How did you write that, Adam Henig?

Adam Henig is back with a new book about the battle to desegregate Major League Baseball’s spring training in Florida in the Sixties. It is also the story of Dr. Ralph Wimbish, the St. Petersburg doctor and community leader who led the charge.

I asked Adam how he came to write Under One Roof: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Under One Roof?

Adam: During my research on Alex Haley, who was the subject of my first book, I came across an article he wrote in 1961 for SPORT magazine, a now
defunct publication that was the precursor to Sports Illustrated. Before he was a famous author, Haley was freelancing for several noteworthy publications besides SPORT that included Reader’s Digest and Playboy. The article he penned not only ignited the idea, but became the foundation of my research.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Adam: When I began the research for Under One Roof, I had little else besides Haley’s article—no title, no contacts, and little to go on. The central figure, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, did not even have a Wikipedia page. I began checking out books from my local library about Major League Baseball in the 1950s
and early 60s, with particular focus on the history of spring training and the integration of the sport. Also, since the event was based largely in St. Petersburg, Florida, I wanted to know as much as possible about the city, especially how African Americans were treated. This was still the Jim Crow era,
where everything remain separated between the races.

Once the research was underway, I created a list of people I wanted to interview. It consisted of either experts in the field of baseball and Florida history, or individuals who were directly connected to Dr. Ralph Wimbish. Those who I interviewed included former professional baseball players (such as Bill White and Hector Lopez) and Dr. Wimbish’s children, Ralph Jr. and Barbara.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Adam: I developed a lot of shortcuts while working on my first book. For example, my notes from the books, newspaper articles, archival documents, and interview transcripts were placed in a single Microsoft Word file. This enabled me to search for a keyword when needed and it made it easier to establish the chronology of events. Also, each of the documents I used was properly cited so I would save time when compiling my endnotes.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Adam: Since I am not a full time author, I have to prioritize ahead of time what I want to accomplish each day. When I am beginning a new project, for instance, I spend most of my reading the material I’ve gathered while taking notes and searching for additional leads. Sometimes I am able to plow through a few books and a dozen articles in a single sitting, while other days, a single article or book will consume all of my time. What I love (and often find frustrating) about being a nonfiction author is that you can never anticipate with certainty what the research might yield.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Adam: The best tool remains the public library. I could not write these books without the resources that the library provides. It not only offers books, but its online research database provides me access to newspapers (e.g., New York Times) and magazines that I would otherwise not be able to obtain without paying a fee. Fortunately, my local library is part of a district that has over a million items in its collection.

Bonus question: What tips can you share with our readers about independent publishing?

Adam: Shop around. Since this industry is still relatively new, the marketplace for services (i.e., cover designer, interior formatter, editor, etc.) is all over the map in terms of fees. You’ll get a quote from a cover designer for a $1,000 and then you’ll receive another, from someone who has the same credentials,
for $200. The post-production work requires a lot more time than a traditionally published author, but, as scores, if not hundreds of authors have experienced, the financial rewards have the potential to be so much greater since the royalties are more to your advantage.

How did you write that, Debbie Clarke Moderow?

Fast Into the NightFast Into the Night:  A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail is the exciting story of Debbie Clarke Moderow‘s participation in the famous Iditarod dogsled race. How did she manage to take care of her dogs, follow the trail, and endure extreme weather conditions, and also write a gripping memoir of her experience? Here are her answers:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for FAST INTO THE NIGHT?

Debbie: Soon after adopting our family’s first sled dog, Salt, I knew that he and I shared a fascinating and remarkable bond. Even in our earliest days with a handful of sled dogs, I wanted to write about sharing the trail with them. Of course, running Iditarod represented the ultimate opportunity to collaborate with our huskies. In the end, I wrote Fast Into the Night to honor those dogs and what I have learned in their company.

DebbieModerow-7965HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Debbie: Initially I thought I would keep notes on the Iditarod Trail. That proved to be impossible, given the sleep deprivation and rugged terrain. Immediately after returning home from both of my Iditarods, I wrote notes chronicling the adventure checkpoint by checkpoint. These free-writing pages documented logistical and sequential details, as well as the emotional threads of our journey. Those pages were the very first of this project.  

