I often envisage the difference between non-fiction and fiction writing as similar to the distinction between a photographer and a representational artist. Both have to produce something well-structured and appealing. The difference is that the photographer has to work with what is there, whereas the artist can, if needed, use license to achieve the same end.
When it comes to books the comparison is apt; all have to draw the reader, they have to present the drama of the moment in a series of rising and falling waves, and they have to finish with a flourish. This is actually as true of non-fiction as it is of fiction. The problem is being able to do so when the subject matter is fixed; and the answer is that, like a photographer, non-fiction writers have to become adept at being able to frame what they write.
Sometimes, though, the subject provides it. That’s what I discovered back in 2002 when I began writing my book on the Second New Zealand Division’s final campaign of the Second World War, their advance through Italy from 1943. I called it Italian Odyssey, a title the publishers liked. The book was a direct follow-on – under the same multi-book contract – to the earlier Desert Duel, and I wrote them back-to-back. Essentially, they were two halves of the same book.
My Italian account, though, gained a dimension when I realised that the campaign had the structure of a three-act play: the opening scenes in late 1943 when the New Zealanders were part of a force trying to break into Orsogna – introducing all the dramatis personae and their stories – followed by a second act of frustration and despair, the siege of Cassino in early 1944. They limped on after the relief of Rome, taking Florence. Then they were re-formed, re-built, and led the final act of the entire Italian campaign, the battles of the stop-banks of early 1945, concluding with a triumphant rush to Trieste and the first confrontations of the Cold War.
Of course reality didn’t quite match dramatic convention, but it was close. And for me – as author – that gave the book a particular dynamic. It was closely entwined with the human story; for it was through the personal dimension that the realities of that dramatic structure took form. To me, it was an extraordinary writing experience, and the review comments – and feedback I got – suggested it was also an extraordinary reading experience. I always feel I was merely an observer; the dramatic tension was provided by history.
The book was published by Reed New Zealand in 2002 and sold well. The good news is that you can still check it out – it’s available in second revised edition right now – click to buy. Go on – you know you want to.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019