How do you see the differences in writing fiction & memoir?

By Carol / May 28, 2013 /

WritingSince I’ve written memoirs and am close to completing my first novel, when the question of differences in writing fiction and memoir came to me in response to a blog post, you’d have thought I’d be able to respond right off the bat. But, I was stumped. By definition, memoirs (based on the factual happenings in the author’s life) and novels (story made up by the author) are different, but how else?

Without making a conscious decision about style at the time, I blurred the lines between memoir and fiction when I wrote my memoir Growing Up Country as creative nonfiction. As author Lee Gutkind described it, “the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”

I use some of the same techniques in writing both memoir and fiction.

Visualization. Before I can write, I have to be able to see the places and people I’m writing about. Recalling the details for my memoir was as easy as closing my eyes and mentally walking into the barn on our farm, smelling new-cut hay, or seeing my grandma’s rolled down nylons.

To write historical fiction set in the WWI era, I had to be able to see the places and people just as clearly. I chose a Victorian house I’d been in often as my character’s home. That way I knew how the rooms flowed; I could imagine the furniture. I visited the Living History Farm in Des Moines where I talked with the interpreters at the 1900’s farm and attended a funeral at the 1880 Victorian house. I found pictures and videos. Anything that would let me immerse myself in the time so that it was as real to me as if I’d lived then myself.

Research played a role in both my memoir and in the novel. My family was the research source for the memoir. Memory plays tricks on everyone and to the extent I could, I verified the details I included about farm life. Research for my novel went to a much deeper level and took on a life of its own. I am thankful every day for the Internet where I can learn to drive a Model T or set up a professional photo studio. 

Though the techniques are similar, the challenges in writing memoir and fiction have been different for me.

Imagination vs. Reality – One of greatest challenges in writing fiction has been that I’m used to writing based on facts. The writing I’d done during 30+ years in public relations and marketing was journalist/business writing – all based on the facts of client products. My memoir was based on the reality of my life. With my novel, even though I started with a few actual places and dates and events in mind, the rest is the product of my imagination.

I’ve come to enjoy the ability to add people and events when the story required them.  When my manuscript was all but complete, I realized the need for another character and a minor subplot.  I was amazed at how simple it was to develop this man, create a life and motivations for him, and retrofit him into an existing story. It took some time, but I’ve come to revel in the freedom of “making it up.”

The Story Arc. Both memoir and fiction have to tell a good story. Structured as a series of relatively independent short stories, my memoir did not adhere to the standard novel story arc. Yes, there is a gentle progression in my memoir from stories when I’m younger to those when I’m a little older, from memories that are more naïve to those that are more mature and challenging. But these progressions are not as structured or dramatic as those of successful fiction.

Learning the craft of novel writing has been an ongoing delight, from inciting incident to crisis, climax, and resolution. In three acts. With escalating pulses. Some writers may know this inherently; I have to learn it. All fun, but a definite difference.

These are the similarities and differences I see in writing fiction and memoir. Writers – What differences do you see?  Readers – This could all be behind the scenes shop talk, but are there differences you see in the way fiction and memoirs are written?


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  1. Kathleen Pooler on May 28, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Carol, I am so intrigued when I hear of so many memoir writers such as yourself turning to fiction as their next project. I’m not there yet as I’m still working to complete my first memoir and I don’t know if I will want to pursue fiction but this post clarifies the similarities and distinctions for me. it seems there are more similarities than differences. A good story is a good story–and requires all the same elements– no matter what the genre. Thanks for an informative and enlightening post!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 28, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Thanks for making me think this through, Kathy, and for commenting now. Your question inspired this post, as you know 😉 Were it not for the advent of creative nonfiction as a genre, we may not be having this discussion. I’ve wondered where I’ll go next, once I complete my novel. I have many ideas, both in memoir and other non-fiction areas and in fiction. Love the options!

  2. Belinda Nicoll on May 28, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Carol, I’ll echo what most of my professors said: Structure is King – that’s the difference that makes a difference when it comes to nonfiction vs. fiction, including diverse genres. If, as a storyteller, you understand that, then you’re halfway there.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 28, 2013 at 9:28 am

      Conceptually, intellectually, I understand structure. I’m still a neophyte when it comes to consistently applying what I’ve learned! But fiction or memoir, we’re all telling stories, and good structure helps us tell a good story. Thanks for commenting, Belinda.