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Debbie: I gathered as many resources as possible to document the facts: Iditarod checkpoint logs, my own notes, vet books that keep tracking dog details along the trail, and photos. I also referred to trail notes of other mushers that describe the topography of the Iditarod Trail. For the flashbacks of my non-mushing life, I referred to journals, photos, and those murky and often distant memories.

Also, two years after finishing Iditarod, I returned to the Iditarod Trail as a member of the 2007 Serum Run Expedition. To mush through much of the same territory, in daylight and while not sleep deprived, gave me a wonderful opportunity to recall and check topographical facts. On that trip I managed to take notes along the way and re-live my original journeys along the trail.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Debbie: Due to the launch of Fast Into the Night, I’m currently doing more promotional work and blogging than new research or creative writing. Still I attempt to write something new, albeit brief, every day. I’m working on several different projects that require the mining of memories and cultivation of fresh ideas. After all, that’s what inspires me to write: the ongoing creative process of discovery.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Debbie: I suppose it’s no coincidence that my favorite “tools” are among my most treasured experiences: Dogs and trails. They offer me great inspiration, both on and off the page. Whether traveling a thousand miles across the state of Alaska, or simply walking my lead dog Cheddar in our downtown Anchorage neighborhood, interactions outdoors with other species inspire my writing and ever-surprising instances of self discovery.

Bonus question: How did you decide on the narrative structure of your memoir?

Debbie: To come up with the narrative structure of my memoir was a long and laborious process. Early drafts of Fast Into the Night began in a variety of “places.” I wrote the narrative in different tenses before deciding on the final form.

Ultimately I had to significantly narrow down the particular story I wanted to tell. I wrote many chapters that did not, in the end, make it into this memoir. But, like all the miles of training needed to be able to compete in the Iditarod, those chapters and drafts enhanced the final miles toward publication.

How did you write that, Dale Russakoff?

DaleRussakoff_007-300x293-300x293Dale Russakoff gained access to some major players — including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — while researching and writing The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?, her new book about the recent attempt at radical education reform in Newark, New Jersey. But it may be her empathetic approach to the stories of those affected by reform — the students, teachers, administrators, and families — that makes the book a potential classic of its genre.

Dale brought decades of solid reporting experience to The Prize. I think you’ll find this interview both inspiring and full of practical tips for your own writing.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Prize?

I recently had taken a buyout from The Washington Post after 28 years as a staff writer and was making my way (shakily) as a freelance writer. I had been interested for several years in the rise of what has become known as the education reform movement — that potent combination of billionaire philanthropists, charter school leaders, social entrepreneurs and politicians in both parties who wanted to upend the status quo of traditional public schools governed by large, usually unionized bureaucracies. I also had a lifelong interest in issues of race and inequality from having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama during the final years of legal segregation and the civil rights movement.

When Mark Zuckerberg, at age 26, announced his $100 million gift to the Newark schools, I was electrified to see this very young billionaire sitting beside a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor on the Oprah show, all of them pledging to transform education for some of the nation’s poorest children. I had spent more than a decade in the New York bureau of the Washington Post and I had written frequently about Newark. The city was compelling to me from the beginning. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for what has happened to cities across America as a result of the collapse of manufacturing, white and middle-class flight to the suburbs, disinvestment. I saw this as an opportunity to learn, in detail, at the ground level, what the education reform movement really meant for schooling in cities like this. I wanted to get as close to the process as I possibly could because this is what had fascinated me in my almost 30 years as a reporter for The Washington Post — tracing the process by which big public policy ideas do or don’t translate into actual changes in people’s lives, and understanding why or why not.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Dale: I began by going to Newark a lot, meeting people who for years had been active in education on various fronts — all stripes of community activists, current and former school board members, clergy, principals, teachers, charter school leaders, the staffs of nonprofits involved in education. But I also sought and ultimately gained access to the people at the very top of the effort — Zuckerberg himself, then-Mayor (of Newark) Cory Booker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his state education commissioner, Chris Cerf, and Newark superintendent Cami Anderson. My goal was to see the effort through the eyes of those crafting and leading it as well as those at the ground level, in the schools and the community, who would experience the changes.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Dale: Initially I created categories as they emerged and filed research related to them in online folders: Education Philanthropy; History of Corruption in the Newark district; Unions; Social Conditions in Newark; History of the Education Reform Movement; Reformers; Anti-Reformers; Common Core.

