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Creative Nonfiction

Ted Barris: If it was a dark and stormy night, show me!

During the month of January we will be running creative nonfiction writing tips from members of the Creative Nonfiction Collective to give you inspiration for our current creative nonfiction competition

Nonfiction writers enjoy the sight of their own ideas on a published page as much as anyone. But falling in love with one’s own prose can be hazardous. Here’s how to deliver the best word pictures possible: since most non-fiction writers have gone to some lengths to gather the facts, often from witnesses themselves, why not take the reader as close to the subject, events, experience as possible? Don’t just tell the reader. Show the reader. 

In Paris 1919, when Margaret MacMillan wrote of the atmosphere in the city following the Great War as peace talks began, she didn’t just tell us world leaders had trepidations about assembling in a city full of scars; she showed us limbless men and women in mourning and quoted Lloyd George: “I never wanted to hold the conference in this bloody capital… It would be better in a neutral place.”

Take full advantage of every detail gleaned from a diary, a memoir, a photograph or a quotation. That’s how Pierre Berton showed readers the death of Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights, how James Grey gave them the taste of the dust during the prairie droughts of the Great Depression, and how Myrna Kostash illustrated fear among demonstrators during the October Crisis of 1970.

Take the reader as close to the story—in the middle of it, if possible—and you’ve succeeded in showing.

Ted Barris is the author of 16 non-fiction books including bestselling books on the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. He regularly writes features for the National Post, Legion, and esprit de corps among others. As a broadcaster his work has appeared on most national networks in North America. In 2011, he received the Minister of Veterans Affairs commendation and following the publication of his memoir Breaking the Silence about the challenge of getting veterans to talk, in 2012, he was chosen to receive the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee medal. He lives near Toronto and teaches journalism/broadcasting.

Ted Barris is a member of the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC). To learn more or become a member, click here.

Find out more about our creative nonfiction competition.

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