It's been enormously satisfying and challenging in many ways, and I've learned a tremendous amount. But I'm still somewhat at sea on a few of the differences between writing fiction and writing non-fiction. For instance:
1. How do you put the reader into the characters' heads? It's so easy to write dialog, show a character's thoughts, the small, telling details that let readers know what they (the characters) are thinking/feeling when you can make it all up. When you can't make it up? Sure, I can infer all kinds of things from letters and other documents, but people didn't used to display their innermost feelings before the world the way they do these days. How the heck do you really know what those people thought/felt/experienced when there's no one you can ask?
2. Are you ever allowed to "fudge" where you don't have a direct or definitive answer? I tried it once or twice, and discovered that an inner alarm started going off if I strayed too far from the path of what I could document in some manner. It got so I had to go back and take out all my "what if" meanderings. And yet, there were huge gaps in the narrative where no one at the time had thought to comment or record ANYTHING. I had to fill in those moments. When you're making up stories, you never think of yourself as lying. When you're writing about real history, that suddenly puts a huge damper on your creativity. At least, it did mine.
3. In this era of excessive "political correctness" and hyper "offensensitivity" (yes, a made-up word, but one I love. Thank you, Berkeley Breathed), do you need to modify real history to avoid offense? What if a certain organization or group of people really were jackasses? What about heirs? I could have been a lot rougher on some historical figures than I was; I found myself back-peddling on some issues because they might still have living relatives. But wait; they actually did do those things, say those things…when does veracity trump sensitivity?
4. When you have two accounts that contradict one another, and can't find sufficient evidence to give a clear "win" to either, how do you choose? Or, what do you say about it?
5. When do you stop researching and just write the story? I'm realizing now that I may have to do another entire review of all my notes, all the tapes, all the interviews, the books, etc., before tackling my re-writes for the 2nd draft. It intimidates the hell out of me. But I know full well there were things I overlooked, answers I found and lost but that I might find again on yet another pass, if I wait long enough to let my memory fade a bit. But OMG, the work involved. Arrgh.
I've also come to the conclusion that Laura Hillenbrand is a goddess. There's no other explanation. I've studied "Seabiscuit" and "Unbroken" page by page, trying to figure out how she does what she does. I've used her as my "high water" mark, knowing I'll never reach it but just to have something to aim for.
Well, we'll see how this all plays out; wish me luck.