It soon got wildly out of control, and I sought advice from a good friend from my years at The Post named Rick Atkinson, a prolific and prizewinning book author who is also brilliant at organization. He said his technique was to create separate Word files for each month, and within those, a file for each interview, for notes from that day’s reporting or for any research conducted, with the date in the subject line. So I literally ended up with Word folders for 54 months, and within those, all of the interviews I conducted in those months, all of the notes I took, etc. As I collected documents or reports or made copies of microfiche records from the Newark archives in the public library, I filed them under the day I obtained them. I found that my mind began to remember interviews by the month in which I conducted them. Or I remembered the months of particular events. If I needed a document at the writing stage and I couldn’t remember the month in which I had filed it, I could use the search function and enter a phrase or a key word, which would ultimately lead me to the file I needed.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Dale: Fortunately or unfortunately, I never had a typical day. I spent many, many days in district and charter schools, observing teachers and principals, getting to know students and staff members. I also was allowed to attend many sessions that Cami Anderson, the superintendent, held with her leadership team, and to follow her around at times as she visited schools or met with charter leaders or held training sessions with principals. I often arranged interviews in the afternoon and evenings with parents, teachers, principals, kids. I interviewed executives of the various philanthropies involved in the reform effort — from Mark Zuckerberg’s to those of local Newark philanthropies that contributed some of the matching funds.

And I attended scores of community meetings, rallies, school board meetings, campaign organizing efforts (the reform effort became a huge political issue as time went on). I also attended a lot of events that were not directly related to education but had a bearing on it — such as those in response to the high level of violence in the city. For example, anti-violence rallies were held weekly at the intersection nearest the latest murder, and I went to a number of those and just listened to people talk about how violence was affecting their families and their children.

Once I began writing, I tended to write all day, from morning to night. But I began to feel very isolated from Newark and from the schools. I live only 20 minutes from Newark, so at times I broke away for a visit to a school or an interview in the city, or a school basketball game (see below), just to feel that I remained in touch with the story as it was developing.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Dale: My favorite “tool” is one that I learned at age 25 from my city editor, Bob Johnson, at The Atlanta Journal, the second newspaper I worked for. I was one of a number of young reporters covering the counties that surrounded Atlanta. This was the late 1970s, and these were mostly semi-rural areas that were going suburban very fast. We were filing multiple stories a day from the city halls, the police departments, the zoning boards, all the official places. But Bob told us that we should take at least one afternoon a week to do what he called “missionary work.”

What he meant by this was that we were to put away our notebooks, stop looking for stories for a couple of hours, and go talk to people someplace in our counties that we hadn’t explored, or just check out something that had caught our fancy but that didn’t qualify as “news.” The idea was to experience the county as people who lived there experienced it. This sounded really intriguing to me, and I started doing it, and I immediately began finding some of my best stories this way — when I wasn’t really looking for news, when I had simply followed my instinct to someplace or someone interesting.

I do this now as a matter of course whenever I’m reporting a story, and I did it often over the 4-1/2 years I was researching my book. And again, I found some of the most eye-opening stories in my book this way. I wrote an entire chapter on one kid whose story I learned just by attending the middle school basketball tournament in Newark. I love youth sports — my now-grown sons were both baseball and soccer players and I always was amazed to see what kids do together on teams — so it caught my attention when the basketball team at a K-8 school I was following made it into the city-wide tournament. Everyone at the school, it seemed, caught the excitement, and so I started going to all the games, cheering alongside all the kids, teachers and parents, as I always did at my sons’ games. And this one player was so outstanding that I decided to learn more about him — purely out of curiosity. And his story grew into what may be my favorite chapter in the entire book.

Bonus question: Who do you envision as the perfect audience for The Prize? How did you decide on that audience?

