To me, the number one answer to that question is: storytelling ability. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, if you can’t relate the information in an interesting and compelling manner, then no one will read it.
Many people can tell a story or an anecdote, but only true storytellers can make them come alive. This is so very important when creating a non-fiction book. You have to find ways to help your readers relate to the characters, but without sacrificing the facts. After all, in non-fiction your characters aren’t made up and your readers can check the details. Yet, you don’t want to bore your readers with nothing but a compilation of facts, either.
Writing truth as if it were fiction is a fine line to walk. Some authors do it quite well, and others fall flat. As a reader, I noticed the difference and I began taking notes on what made some books great non-fiction and others just so-so. When I decided to share my own near death experience story (Escorting the Dead) with the world, I went back to my notes detailing the differences between good and not-so-good non-fiction to make sure I did it right.
As I analyzed these difference, I found that the major difference between good non-fiction and so-so non-fiction was the author’s ability to relate a story. As an author of both fiction (The Starstone) and non-fiction (Escorting the Dead), I have learned that no matter what type of book you are creating, you still have to tell a good story.
But how do you tell a story when relating facts, history, and biographical or autobiographical data? I found that there were two methods that seemed to work the best: use anecdotes to bring your people and time period to life; or relate one major incident from the person’s life in a friendly, story-like way. Both methods let you add flavor and depth to the people you are writing about. This then gives your readers a chance to connect with the people in your book. If you can’t build that bridge between your reader and the key character of your book, then no amount of facts, figures, charts, and graphs will win them over. Your readers want to see the humanity in the people populating your non-fiction book; they want to be able to relate to and understand the reasons motivating the people in your book. They want a really good story, even if it is non-fiction.
So, a great non-fiction author is one who can bring reality to life and fool his or her readers into believing that what they are reading is just a great story even if it is a moment plucked from real life.