  3. Sharon Lippincott on May 28, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Carol, you make research sound fascinating and fun, and freedom to fabricate setting and characters seductive. I’m with you on the challenge of learning structure. I began a novel many years ago and ran into a brick wall as I realized I had no idea how to make it hang together. Hopefully I’m learning and will soon return to complete it. Structure is my biggest challenge!

    One thought nobody has mentioned in your post and comments or Kathy’s related post on writing for the reader is the fact that readers want some sense of victory at the end. Some sense of good trumping evil or lessons learned. In that sense, fiction and memoir both convey some sense of inner truth.

    My favorite summary is the statement “All stories are true. Some stories happened.” With memoir we must stick to stories that “happened.”

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 28, 2013 at 10:27 am

      Quite right about the sense of inner truth, Sharon. I had to re-read my post because I had originally included something about Truth with a capital T. Apparently I deleted that paragraph. Who knows why? I want that as a reader of either genre. Growth. Learning. Truth, whether happy or sad.

      Research is right at the top of my favorite tasks. Perhaps because I consider every day a success when I learn something new. Story structure is one of those learnings, one I’m still exploring. Good luck when you return to your novel. The story is waiting for you.

  4. Penelope J. on May 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Hi Carol,
    Excellent observations about memoir vs. fiction. I’m noticing that many authors start with memoir and then turn to fiction – often based on family history or other personal experiences. This is where the real writers shine and the one-book memoir writers may stumble. Fiction requires a different skill set than memoir starting with the structure, and learning to manage the potential free-for-all when characters take on a life of their own as well as reign in the temptation to go down long, disjointed paths. Memoir can be painful and/or cathartic to write while fiction can be entertaining, engrossing, and overwhelming. I happen to be a fiction writer who fell, accidentally, into writing memoirs for myself and others – two are coming out this autumn – but love fiction with a passion that I don’t have for memoir. I love the freedom of fiction and entering a world of imaginary people, plotting their moves and destinies, and creating a book from nothing. So far I’ve written five fiction books – none published. For twenty years – on and off – I’ve been working on a historical paranormal romance, which has required a tremendous amount of research, and time, which I don’t always have. If I get this fiction book published, then and only then will I feel that I’m a true author.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      Good point about the painful and/or cathartic nature of writing memoir, Penelope. Some people don’t write their memoirs because facing the pain is too difficult. That’s a good addition to the list of differences in writing – dealing with actual pain.

      Structure is getting the most votes as the problem child of writing fiction. Without a firm hand(le) on structure, I went down a great many long, disjointed paths. As the manuscript took shape, it became easier and easier to cut the irrelevant meanderings.

      I hope you’ll get back to that novel! It would be a shame to write so much and still not call yourself an author. Though I recognize that it can be difficult to own that title. It was for me.

  5. Madeline Sharples on May 28, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    I also turned to fiction after writing my memoir. I loved getting away from the painful events I wrote about in my memoir. I learned to create characters from whole cloth. Of course structure is important to both as is research. But delving into my imagination to make up the story, dialogue, locations has been a lot of fun even though my novel is based on many true events. I just took the liberty to change them to fit my story.
    However, I must say that both take about the same amount of work. Getting the material down is the easy part. Both must be revised and edited multiple times to get the book into the best shape. There’s no scrimping for either genre.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 28, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      You’ve got that right, Madeline – If someone thinks either fiction or memoir will be “easier” to write, they’re looking for the wrong thing. Writing in either genre is a lot of work. Once I could let go of feeling like I needed facts, it was very freeing to work in fiction.

  6. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living on May 29, 2013 at 7:01 am

    What next after my memoir? Fiction? Another adventure in a foreign country I can write about? These are the same thoughts I’ve had Carol. Did you read the wonderful article in Writer’s Digest by Khaled Hosseini and his 3rd novel since “The Kite Runner?”
    It was so interesting for me to hear him say, “I don’t plan anything out. I wish I was a more organized writer….but (the outline) always makes me feel boxed in..and confined by the poarameters of the outline.”
    He says he likes to be surprised by the “unforseen developments” that pop up, and give you insight into how different things might be connected.
    He compares revision to moving into a house. He says after the first draft, now you have all your that you need, “now it’s a matter of arranging things in such a way that it feels like a home.”

