Tuesday, July 26, 2016

When do I write?

Write your book when your research is finished.

Dr. John McManus, assistant professor of U.S. military history at Missouri S&T, shared an easy method for determining when to begin writing during his presentation at the Missouri Writer's Guild. It's a question he asks writers, and one that writers need to ask themselves: "How do you know what themes will be developed from a scholarly POV (or any other POV) if you aren’t finished (researching)?"

He said it’s hard to juggle all the research and writing at the same time. He believes the work is more distracted and doesn't provide the same coherence when writers try to research and write at the same time. The finished product is better when the research is complete before the writing begins.

Next question - How will you write it?

If there were only one way to write a book or article, then writing would be easy. But there are many ways, and McManus covered several points to consider as you begin.

- First, figure out your writing times. Do you have to work a 12-hour day and squeeze it in? If so, figure out time to work and stick to it like it’s a job. "All good writers are self starters, and all good historians are self starters" he said.

- Next, consider the point of view (POV). Writing from a distance, as an observer, provides readers with the big picture of an event, while writing from the POV of someone close to, or in the middle of, the action can bring a human perspective to that event. When we see everything through one person's eyes, we can relate to the actions and feel the emotions.

- Develop a chapter-by-chapter outline – it forces you to think and bring coherence to what relates and what doesn’t, forces you to make hard decisions about what to cut and what to keep. Also consider how your book will look. This outline forces unity and coherence. Each chapter that follows makes your point. By the time you’ve done the proper research, you should have these ideas. Outlines help.

- Organize material chronologically. Most good history is written chronologically. There are some exceptions in biography and other types of nonfiction. 

- Consider pacing, context, and sequencing to figure out how best to tell your story. How will the reader want to read this story, what will work best for him or her? If you are talking about the evening before, don’t give it away. Let the story unfold.

- Determine the format. What is tone? How will you refer to people - formally or informally? Will you use official titles like The Duke of So and So, or first names? Make these decisions beforehand for consistency, and you won't need to go back and change them later.

And finally, after writing your book or article:

- Proofread after giving yourself a little time and distance so you can look at the writing with fresh eyes.

Write soon, and let me know about YOUR process,


(Next week, a little more on organizing your writing)

Monday, July 18, 2016

I just decided there is a Research Part 2!

Just like every writing project, research is unique. I didn't feel like I covered everything I wanted to say in the last post, so I'm adding more information from the Women On Writing website article I did several years ago. Here's the link: http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/31-How2-Research.html

Write soon,


Monday, July 11, 2016

Research the Market, Research the Topic

(Part two of a four-part series on writing nonfiction)

For many writers, coming up with ideas is not the problem. But many ideas or topics die on the vine if there is no plan to proceed. So once you have an idea or a topic, what's the next step? Or, how do you turn this idea into a book?

Research the market

In order to ensure there's a market for your book, make sure you are offering something readers haven't seen before. Dr. John C. McManus, assistant professor of U.S. military history at Missouri S&T, said once you get the topic, figure out the feasibility about what you have, and ask yourself if it is new. He said publishers emphasize originality, and "the buff readers who have read all about this topic want to know what’s in here that they haven’t seen before. They want a different take, a different story. Publishers will also want to know what's original about your book."

After deciding if the topic is feasible, what is the take (the thesis, or central idea), what is the take-away (what insight do we gain from this work), and where does this fit in the literature that's already been published? Do enough research to get a proposal together. McManus suggested researching what's been done, and ask yourself what you think was done wrong, what was done right, and the kind of publishers who would be interested in this book.

He said history is for everyone. (I would add that writing any type of nonfiction is for everyone.) "Just because someone has a Ph.D. doesn’t mean they can write well about it," he said. "And just because you don’t have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you can’t write it. Anyone can investigate a topic and write about it."

Your experiences may draw you to a topic. McManus gave the example of the history of Katrina, perhaps, if you have something interesting to add. Are you going to give your perspective on a topic that's been done before, or write about something that hasn't been published.  Military historian Robert Leckie wrote dozens of books, and he wrote using historical narrative. He told stories about a solider named Lucky, which was him, and his own experiences. "Most of us figure out the best way to write," McManus said. "There is no perfect way to do that. It’s up to you as to how to present it."

