While writing the WIP (yes, first draft may be finished but much progress still to be made) I’ve been plagued by the question of genre. I really only plumped for the novel form because it’s the one I’m familiar with. At the same time, I was aware of keeping as closely as I could to ‘the facts’ and simply making up the bits I didn’t know, exploring above all else where and how the story ended. But new facts were popping up all the time. If I included them all and filled all the gaps that could be filled, surely it would be non-fiction?
Next question – what is narrative non-fiction exactly? My one role model for this was Dava Sobel whose Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter I enjoyed years ago before I took up writing. But my own copies had disappeared and my memories were hazy – what was the balance of exposition, action, dialogue? How much drama is there in a drama-documentary? It was probably time to read some more NNF, but I somehow had enough other things to do. One thing I did know, if my book turned into non-fiction, it would begin and end with the artefact that frames a big part of the story, a painting that’s still in existence today.
Then, as I pushed and panted towards the end, turning from time to time to my favourite sources, I stumbled on a footnote I had somehow missed referring to a non-fiction (but not academic) book that sounded intriguing. With a chapter of my rough draft still to write, I banged in an order and the book arrived a couple of days later. I was transfixed. Yes, it was highly readable (is this what they mean by ‘narrative’?) and covered a big proportion of the material I was using, albeit from a different perspective. It added appreciably to my knowledge. Its main focus was the picture in question. I gobbled up Mr Hill’s Big Picture in unseemly haste. Here was the book I had almost tried to write.
Today I started some clearing out and found Galileo’s Daughter in my bookcase. It had been there all along. Clearly fate had intervened – or did I just not want to find it? I don’t think I’ll be needing it now. But Mr Hill’s Big Picture has been useful in all sorts of ways. The author has been really helpful and shared some of his knowledge of the picture (no longer on public display) with me. Most of all, I know I was right to stick to fiction.