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 29, 2013 at 9:03 am

      I didn’t see Hosseini’s article, but I’ll look it up, Sonia. “Plotter” or “Panster” – It’s a bit of a dilemma. I enjoyed seeing where things went with my novel even though I ultimately spent a ton of time writing scenes that I had to cut. But the “get it done” business person in me yearns for greater efficiency. There must be a middle ground in all this. I just have to find it. Your life is giving you lots of material. So many choices; so little time. Enjoy!

  7. Veronica Arnold on May 29, 2013 at 7:48 am

    I wrote a memoir about my 2011 experience with breast cancer, that included many intimate details about why I had always felt rejected and why my breast cancer experience made me feel loved at last. People thought it must have been hard to write, but it was actually therapeutic to get it all on paper. What’s hard for me is writing fiction. In fiction you have to have a conflict that feels real, and to write it well you have to feel it vividly. For example, when writing about a marriage conflict you have to feel the anger, frustration, contempt, suspicion, etc. These are feelings I’ve assiduously avoided all my life in trying to heal and build my marriage. It’s intimidating to invite those emotions back into my heart.

    I talked to my husband about that, and he said if I get drawn into a pit of those kind of emotions, he’ll pull me out. I shared that with my fiction writers’ group, and they asked, “Is he for rent?” So maybe I’m not the only one who struggles with this aspect of writing fiction!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 29, 2013 at 8:49 am

      You’re not alone with the emotional struggle of writing, Veronica. I have to feel the emotions whether I’m writing memoir or fiction and delving into pain is … painful. My husband can tell when I’m writing a difficult scene because my mood goes to the dark side. When I was writing memoir, there was no way to escape going deep into the emotion. It was ultimately cathartic, but in the writing moment, it was also painful. Reliving those experiences often left me physically ill.

      Writing fiction, I have to go back to those dark places to make the scenes real. Since, like you, I’ve avoided those conflicts in real life, going back to them has been difficult. It’s also been funny. I wrote about that after a workshop I attended last summer. Here’s the link if you’re interested:

      Hang on to that husband of yours, Veronica. He sounds like a jewel.

    • Heddy Keith on June 15, 2013 at 10:15 pm

      I’m finishing my memoir and I can say it was very painful going back and remembering the emotional pain, but through it all it helped me heal. Now I can think about those memories without breaking down and crying. To me writing is healing. When we think about it and write it down we release the pain and we’re healed. Writing is magical healing.

      • Carol Bodensteiner on June 16, 2013 at 10:05 am

        “Magical healing” is a good way to put it, Heddy. I, too, healed in the process of writing. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  8. Mary Gottschalk on May 29, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Carol … nice post … it’s great to keep the memoir vs fiction discussion going!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 29, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Thanks, Mary. Lots of ways to frame it. Lots of points of view. I love that.

  9. Elizabeth Gates on May 29, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Techniques the same, ethics different.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 29, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      That sums it up nicely, Elizabeth!

  10. Shirley Hershey Showalter on May 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm


    I don’t know if I will write another book or not. The first one has taken a lot more effort than I could have imagined at the beginning of the journey. But I’ve learned so much I’d hate to waste the knowledge. I’ve never found myself drawn to write fiction, but maybe that’s because I have been reading almost exclusively in the nonfiction area for the last three years. I think its time to start reading fiction again.

    I am fascinated by plots and narrative arcs. I’d like to think I could master the art of story telling beyond the short form. My own memoir is structured much like yours. I like that structure. But I’d like to develop a long narrative with suspense built into it also.

    Good luck with yours!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 29, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      Personal preference, Shirley. It’s wonderful that we have options to write in genres we prefer – or even whether to write at all. I’m looking forward to your memoir coming out in September. At this point, you may need just to take a breathe, relax, and revel in having written your memoir. What comes next will take care of itself in is own time.

