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Sunday, April 27, 2014

From Journalist to Writer: How Difficult is the Transition?

In a recent interview with several book bloggers about my book Finding Billy Battles, I was asked if the transition from journalist to writer was difficult. Here is how I answered:

It was not as difficult as some people might think. For one thing, journalists ARE writers. In fact, writing compelling nonfiction is in some ways even more difficult than writing fiction. For one thing, you are constrained by the facts, the people you talk with and the events you cover, whereas authors of fiction are allowed to invent facts, people and events.

Some of the writing I am most proud of during my days as a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune were my longer form cover stories I wrote for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine. These were 3,000-5,000 word profiles of people and events and places.

For example, I once did a cover piece on Bangkok's Klongs (canals) and the people who live and work along them. I did another on the Amazon River basin and yet another on late Total Quality Management guru W. Edwards Deming. I still look at those pieces and marvel that I even wrote them.

I consider my 27 years as a journalist the best training ground I could have had for writing fiction. I learned how to gather information, how to organize it and how to write it compellingly. Reporting is the journalist's word for Research. 

And research is critical to anybody who writes historical fiction--or any fiction for that matter, even science fiction. If you don't have a command of some science, scientific theory, physics, or some other facet of scientific thought when attempting to create an imagined world or universe, your readers will not be able to suspend belief. For one thing, they won't trust you.

As I learned during my life covering war, revolution and other forms of mayhem from S.E. Asia to China to El Salvador and Nicaragua, trust is critical for a journalist. It is a key measure of one's credibility. Without credibility a journalist is nothing more than a hack.

Today hundreds of thousands of hacks populate the blogosphere spewing forth whatever they want with little or no credibility to back them up. Many have no idea how to do accurate news gathering and instead grab whatever they can from secondary or tertiary sources to support whatever political agenda they may adhere to or are intent on promoting.

That is NOT journalism. That is "Hackery." I think the same can be said for lazy authors who fail to do requisite research for their books.


So, for me the transition from journalist to author of fiction was fairly seamless. Granted, writing fiction requires a different form of creativity. You are, after all, creating people, events, places, conflict, etc. from some inner place. 

In my case, I have attempted to do my creating not only from my inner muse, but from my own experiences and interactions with the broad array of both good and bad but always fascinating people I came to know during my days traveling the world for the Chicago Tribune. That is why I call my book a work of "Faction." 
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