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.


  1. It must be exhilarating when the research leads you in unexpected directions.

    I hope you share some of your memorable stories that happened when you were doing research, Mary. We could all learn from your experiences...

    1. It's great but I set time limits so I can get back to the main focus of an article!

  2. Mary, your post is informative and helpful. The time reference is applicable.

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  4. Research is my favorite part of writing, although it sure creates a lot of new rabbit holes!

    Critter Alley

    1. I agree! Lou Turner was the one who told me about setting time limits so I don't get too far off the trail of my original search!

  5. Hi Mary,
    Thanks for this helpful information, especially the distinction between primary and secondary sources. My favorite part of research is discovery. I love learning something new. Research is also important for fiction to make sure the details are realistic and correct.
    I'm looking forward to your next installment.

  6. Thanks, Donna! I think its fun and can really help enrich the writing regardless of whether its fiction or nonfiction.