Creative Nonfiction: Top Tips for Memorable Memoirs and MORE!

Photo Credit: Simon Howden /

My husband parks our silver F150 in a turnoff, which is really a patch of pounded land where folks have repeatedly turned their cars around after realizing the road goes nowhere. I imagine drug dealers, prostitutes, meth heads, and hormonal teens fighting for this spot on steamy summer nights, but for now, it’s just Charles and me. And my doubts.

He turns off the engine, and in the silence, we wait. We are surrounded by thousands of acres of farm fields, old growth hardwoods, and murky cattle ponds. The land is beautiful, and this type of setting would normally calm my nerves, but not this time. Not now, as I’m waiting at the end of the road for a stranger to arrive. My heart races and my breath quickens, as I realize, with sudden alarm, that we might be in danger.

“Should we have brought the gun?” A question I never thought I’d ask. Even though I despise America’s love affair with arsenals, in this position, I wish I was holding a gun.

“What gun?” He’s barely paying attention to me as he checks email on his phone.

“The one in the garage.”

Charles laughs. “It’s a 22.” With sarcasm he insinuates that if we find ourselves going head-to-head with a coyote or a tom cat it might come in handy. A hardened criminal? Not so much.

“Well what if it’s a setup. One of those Craigslist crimes?”

He doesn’t answer. Just keeps emailing.

11:49. No sign of the white Ford truck we are waiting for. “Of course it’s a white Ford,” I say. “Does anyone drive anything else around here?” I’m sure we’ve passed at least forty-seven white trucks since we left the interstate. Forty-six of them, Fords.

I open the door and get out to stretch my legs. The sounds of rubber tires and gasoline engines roar in the distance. Somewhere, within earshot, the newer highway ribbons through these fields, and I feel a little comfort thinking I can run toward the noise if it comes to that.

Then the engine noise comes closer, and the white truck we’ve been waiting for eases its way into a corner field and comes to a stop in front of a metal gate, a rusty chain locking the gate closed.

In the movies, headlights would have flashed, drums would have punched a dramatic rhythm, and a heavy pause would have filled the screen. Instead, Charles’s phone rings. “Yep, I see you. We’re headed that way now.”

I return to my passenger perch and close my door just in time, as Charles is already putting the truck in gear.

“You have the money?” he bites his nails, a habit he’s had all his life.

“Yes,” I check my purse, just to make sure. Cash only, I remember the stranger’s instructions. My pulse shoots flares.

And then it happens. We climb down from the bench seat and enter an isolated pasture with a man we’ve never met.

What’s this scene about? Do you suspect this couple is about to engage in some sort of illegal transaction? Are they in danger? Or is it just a creative twist on something as ordinary and realistic as buying a cow?

If you guessed a cow, you’re right. This is part of a creative non-fiction proposal that enabled me to become the 2012 recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Literary Arts Fellowship, an honor I am privileged to accept.

Whether writing about cooking or canines, remember non-fiction doesn’t have to be dry.

Try these tips:

  • At some point, let us know exactly where and when the event takes place, but use subtle hints to set the scene (music, tv, news, technology, etc., to hint at the era.)
  • Use sensory details – smells, sounds, sights (avoid writing “I see… I smell…I hear…”)
  • Involve more than one person in the scene…it’s not all about YOU. Describe something specific about the other characters. Use a few snips of dialog and let unique personalities shine.
  • Elicit an emotional response from the reader. How do you want them to FEEL when they read the story?
  • What is the main point of the story? What question do you want to answer? Try to leave the reader with one main thought, all while trying to show rather than tell.