Research the topic

The first step in research may be to determine what will be required for travel, research, transcription, and writing. McManus suggested preparing a research schedule to determine the timetable. He said the timetable will help make the chaos manageable. He also suggested being honest with yourself. Only you know your personal work style, so give yourself enough time to finish the work. "Don’t skimp on any detail, but understand what it will cost you in terms of logistics, time, travel, etc., and know that if you plan for four months of research, and it turns into four years, that it may feel like a big mountain to climb."

He divided history research into three parts, which includes locations/events/artifacts, museums/libraries/archives and personal interviews. Because writers should have primary and secondary sources when creating something original, not just a summary, research is necessary. According to the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University, "primary research is any type of research that you go out and collect yourself. Examples include surveys, interviews, observations and ethnographic research."

Secondary research would include journals, magazines or books. These works have already been published, and you may want to cite them to support your ideas or theories. Check with the publisher to determine the process for citing someone else's research.

McManus said the discovery process can determine which direction it takes you. "This can be the fun part. Be sure to have a broad umbrella. Maybe go to two or three places to find aids you need, like archives, libraries, etc.," he said.

Writers need to determine what’s in these places that you can check out. Which libraries are relevant to your topic, local or otherwise. Figure out where you need to go so you understand how the research will work and how long it will take. Also include research librarians. They know how to navigate the research process to reveal information you may not have been able to find.

He also said the plan goes out the window when you find something you didn’t know about. "(If) you find Civil War letters, or other things that are relevant that you need to know about, it may change your direction," he said. "But you may also decide that maybe this is something for the next project."
Personal interviews also might be an option. McManus said writers need to decide if they can interview in person or by phone, and if so, can they take good notes and transcribe? "If you don't have someone else do your transcribing, factor that in for time."

Research can be a major part of the publishing process. Don't skimp on research, and be open to new ideas or people. And finally, don't underestimate the word-of-mouth process. You would be surprised who might be able to help you when you let everyone know the topic you are researching.

Write soon,

John C. McManus is Curators’ Professor of U.S. military history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T). This professorship is bestowed by the University of Missouri Board of Curators on the most outstanding scholars in the University of Missouri system. McManus is the first ever Missouri S&T faculty member in the humanities to be named Curators’ Professor. As one of the nation’s leading military historians, and the author of eleven well received books on the topic, he is in frequent demand as a speaker and expert commentator.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Four steps to writing nonfiction

A few years ago at the Missouri Writers' Guild Conference, I heard John C. McManus, an award-winning professor, author, and military historian speak about writing history. Much of what he said would translate to any type of nonfiction work, so I'm condensing some of his information and combining it with what I teach about speaking for my oral communications classes, to set up a four-step primer on writing nonfiction. (Next week I'll cover research.)

First, follow your passion, or write what you know.

McManus said there is huge potential in writing nonfiction, and "a vast universe you know better than anyone." Start with a concept or idea even if it's a subject you have studied just because you like it. I tell my students to talk about something they know about, and that simple is good. If you have experience with a subject, then you have a perspective we may not have heard.

I'm always amazed at the variety of topics I hear for speeches, which can vary from a job (Anthony Bourdain's first book "Kitchen Confidential," covered his experience working in kitchens and his passion for food, as did many successful business writers who shared their experiences about what went right, what went wrong and every topic in between). Writing about hobbies is another way to explore more great topics. Maybe you go to classic car shows every weekend, or like to watch foreign movies, train dogs, knit, collect rocks or any other hobby has the potential to be turned into a work of nonfiction.

Many writers assume that because a topic is an "everyday" sort of idea that no one will be interested. Not true. I've heard great speeches and read great essays about topics like grandparents, math, cartoons, bedspreads and hiking. None of those topics seem out-of-the-ordinary, and they aren't. But everyone has a story, and that story might involve something simple, but compelling.

You can also start with a question. Are you curious about a topic? Did something happen to make you ask a question? That can be a starting point for an article, book or blog. Here's my question for the Fourth of July weekend. Yesterday, I saw "Free State of Jones" starring Matthew McConaughey. My question revolves around window coverings. Yes, window coverings! Not something most people would notice. So, here goes:

In the scenes inside the Colonel's office, I was struck by the use of window blinds. They seemed advanced for the Civil-War time frame, because other scenes depicted people picking cotton by hand, wearing hand-made clothing and using a spinning wheel. So I looked online, and here's the URL to an article I found about the history of window blinds. They are older than you think!


So every topic has the potential to be a topic worthy of study. Don't overlook something just because it's simple. Simple is good!

Write soon (about something simple!)