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Writing: Fiction Or Non-Fiction? Case Study Of How To Pick Your Genre

Writing: Fiction or Non-Fiction? Case Study of How to Pick Your Genre

headshot of Ali Bacon

Scottish indie author Ali Bacon (photo: www.angelafitchphotography.co.uk)

Scottish author Ali Bacon has plumped for writing her forthcoming book as fiction – but it was a close-run thing. Here she describes her journey and what influenced her decision.

How do authors choose a genre?

Mainly, I guess, because they already have a favoured writing ‘brand’, or sometimes with an eye to an emerging market.

But when I uncovered the story of a Victorian artist and photographer  and saw in it love, loss and redemption, I never doubted it would be a novel.

70,000 words and copious amounts of research later, I wasn’t so sure.

Round 1: The Novel

My first draft was a battle to impose a narrative arc on the fascinating but sometimes inconvenient ‘truth’ of historical fact. I fiddled with voices and points of view, I added subplots, but by the time I stumbled over what should have been the finishing line, my story had got lost.  I also read other examples of biographical fiction and saw how respect for the facts often hampered the writer in delivering a satisfying read.

I knew enough about historical fiction to see I probably needed to let go of the history and use the setting and period to write a new story. But by now I loved these people too much. I wanted to celebrate their lives not concoct new ones.

So, should I be writing fiction at all?

photo of book pile

Research – always more to be done (Photo: Ali Bacon)

Round 2: Non-Fiction

I looked across the writing ravine to the land of non-fiction…

A full-scale academic biography was out of the question as such a thing already existed, minutely researched and ransacked by my novelist self. Narrative non-fiction was more doable and could be commercially successful. After all, Dava Sobel’s Longitude was a film as well as a book. My take on Victorian photography could reach both niche and general markets. I even downloaded script-writing software!

But even narrative non-fiction needs an angle or a framework.

My subject’s story contained reference points to my own life and experience –I tried conflating history with memoir and considered other possible structures.

Freeze-Frame for a Rethink

Would I ever have pulled this off? I doubt it, but as it turned, out someone else already had. I got hold of a book written several years previously which sounded like a good research resource. I read it at speed in a hot sweat. It was exactly the book I wanted to read.

I soon realised it was also the book I had been about to write!

The Short Answer

I walked away from the project until I was prompted to write a short story for which I used some of my historical research. The story was a bit of a hit and I wrote a few more. I also secured an invitation to a photography festival  where I read in front of a small but appreciative audience of early photography fans.

Here was my niche market – they liked fiction too.

Photo of Ali Bacon lecturing at St Andrews

St Andrews Photography Festival 2016

A Happy Ending

I am now recasting my novel as a series of short stories about the women who knew my photographer hero.  Although I think of the pieces as self-contained, they provide an over-arching narrative relating to the man himself. You might even call it a loosely structured novel.

But I’m keeping a non-fiction iron in the fire and plan to offer events (to camera clubs, WI’s etc)  in which I will focus on the real lives behind the stories, in the hope of attracting readers from both camps.

Writing What's Right for Me

In this protracted story there is a distinct lack of commercial hard-headedness, but I’m comfortable with my decision and although I have always struggled to find a consistent writing brand, I’m more likely to continue in fiction than undertake a new research project.

Meanwhile I’d appreciate any thoughts from ALLi members on how to pitch what has turned out to be fiction after all.  A novel is a more attractive proposition to habitual readers of fiction. Or should I stick my neck out, add contemporary photographs and offer something a bit different – a collection of illustrated short stories?

OVER TO YOU Feel free to share your thoughts on Ali's dilemma in the comments – and any similar experiences you've had with your own genre-crossing writing projects.

Case study of how authors choose a genre - by indie #author @AliBacon - #selfpub Click To Tweet


Author: Ali Bacon

Ali Bacon lives in South Gloucestershire where she writes contemporary and historical fiction. Her coming of age novel A Kettle of Fish was published in 2012 and she has recently had stories shortlisted for the Exeter Writers Prize, Magic Oxygen and The Short Story. Last year she appeared at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and other literary events in the South West. Her themed collection of short stories is inspired by the work of early photographers D. O. Hill and Robert Adamson.


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