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Tales stranger than fiction

True stories as literature

Created date

June 3rd, 2014
classic book titles
classic book titles

Few pleasures can match the thrill readers feel when they’re entranced by a good book. To be lost in a story about bygone times and places is a type of travel accessible only through the written page.

For this reason, nonfiction titles have dominated the New York Times Bestsellers list for decades. Authors such as Herbert Asbury (The Gangs of New York), Walter Lord (A Night to Remember), David McCullough (John Adams), and Laura Hillenbrand (Unbroken) have brought true stories to audiences in a visceral fashion that makes the reading experience a vicarious one.

Over the years, this breed of writing has assumed various forms under different names. In the 1920s, French historians Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch began writing about events like the French Revolution from the perspective of the average man—a movement that they called Les Annales.

New Journalism

In the 1960s, the Americans stepped in with their own movement—the New Journalism—which introduced literary monoliths the likes of Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), Norman Mailer (The Armies of the Night), George Plimpton (The Paper Lion), and the edgy Hunter Thompson (Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

Their writing proved that nonfiction authors can present facts in the style of fiction, crafting stories in which the journalist is an active participant in the narrative in much the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald used Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

Since then, the genre has risen meteorically in popularity. Even members of the academic community, who had once dismissed narrative nonfiction as popular tripe, have begun to embrace this form of writing.

The days of the textbook and its flat, stilted prose are nearing an end. In their place are the works of renowned college professors such as David Hackett Fisher (Paul Revere’s Ride), Joseph Ellis (Founding Brothers), and James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom)—their books staples among history buffs and book worms alike.

Bringing history to life

All share one thing in common: an eye for details that bring a story, its characters, and its setting to life; a literary mantra that author Paul Collins lives by.

A prime example is his latest volume Duel With the Devil (Crown, 2013), the true story of how lawyers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up to defend a man accused of murder. 

Collins delves deep into the past, as he does in all of his books. This time it’s post-Revolutionary New York City, which he recreates down to the minutest detail.

Using period letters, newspapers, business directories, and court transcripts, he weaves a historical narrative complete with street addresses, long-forgotten daily events, and dialog, which together, lend impressive authenticity to this real-life tale.

“When readers pick up a good piece of narrative nonfiction, I think that they’re often surprised to find that the author has a source to substantiate the amazing details that he’s included,” says Collins, who has written eight books. “Writing nonfiction is simply telling a story with a narrative line similar to a piece of fiction. 

“The only difference is that, in nonfiction, the story really happened, but the concern for character development and overall presentation is unchanged.”

Collins emphasizes this view in his classes at Oregon’s Portland State University, where he teaches in the school’s creative nonfiction program.

Based on a curriculum of workshops, lectures, and seminars, the course work ultimately leads to a master’s degree for writers interested in a wide range of nonfiction subjects, including history, memoir, biography, and investigative stories.

Popularity of narrative nonfiction

In fact, such programs have sprouted at universities across the country, another indicator of narrative nonfiction’s burgeoning reputation as serious literature. Outside of academic programs, Hollywood is probably the genre’s biggest supporter, optioning thousands of nonfiction titles that become blockbuster films for theaters or network television. 

In 1958, filmmakers produced a hit movie out of Walter Lord’s account of the Titanic’s sinking, A Night to Remember; in 2001, director Ridley Scott adapted Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down for the big screen; and in 2008, Tom Hanks made the Emmy-winning HBO mini-series John Adams, based on David McCullough’s biography of the same name. 

“True stories are often the best kind, and the fact that they’re true is what makes them great,” says Collins. 

So incredible are these nonfictional tales, that, at the beginning of his books, Collins inserts a reminder to his audience that the story they’re about to read actually happened. 

“The unusual court coverage of this affair—the first fully recorded murder trial in U.S. history—allowed me to draw upon eyewitness testimony to a degree that is extremely rare for this era,” he explains in Duel With the Devil. “While I have freely edited out verbiage, not a word has been added.”


List of classic and current narrative nonfiction

Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York (1928)

Walter Lord, A Night to Remember (1955)

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962) 

George Plimpton, The Paper Lion (1965)

Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels (1966)

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night (1968)

Joe McGinniss, The Selling of the President 1968 (1969)

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men (1974)

Michael Herr, Dispatches (1977)

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988)

David Hackett Fisher, Paul Revere’s Ride (1995)

Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (2000)

Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down (2001)

David McCullough, John Adams (2001)

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2004)

James Swanson, Manhunt (2006)

Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken (2010)

Paul Collins, Duel With the Devil (2013)