note isn’t a place to excuse a lack of research, but it is a chance to be candid with an editor, book reviewers, and ultimately, your reader. Whether you write for kids or adults, make sure that any blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction are clarified up front or at the end of your book.

But creative nonfiction or historical fiction is tricky. Always get an outside opinion before submitting your work. I’m biased, because I run a critique site called Rate Your Story, but I truly feel that getting feedback from a professional before submitting your work, wherever it falls on the fiction/non-fiction spectrum, is one of the best gifts you can give your career.

Many editors and agents today only allow a single submission, and “no means no.” Those aren’t blurred lines! Whatever you can do to make your work ready before you hit SEND will hopefully end in a clear “YES!”

*   *   * 

Learn more about Miranda Paul on her webpage or blog.


  1. Hi Miranda & Anne,

    So nice to hear from you, Miranda! I agree, the author's note at the end (or beginning) of the work is really important for all readers, especially for the young ones. I don't mind reading a book based on both reality and imagination (could be fun), I just want to know about this fact in advance so I won't go around telling others stuff that isn't true and is just the author's imagination.

    I read a Joyce Carol Oates novel based on Marilyn Monroe last year and because of the strong writing, the fiction/non-fiction lines were fluidly blurred. If Ms Oates hadn't clarified right at the beginning that this work was her imagination-stirred-from research, I would've thought everything in it really happened that way. (By the way, 'Blonde' is termed 'a fictionalized biography.') If it wasn't for the note, I'd have bought everything and be devastated later on to find out that things had been distorted.

  2. Great advice, Miranda! I wrote a totally fiction picture book except when the vegetables came to life, I wanted them to explain what is good about them. I researched that and put in real to semi-real positive things about them. Just one liners. I got a bad review from someone who said I should have put an authors note at the end about where I got the info. I never even thought about doing that but I guess she was probably right.

  3. Well done Miranda. Interesting to see how blurry these distinctions can become, and how different publishing houses choose to present them!

  4. Yes! It's difficult to tell a compelling story about a complex life or series of events in 900 words or less. You never get to tell the whole truth. To me, picture book biography writing feels like slices of truth: you get to write about a life from one angle. Nothing more. Even telling "nothing but the truth," I am shaping a life in a particular direction that doesn't get to show all the ups, downs and in betweens. Thank goodness for Author Notes!

  5. This is great! Exactly what I'd been wondering. Thanks, Miranda!

  6. So helpful, Miranda, as I am venturing forth into non-fiction where my heart truly resides!