06/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

True vs. True

When I give presentations on my novels, I'm often asked two questions:

"When will it be a movie?" When snowballs persist in hell, apparently.

And, "How does it feel to go from writing non-fiction and journalism to fiction?"

I was a newspaper journalist for many years with two non-fiction books under my belt before attempting fiction. It is (not just was) an adjustment.

Yet the two forms of writing have more similarities than differences, which is why so many journalists have become novelists, and so many novelists take a journalistic approach to researching their fiction. Defoe, Twain, Kipling, Hemingway, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Pete Dexter, and Tom Robbins are just a few examples of journalists who have excelled in fiction. And every good novel has fistfuls of fact.

Here's how I put it to a student reporter from the Western Front, the student newspaper at Western Washington University where I teach: "It's like the difference between an interview and a date."

In journalism, as in an interview, you want the reader to respect and listen to you. On a date, as in fiction, you want them to also fall in love with you, or rather fall in love with your storytelling, or stylish prose, or profound insights. For the charisma-challenged like me, this requires work - and even then, all novelists are "dumped" by some readers at one point or another.

It's not an easy transition. The old newsroom joke is that, "Every reporter has a novel inside them, and that's just where it should stay."

The first hurdle is learning to write and sustain a long narrative, to go from a deliberately succinct news story to the sprawl of a book. For my first non-fiction book, The Final Forest, thinking of my chapters as individual feature stories helped get me over the psychological hump that faces many journalists. For my first novel, Ice Reich, I stalled until I had the opportunity to return to Antarctica and take inspiration from actually experiencing that environment again.

For this journalist, facts are my fiction friend. The more real-life information I have, be it historical, political, geographic, or scientific, the more comfortable I am making other stuff up. Every novelist plays to his or her strengths, and for journalists it's often the ability to learn.

The second hurdle is freeing oneself from the constraints of journalism. It's become fashionable to say journalists are biased, inaccurate, unfair, and rumpled, but only that last one is true. For professional journalists (not talking-head gasbags) the self-imposed restraints of getting it right and keeping yourself out of the story are a straightjacket hard to shake off when writing fiction. I can make it up? Really? I can say what I think? Are you sure? It's like opening the door of a cage. The bunny sniffs suspiciously for a long time before venturing out into the wide-open pastures of the novel.

A third hurdle is creating character. In journalism you do the best you can to capture individuals as they are, however imperfect the effort. In fiction you invent people as you need or want them to be. You know things about a character's inner life you can never know about the subject of a journalism profile.

The similarities between journalism and fiction writing are many. In both you learn to research, write for an audience, make the complex simpler, the boring exciting, and the story ring true.

But in fiction you are searching for inner truths as well as objective outer ones, for universal reality as well as a particular event tied to history, science or politics.

Tom Clancy has been credited with saying, "The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense." Well put. Real life is full of ambiguity, stories that never quite end, endings that never quite happen, confusion, conflicting interpretation, unanswered questions, and a lot of waiting around.

Fiction can be like that too, if you wish. But it can also have happy endings, useful coincidences, brisk pacing, unambiguous heroism, vile villainy, and a world that can be controlled.

If you've been a journalist for a long time, that's a very fun place to be.