Monday 17 August 2015

Research in Creative Nonfiction Part 1 - Nola Passmore

Why Include Research?

You’re about to write the scintillating tale of your charity run around Australia to save the Blue-faced Stripey Tree Worm.  You’ve kept a meticulous diary of your daily travels and have a plethora of anecdotes to enthral your readers.  It’s your journey, your experience, your story.  So why would you include extra research?

Of course, it depends on the type of piece you’re writing.  If you’re penning a news story, academic paper or technical report; readers expect facts and figures.  However, what if you’re writing creative nonfiction?  By that I mean true stories that are told in an engaging way through the use of literary techniques such as action, dialogue, and metaphor. Isn’t the story more important in such writing?  Story certainly is crucial to creative nonfiction, as detailed in my series of posts earlier this year (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3).  However, good research can enhance the tale you want to tell.  Here are some reasons why.


Have you ever read an article where something was stated as true, but no evidence was given to back it up?  If you’re like me, this can lead to scepticism.  Why should I give money to save the Blue-faced Stripey Tree Worm just because so-and-so says I should?  Including research from credible sources verifies what you’re saying and carries more weight with readers.  Conversely, if your information is obviously faulty (e.g. stating that the journey around Australia is only 5000 km), readers may question whether you’ve also taken liberties with the rest of the story.


Dave Hood notes that we can increase our own understanding of a topic by conducting research.  While running around Australia, you may have passed a cemetery on Port Drive in the Western Australian town of Broome.  Without doing research, would you know that it’s the resting place for hundreds of Japanese divers who died while working in the pearling industry?  Maybe you could draw a link between your endangered Blue-faced Stripey Tree Worm and the divers whose lives were put at risk by the working conditions of the time. Understanding more about the people, places and topics you’re writing about can add context and depth to your writing.

Universal Truth

Lee Gutkind notes that you can increase your readership if you ‘strike a universal chord’.  Did you take up the running challenge after a health scare?  If so, giving a few facts about the health condition could put readers in the picture and make them think, ‘Hey this could happen to me.  Maybe I should do something to get fitter and healthier’.  The Blue-faced Stripey Tree Worm might only live in the Daintree Rainforest, thus making it difficult for non-locals to feel for its predicament.  If research shows that each state has dozens of endangered species, it might help readers see that they can help the wildlife of their region.  By looking for the universal truth, you’re going beyond one person’s story and showing how everyone has a stake.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll look at how to gather research material for a non-fiction story and how to embed it in your narrative so that it captivates, rather than bores, your readers.

In the meantime, can you think of articles or books that have included research in an interesting way?  I’d love to hear your examples.


Gutkind, L.  (2012).  You can’t make this stuff up: The complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between.  Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

Hood, D.  (2012).  Creative nonfiction: Doing research to increase understanding. Retrieved from

Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including devotionals, true stories, magazine articles, academic papers, poetry and short fiction.  She loves sharing what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same.  She and her husband Tim have their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her weekly writing tips blog at their website:  


  1. Hi Nola - Just wondering how well you researched the Blue-faced Stripey Tree Worm? Something about the photo suggests that this apparently endangered species might in fact be a fake and the fundraiser a scam. For instance, the size of the worm and the texture of its skin suggest it might be a knitted toy. I'm just off to check Snopes and do a bit of google research ;)

    Actually, I loved your post and (as always) your sense of humour and totally agree that research is important even when writing about personal experiences and memories. When writing about the memories of my childhood, I've found research invaluable - both in checking with others who were there (my mum, siblings etc) and also the correlations with family photos, letters, newspapers, geography, historical events etc. As you say, obvious mistakes make an account less authentic and trustworthy.

    1. Oh no - My scam has been uncovered. The Blue-faced Stripey Tree Worm is in fact a toy my Mum knitted for my dog. And you should have heard the barking when I stuck it in this bush for a photo :)

      Thanks for sharing your experience of writing about personal experiences. That would have added a lot more texture. I'll be looking more at research gathering techniques next week, so stay tuned.

    2. Heehee.

      Looking forward to next week's addition :)

  2. Hi Nola,
    I believe you are so right. For one thing, if you don't take the necessary reseach, there will always be some discerning reader who will correct you, and spread the word. And why shouldn't we take the time, since research is now so much easier than it was in previous decades?

    I like the comments by you and Jenny above. Just enough to make it clear for anyone who might take the Blue-faced Stripey Tree Worm on face value.

    1. Thanks Paula. That's a good point about research being so much easier now than it was previously. It's a lot easier to Google the information these days and there are a lot of fabulous sites where you can look up historical documents (e.g. scanned copies of shipping lists). I'll talk a bit more about that in next week's blog. Even in fiction, it can really take you out of the story if someone makes a glaring factual error. Mmm .. perhaps I should have cross-checked my references on that tree worm.

    2. I like the way your mind works!

    3. Thanks Rita. It's normal for me :)


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