The following was a guest blog I did on the site Straight-from-Hel (http://www.straightfromhel.blogspot.com/2013/06/emeralds-of-alhambra.html) —
As a non-fiction author, professor and scientist, I come to the noveling business from a unique vantage point. For my first ten years of writing, I published five non-fiction books. My great love remains, however, historical fiction, and in 2009 I decided it was finally time to write a novel. Emeralds of the Alhambra, my debut historical novel, an interfaith love story set in medieval Muslim Spain, was just released by Sunbury Press (http://johndcressler.com/emeralds-of-the-alhambra/). That transition from non-fiction author to novelist was a fascinating one, and exceptionally rewarding. While I suspect I will never return to writing non-fiction, I do think my fiction benefits from my non-fiction career. Let me explain.
Writing non-fiction and fiction are very different, in many obvious ways: tone, narrative style, subject matter. I find that writing fiction requires much more contact with my material, a daily obsession of sorts. What I most enjoy about writing fiction are the nearly constant unanticipated discoveries in plot and character, the unexpected twists and turns.
With Emeralds, before pen ever met paper, I first mapped out the plot in several dozen pages, to bind the themes and characters to historical events, describing in bold strokes what I thought should happen. The magical part of the creative process with fiction is that inevitably the characters and plot threads begin to deviate from plan, assuming a life of their own. I love this! On almost a daily basis, as I was driving to work, thinking about my characters still, retracing the plot threads, thoughts would spontaneously jump into my head: “Well, of course, she needs to do this!” or “Obviously this needs to happen.” These were things that I had never anticipated during my initial planning phase, but were birthed from the creative energy of noveling. While the broad strokes of the story remained at the end of the day, the nuances of plot and character evolved in fascinating ways. That creative aspect is unique to fiction and I find it profoundly satisfying. It is something I have never experienced writing non-fiction.
All that said, I do believe my background in writing non-fiction has served me well as training for my fiction writing. Writing non-fiction forced me to be a detail person, comfortable with facts and figures and dates and people. Emeralds tells an epic story, so being able to balance multiple intricate plot threads with a large cast of characters was key, and my non-fiction writing made me quite comfortable doing that. I think my scientific background (physics and math), my vivid imagination, and my artistic sensibilities also helped me in my description of the magical art and architecture of the Alhambra Palace in Granada (the setting for Emeralds).
In addition, topical relevance was always a big deal with my non-fiction. I attempted to craft books that people needed to read, that were relevant to their lives. Especially in my non-fiction sculpted for general audiences (Silicon Earth and Reinventing Teenagers) this was always my key concern. With Emeralds, this aspect of relevance was also priority #1. I wanted to tell a great story, yes, but I wanted it to be relevant to a modern reader, not just a good yarn set in antiquity.
After quite a bit of research, I found a period of history that suited my goals perfectly: medieval Muslim Spain. As all would agree, our modern world is stained with the blood of religious conflict and fanaticism, and yet somehow we managed to forget that for hundreds of years in medieval Spain, Christians, Muslims and Jews found a way to live together in relative peace, sharing languages and customs, whispering words of love across religious boundaries, embracing a level of mutual acceptance and respect unimaginable today. Together, they launched one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. My fiction is intended to break open this fascinating time period in an engaging manner (a love story). Relevant to 2013? You bet it is!
Is my fiction better for having non-fiction roots? Definitely. While it is fiction full-steam-ahead for this author, my non-fiction background will always be treasured as a foundation for better, more relevant novels.