Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Thank you for visiting my blog. Please note that this post was published in 2010—long before my first published book, and long before I pursued an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I dedicated half of my critical thesis to the murky nonfiction-fiction threshold and how the classification process adds to the ambiguity. As I revisit the post now, in 2020, it is like peeking at my early evolutions as a nonfiction writer. My terminology and sensibilities are slightly different today. For example, I’m no longer a fan of the term “creative nonfiction.” And “pure nonfiction” is not a helpful term. In the post, I also refer to library shelving decisions, which are individualized by each institution. Stay tuned for an updated post about this topic and an even longer journal article inspired by my critical thesis. Thank you!


Creative Nonfiction is such a nebulous term. A genre still in its youth, we often hear it referred to as literature of fact, narrative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction. So what does it mean? What determines if a story is pure nonfiction or creative nonfiction? And when is the line crossed, making a book historical fiction? Ultimately, the answers determine where a book will be shelved in the local library.

Editor/ author Lee Gutkind describes Creative nonfiction as “dramatic, true stories that use scene, dialogue and close, detailed descriptions–techniques usually employed by poets and fiction writers–to examine and explore a variety of subjects…”

Let’s see if I can break it down even more.

Pure nonfiction informs and instructs, sticking to the facts
Creative nonfiction includes a/the story surrounding the facts by introducing place, scene, setting

Pure nonfiction describes the subject(s)
Creative nonfiction adds characterization so that the reader becomes involved and can relate to the subject.

Pure nonfiction is journalistic and scholarly
Creative nonfiction employs a literary voice-a tone- to the story

Pure nonfiction focuses on fact.
Creative nonfiction allows the reader to hear the author’s perspectives

Pure nonfiction is thoroughly researched
Creative nonfiction is thoroughly researched

Pure nonfiction never invents dialog, facts, or events
Creative nonfiction shouldn’t either- theoretically

As Susan Taylor Brown states, “If you want to teach young read­ers about the Irish potato famine, the rain forest, or even math, tell them a story. Tell an interesting tale about interesting people doing interesting things and readers come back for more, sometimes not even realiz­ing they are reading about something that really happened. This is creative nonfiction.”

Okay, so let’s turn back to the subject of nonfiction picture books, keeping in mind that the term “nonfiction” is generalized in children’s literature. That is, until an author like myself decides to pick it all apart and point out inconsistencies most visible when perusing library shelves.

Once again, I’ve chosen a select few picture books that I have on hand. Let me preface this by stating that all of these books are admirable and worthy and so are the various genres. Honestly, I’m all for presenting true stories to kids in whatever way works best to entertain the young readers, as long as we don’t deceive them.

Today, I’m focused on the intricacies of classification and distinction.

Pure Nonfiction (ahem, expository)
GLOBAL WARMING by Seymour Simon (Harper Collins, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction, right where it belongs.
A classic example of pure nonfiction, this book is loaded with wonderful information. Opening questions in the text offer a promise of what the reader will learn “Why is the climate changing? Could Earth be getting warmer by itself? Are people doing things that make the climate warmer? What will be the impact of global warming? Can we do anything about it?

FACE TO FACE WITH MANATEES by Brian Skerry, (National Geographic, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction.
“You’ll learn all about these sea cows- and about the threats to their world and what you can do to protect it.”

Creative Nonfiction (ahem, narrative)
OLD ABE, EAGLE HERO: THE CIVIL WAR’S MOST FAMOUS MASCOT by Patrick Young, illustrated by Anne Lee (Kane Miller, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction.
The true story reads almost like fiction with great “show-don’t-tell” details. “Old Abe was very brave in battle. He jumped up and down on his perch and screamed at the enemy.” “As the soldiers crept near the enemy, Old Abe whistled. He was warning his friends that a stranger was close by.”


STRONG MAN: THE STORY OF CHARLES ATLAS by Meghan McCarthy (Knopf, 2007)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction
The true story of how small Italian immigrant, Angelo Siciliano, overcame bullies’ taunts to become a famous bodybuilder and promoter of fitness and exercise. Like Old Abe, this story is “showing” through narrative. Angelo was frustrated. He needed to think, so he went to his favorite thinking place- the zoo. There, he spent hours watching the animals. That’s when he noticed a lion stretching.” “Eureka! Angelo came up with a fitness routine.”

*There are a few lines of dialog that are not clearly attributed to Atlas’ documented words. If they are indeed invented dialog, can this title truly be classified as nonfiction? Hmm!  (EDITED in 2018: According to the Library of Congress, invented dialog is acceptable under the “juvenile literature,” (aka nonfiction) classification. Publishers, on the other hand, often have different opinions.