When you write, what approach do you take to make the mundane magnificent? Share your thoughts about creative nonfiction and learn more about this interesting genre by visiting

Julie’s first novel, Into the Free, hits shelves February 1. Learn more at

This entry was posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Writing and tagged , , , by Julie Cantrell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Julie Cantrell

Julie Cantrell is an award-winning New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling novelist and public speaker. A TEDx presenter, she is known to inspire others to live a more compassionate and authentic life. Her debut novel, Into the Free, earned a starred review by Publishers Weekly, the Mississippi Library Association’s Fiction Award, and the Christy Award Book of the Year while being named a Best Read of 2012 by USA TODAY. The sequel, When Mountains Move, was named a 2013 Best Read by USA TODAY and won the Carol Award for Historical Fiction. Her third novel, The Feathered Bone was selected as an Okra Pick by SIBA and Book of the Year by Pulpwood Queens. It earned a starred review by Library Journal who also named it a Best Book of 2016 was a finalist for three literary awards: INSPYs, Carol Award, and SIBA Southern Book Prize. Cantrell has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship as well as the Mary Elizabeth Nelson Fellowship at Rivendell Writers’ Colony. Her fourth novel, Perennials, will release November 2017. Learn more: Website: Facebook: Twitter: Pinterest: Goodreads:

14 thoughts on “Creative Nonfiction: Top Tips for Memorable Memoirs and MORE!

  1. I gotta admit, I didn’t guess cow.
    But I was thoroughly engaged! Excellent post & your tips are practical and applicable! Thanks, Julie.

  2. Congratulations on your fellowship, Julie. That’s awesome!

    When i was a journalism major years ago, we learned the value of using fiction elements to bring our articles to life. Such techniques add so much to a piece, just as you’ve done so well in yours.

  3. Julie,
    I did not guess cow either. 🙂 I loved this though and I followed the link to creative nonfiction. It must have been a God thing because I work in a college for nursing and I saw they are looking for stories about nurses. I passed the link on to the college faculty and our students. What a fun opportunity!

    I’ve always been interested in creative non-fiction but have to admit I don’t know much about it. Do you have a favorite creative nonfiction book that you loved?

    Also, I looked up you book that ‘s coming out and it sounds incredible! My kind of book. Can’t wait to read it.

    Thanks for posting this.


    • Hi Jill, What a wonderful comment!

      First of all, I’m thrilled you and your nursing gurus will be submitting to Creative NonFiction. It’s a wonderful, well-respected journal, and Dinty Moore is known as the father of the genre.

      I absolutely have a favorite creative nonfiction book, and I’m oh-so-glad you asked: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, by Neil White. If you ever get a chance to read it, please do. I also loved Praying for Strangers by River Jordan. And The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. Thes are all considered memoirs but use the creative nonfiction techniques to tell great stories. Dinty Moore’s works are more research based, and if you’re looking for something more along those lines I highly recommend the The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot as well as works by Kristen Iverson and Steve Almond.

      Finally, I can’t thank you enough for your kind comment about my novel. It’s a BIG FIRST for me, so I’ll gladly accept all the encouragement I can get. Can you say TERRIFYING?!?!?! (But, a dream come true, so I’m pretty excited as well).

      Happy Friday!

    • Lucille — in case no one ever tells you….I know I’m one of many who greatly appreciates your infinite kindness and support. Plus, everytime I see that picture of you in the bright yellow shirt it just makes me smile. Yellow makes me happy.
      Thanks for all the sunshine you bring to our little watercooler world.
      Cheers, j

    • Whew! That’s great to hear, Erica! Yep…we were buying a cow…two in fact…and it was quite the adventure.
      Thanks for the happy thoughts and the smiles.
      Have a fabulous weekend (sure hope everyone here is an LSU fan, b/c I’m counting down until we beat BAMA on Saturday — Big Game!)
      🙂 j

  4. Julie, thanks for this post! I can use all the help with my creative nonfictoin that I can. Congratulations on your upcoming book. I will definitely be getting it when it hits the shelves. I read the Amazon synopsis, it sounds fantastic!

    • Hi Joane,
      Thanks so much for the kind note, and you’ve got creative nonfiction down pat! I feel ridiculous writing about it in your midst. Seriously! I’m waiting for my copy of your highly recommended Radical Sabbatical to arrive…and I’m counting on you to tell me everything I need to hear to slow the crazy pace of our lives a bit.
      On a side note, I’m thrilled you’re interested in Into the Free. It’s been a fabulous journey so far…and the countdown has begun. 2.1.12. Isn’t that a fabulous date for the BIG DAY?
      Now…if only I can follow all your wonderful advice and stay sane and balanced through it all.

Comments are closed.