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!)