Fiction / Historical Fiction
FANNIE IN THE KITCHEN by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Atheneum, 2001)
CIP summary clearly states that this is a fictional account, but the book is shelved in my library’s nonfiction section (biography.) Even the jacket flap indicates liberties taken with the facts, but I wonder if kids will assume it’s all true because of the nonfiction shelving.

“Here’s the story “from soup to nuts”-delightfully embellished by Deborah Hopkinson- of how Fannie Farmer invented the modern recipe and created one of the first and best-loved American cookbooks.”

by Sharon Darrow (Candlewick, 2003)
From BookList- This fictionalized picture-book biography focuses on the stormy adolescence of the nineteenth-century woman who wrote Frankenstein.
Marketed as fiction but shelved in nonfiction (biography)
A riveting and revealing story, but does it belong in the nonfiction section?

Ultimately, I think there’s a place for fictionalized stories about true events. As long as we’re honest with kids about what is fact and what is fiction. A few questions come to mind, as I pay closer attention to these kid-lit “true” stories:

1.) Will kids assume fictionalized details are true if a book, with invented dialog and events, is classified or shelved as nonfiction? Should there be better disclaimers in fictionalized accounts, about which aspects are fictional?

2.) How do libraries make shelving decisions between fiction and nonfiction? (I think it’s time to invite some librarians to this discussion.)

3.) On the author front, which is more marketable today, creative nonfiction or historical fiction?

4.) Do apprentice authors worry too much about fitting into one or the other?

Want to read more about the Creative Nonfiction genre? Check out some of these great Resources.

8 Responses to “Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction”

  1. carmenoliver

    You've separated the differences and similarities in the sub-genres of nonfiction with superb clarity. Great post! I look forward to hearing a librarian weigh in!

  2. Somebody

    would you please tell me what is the genre of "Drumbeats and Bullets" by Jim Murphy?? is it a nonfiction or creative nonfiction??? thanks

  3. Somebody

    would you please tell me what is the genre of "Drumbeats and Bullets" by Jim Murphy? is a nonfiction or creative nonfiction?? thanks

  4. Donna

    Thanks for chiming in, Somebody. I have not read Drumbeats and Bullets so I'm afraid I can't answer your question. Is this a book? Or, perhaps, a short story, essay, or article? I can assure you that Jim Murphy is an acclaimed nonfiction author and a master at connecting facts in a narrative form.

    If Drumbeats and Bullets relates to the Civil War drummers, you might want to check out Murphy's book, THE BOY'S WAR: CONFEDERATE AND UNION SOLDIERS TALK ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR. Diaries and letters from Civil War soldiers form the foundation for this nonfiction book. I wonder if those same primary sources are the foundation for Drumbeats and Bullets.

    Best of luck to you.

  5. David Kiner

    Hi.. Sorry still a bit confused. For example, for a book I am considering there are well documented events of the Second Great Awakening (NY State – 19th Century). My sources are many nonfiction books in addition to documented diaries. References for many of these facts are well documented and first hand. However, in the writing of a novel, at some point isn't it only pure creative speculation when a writer makes assumptions and builds dialogue about the characters thoughts, feelings and emotions. So the characters are made-up, the circumstances created, even though the general events surrounding your story is true. Can this be called creative non-fiction? It seems that unless everything is actually documented and then retold, all creative nonfiction can be argued to be historical fiction. Thanks

  6. mscooper

    I am still not clear as to the difference between creative/narrative nonfiction and historical fiction. It appears that creative/narrative nonfiction sticks to the facts, but has a literary feel and structure. Whereas, historical fiction is based on an historic event, but may have many fictionalized elements. Is that correct?

  7. Donna

    Thanks for commenting, mscooper. I know this is a tricky area. To my mind, it breaks down like this:

    Straight nonfiction is expository, even textbookish. Newspaper articles and most magazine articles and other texts that are recitations of facts are straight nonfiction. For example, I'm writing two nonfiction books for the educational market, about Native Americans.

    Narrative nonfiction adds historically accurate connective tissues to turn nonfiction into a story, complete with a narrative arc. Nothing is fictionalized, but the author uses storyteller's tools. This is simply a stylistic choice by the author.

    Historical fiction is fiction, but may feature a character, event, or setting from history to base the story around and in.

    I hope that helps.

  8. Donna

    David, I'm sorry to have missed your comment earlier. For some reason, I've just discovered it.
    I think the big confusion is in the term "creative nonfiction" because there is no real definition for it. Many people think of narrative nonfiction as creative nonfiction. To me, narrative nonfiction is a style choice, whereby the author adds historically accurate connective tissues to morph nonfiction facts into a narrative arc. To do so, authors use a storyteller's toolbox. Though all details remain nonfiction, there is a bit of subjectivity on the part of the author who decides which angle or slant the narrative will take. But, that's a topic for another day.

    What you've described is well-researched historical fiction. A fictionalized story inspired by actual events.

    Does that help?