  11. Jo Carroll on May 29, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    I enjoy writing both – and agree, many employ the same techniques. For me, the big difference – and this is so obvious – is that memoir is not made up. But it means I can’t pretend something happened when it didn’t, or make out I’ve been somewhere then I haven’t. Of course I have to keep the reader in mind, so memoir has to be framed with a narrative arc – but that isn’t a reason to be so creative that I make things up!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 29, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      Quite right, Jo. Unfortunately, some folks missed that business about not making things up in memoirs. Their actions make it tough for all of us.

  12. Paulette Mahurin on May 29, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Great post. I guess it all boils down to a good story is a good story with all the same elements, only diff. one has actual facts, lol, the other… I’ve written both non-fiction and fiction. For me, fiction is easier, my critic complains less about me being found out. Thank you.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 29, 2013 at 1:48 pm

      Very funny, Paulette. My critic is on my case whether I’m writing memoir or fiction. When I got so bogged down in research for my novel, I came to the conclusion that if I wrote a good story first, the historical details could be retrofitted. So, yep! A good story.

  13. Sherrey Meyer on May 29, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Carol, enjoyed this post thoroughly! As I draft my memoir, I already have two projects, both historical fiction, in the wings waiting to be written. Yet, I don’t see the transition between memoir and fiction to be easy despite the fact I will be dealing with some factual research and information in both genre and adding the created characters and backdrop for the historical fiction works. You’ve brought to light what all writers must think about when crossing from one genre to another — our writer’s toolbox will work for both in some instances, not in others.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 29, 2013 at 6:24 pm

      When you have a full toolbox, at least you’re well prepared to tackle the next writing assignment. But as another reader pointed out – neither genre is “easy.” Good luck completing your memoir and then enjoy the leap into historical fiction! I look forward to hearing about your projects.

  14. Susan G. Weidener on May 30, 2013 at 1:48 am

    Writing memoir requires accuracy . . . and that in itself can be limiting . . . fiction gives the writer a chance to open up and let it “flow,” so to speak, have fun, get the jabs in, play around with narrator point of view, not that I ever worried in either of my memoirs whether my readers liked me or not or viewed me as “heroic.” Making a “good impression” on people is not, nor should it ever be the point of a memoir, rather it is an honest, no-holds barred look into yourself, a journey from pain to redemption. As for novels . . . (yes, I have started one, too), I’m not so worried about trajectory of a story as I have read many novels that are primarily introspective portraits of characters – in either genre the characters need to be interesting brimming with an inner, authentic life that makes for a good read. Conflict is good, whether inner or outer. Nothing worse than cardboard characters, contrived plots, or meandering journeys that convey no message. Traveling in Prague right now and it’s a rainy morning . . . always a good time to write even when you’re traveling!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 30, 2013 at 8:16 am

      Delighted to have you join us from Prague, Susan! I always find that travel inspires me writing. I hope you’re enjoying the sights and new insights. Accuracy, honesty, authenticity. Good points. My sense is that honesty and authenticity are important to both memoir and fiction. Readers can always tell when the author has skimmed the surface or avoided the truth of a situation. That was one of the values of being in a writing group where all of us were writing memoir. We kept each other honest when it came to going deep and being real. And in the case of historical fiction, such as I’m writing now, accuracy is also critical, though in a different way than it was for my memoir. Thanks for lending your voice to the discussion.

  15. Robert Osenenko on September 29, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    For myself, historical narrative reveal how an experience makes me feel and believe. When it’s well organized it can be easily understood to the point where others can stand there with me. The more truth shared the closer readers come to envision the same scene. Writing about war is a difficult task because telling too much can be painful and shocking to a reader. Some people do seem to hold the ability to share the most startling stories in such benign ways that it all just seems to come together stylistically. Let me know when your book is finished.

  16. Carol Bodensteiner on September 30, 2013 at 9:32 am

    You’ve touched on a core point about both memoir and fiction, Robert. When they’re well written, readers feel like they’re standing there with the author, experiencing the same thing, learning something about the characters in the book at the same time they learn something about themselves. Thanks for articulating that point; it’s an important one. I will definitely let you know when my novel is published! I appreciate your interest.

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