From fiction to narrative non-fiction


23 February 2024
SF and fantasy author Stephen Palmer describes how he came to embrace writing creative non-fiction

In retrospect, the signs were all there. A gradual reduction in my biannual royalties… fewer reviews… an ominous explosion of self-publishing facilitated by the internet. When early in 2022 I discovered my publisher was taking a step back from publishing, I was gutted. Moreover, I turned 60.

I have almost given up writing novels twice in my life. The first occasion was in 2006, when, having been dropped by my British and my American publishers, I found myself alone and without hope. After a while I gathered my strength and decided to approach British independent publishers as if I was a new writer. I had little hope. Yet the publisher at the top of my list accepted a novel three days after they received it – an extraordinary stroke of luck. That novel, however, was beset by delays, and in 2011 I found myself isolated once again. Disillusioned, I almost packed it in for the second time. But in 2013 I approached a friend of mine who had recently set up his own independent publishing imprint, and, to my surprise and delight, he was interested in working with me. A seven-year run of new novels burst forth, and we had much by way of fun and critical success. All good things must come to an end, though.

On holiday in Devon, my partner and I visited a local bookshop. There I picked up a copy of Jo Marchant’s new book, in which I read on the very first page a remarkable fact about one of the 19,000 year old bull cave paintings in Lascaux. This beautiful painting matches the constellation we today call Taurus. Now, I normally run a mile from such equivalences, but Jo Marchant being a real science author and the connection being so plain, I was convinced. Within days I had in my mind the outline of a book that would use Lascaux as a starting point for a history of the Sacred Bull.

I had not intended to branch out into narrative nonfiction. The idea seemed at once fascinating and unlikely to receive attention from British publishers, but, nevertheless, I found myself getting excited by the possibilities of the story – a history of the Sacred Bull through which I could also explore ourselves, looking through those ancient bovine eyes. I prepared an outline, then decided I would write the thing, regardless of its commercial viability. This was the crucial decision, from which I have learned much. Flexibility for writers is key. In writing fiction, I create stories. But narrative nonfiction is also storytelling.

By chance, my partner and I had during difficult times in our lives discovered a remarkable, albeit tiny, church in a hamlet a few miles south of where we live. It was not religion which drew us, rather the stunning location and the seat with its view. It occurred to me that such a place might be ideal in which to write. Little did I know that the run of hot, dry days we had been enjoying would continue for months. That church and the gorgeous weather played a part in facilitating the writing of my book. No writer, after all, writes in a vacuum – even the classic shed at the bottom of the garden creates atmosphere. Writers need to use the locations in which they write to fuel their creativity.

Then fate stepped in to deal me an unexpected card.

My style of grooming could be described as alternative. I usually have long hair, and quite often sport stubble in a mode best described as salt ‘n’ pepper George Michael. That fact, and my regular appearance in my car at the church, alerted the churchwarden and a concerned local to my existence. One day, as I was sitting in the driver’s seat checking my phone, the churchwarden sidled up to me, as did the local resident. My window was open, so he asked me, “Are you okay?"

“Yes thanks!” I replied.

“We wondered if you were alright,” the churchwarden continued, “as you’ve been coming here almost every day.”

Sensing an odd undercurrent in his tone I replied, “Ah, it’s okay, I’m writing a book. I’m a local author.”

This conversation developed, and, while the churchwarden was not convinced of my story, he turned out to be a splendid chap, good to talk to, and with a delightfully idiosyncratic view of the world. We became friends, and when he met my partner he was finally convinced that my tale of living locally and writing a book was actually true. No longer was he worried that I was in moral peril, living in my car, and that I might ‘do something silly.’

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So the church turned out to be a wonderful place to write. For a start, it was nice and cool. The churchwarden would pop in every now and again and we would chat about local history and the state of the nation. He supported me in my endeavour, which intrigued him. I took a walk every lunchtime to run over in my head what I was writing and to pee in the woods nearby. The experience was quite idyllic. Those walks especially taught me that writing is not just putting words onto paper, it’s also about having enough time before and afterwards to prepare and to decompress – the whole experience.

When the rains came, however, and with them autumn and my return to the day job, I faced reality. Who in actuality would be interested in this book? I identified four publishers of narrative nonfiction who accepted unsolicited submissions and approached them with well-honed query letters. Radio silence and one definite ‘no.’

Disappointed, I considered my next move, but it was then that accident played its final part in this story. A good friend of mine was working with a hybrid publisher in order to publish her book on astrology. She mentioned them to me one day.

I had not heard of the publisher before, so I did a lot of internet research to find out about them. The signs were mixed, though it did seem that new management had changed their ethos. I knew that my friend was footing the bill for her book, as were many others of this publisher’s authors, but it turned out that some contracts were graded in such a way that they took on the entire cost of publication, with the author expected to do the marketing and promotion. After a month or two of deliberation I decided to offer the book, but if they graded me as an author who should foot the bill to walk away. I made this decision partly because I didn’t have much money, but also because, the book being my first venture into narrative nonfiction, I had no idea of its commercial potential.

Luck, once again, was on my side. They loved the book, which by that point was called I Am Taurus, I received four positive internal reviews and a message from the manager saying they would take on the full cost of publication. The book being comparatively short – 30,000 words – they liked both the length, the style, the subject and the fact that it filled a gap in the market, there being no history of the Sacred Bull for the general reader. I was delighted.

Thus ended my move from fiction to nonfiction. It was forced on me, it was painful, but it showed that an author is defined by never giving up. (As a friend recently put it: “Never surrender!”) I now have a new line of writing work, focusing on a subject that fascinates me and which I can explore for the benefit of my readers. Some of those readers will be fans from my old career, but more will be new. It is that kind of hope and excitement which keeps authors like me, who simply must write, sane, active and happy.

So in a nutshell… follow every lead!

I am Taurus by Stephen Palmer is published by Iff Books (£8.99 paperback)


Interested in writing creative non-fiction? Get to grips with the genre and  how to write it here.