Dale: Teachers — dedicated, committed teachers — were my target audience. Of course I hope that everyone interested in education will read the book and learn from it. But as I reported and wrote The Prize, I was moved most of all by the teachers who give so much of themselves every day to reach students in the face of extraordinary obstacles. I saw so many men and women — some of whom had been teaching for decades — who seemed to have bottomless capacity to teach, inspire, improvise, buck up, whatever it took for that particular child on that particular day. I saw this happening in so-called “failing schools” as well as excellent schools, in both district schools and charter schools. These teachers have the most intimate awareness of the challenges inherent in trying to transform education for America’s poorest children. They know how much is being left out of the very polarized national debate between the reform movement on one side and unions on the other. Every day, they and their students go up against all the forces that brought down Newark and so many of our cities — extreme poverty, violence, family strife. I wanted to write a book that would make them feel that they had been heard.

How did you write that, Jonathan Eig?

Jon-Eig-196x300-150x150One of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century, the birth control pill (so famous we usually just call it “The Pill”) transformed the lives of countless women around the world and changed sexual mores and gender roles forever. Jonathan Eig tackles this monumental story in The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. How did he do it?

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Birth of the Pill?

Jonathan: I finished my book about Al Capone and wandered a long time in no-man’s land, searching for the next idea. At one point I was making lists, just to get my brain working; lists of great inventors, important Supreme Court cases, important inventions, famous women, famous Jews…. And the birth-control pill appeared on a list of inventions. I remembered hearing a rabbi say once that he thought the birth-control pill might have been the most important invention of the 20th century. I also remembered that my wife had encouraged me to try writing a book aimed toward women readers. So I began digging into the story of the invention of the pill and I was astonished by what I found. It was such a thrilling story, with a great cast of unlikely heroes setting out to accomplish something that should have been impossible, and something that they knew would radically transform the world if they could pull it off. As soon as I read about Gregory Pincus, Margaret Sanger, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick, I was hooked.

41ONyoC-XaL._SL250_-150x150HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Jonathan: I began by spending time with the daughter of Gregory Pincus, who had worked with her father and had known all of my story’s protagonists. From there I dug into the archives. They were all great letter writers and left a detailed paper trail. Scientists are much better subjects that gangster and ballplayers in that way.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Jonathan: I’m not the most organized person. When I used to write newspaper and magazine stories I would let the research pile up on my desk and then dig through it when it was time to write. That doesn’t work for books, though. Books are too big. So I create file folders—some electronic, some paper—and I sort my research material according to names, subjects, and dates, and I try to keep the files organized chronologically as much as possible. It’s still a mess, but it’s manageable mess. With this book, for the first time, I cut down on my paper files dramatically and converted thousands of files to Google Docs. That made searching through them a lot easier.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Jonathan: No such thing as a typical day. I usually get the kids out of the house around 8 in the morning, and that’s when my work day begins. I’d like to start earlier but it’s not going to happen until they’re a little older and more self-sufficient. Once the house clears, I might spend the day doing interviews, I might spend the day in a library, I might spend the day writing, or I might do a combination of writing and research. The promotional work is cyclical. When a new book is published, I’ll spend a lot of time promoting it. I enjoy that part of the work, but I’d rather spend my time on research and writing.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Jonathan: I’m not sure it’s my favorite but one of the most powerful tools for me is anxiety—or the fear of failure, the worry that I won’t do justice to the story that I’m telling, won’t bring the characters to life in the full dimension they deserve, won’t do enough to keep the reader turning the page, that I’ll never come up with a book idea as exciting as the last one. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m a worry-wort. I’m not. But when I think about why I work so hard on research and why I re-write so often and so compulsively, I think it’s most because I’m anxious that I might leave some scrap of information undiscovered or leave some sentence short of elegance. So there you have it, anxiety is my tool. Also I like Proquest,, Lexis/Nexis, and my MacBook Air.

Bonus question: What challenges did you face in weaving together the stories of the four crusaders: Margaret Sanger, Gregory Pincus, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick?

Jonathan: I’m glad you asked. The weaving was critical in this book, and it was not easy. I’d never written a book with four equally strong characters, and it took me a lot of wrestling before I could figure out how to tell all their stories, and all their back stories, without hopelessly gumming up the narrative. I reminded myself to think of this as a TV series or a movie with four actors, each of them trying to steal every scene, each of them flirting with the writer to get more good lines written into the script. When you think of it that way, it’s not such a bad problem to have. The trick was making sure no one got slighted. I’ll confess that Pincus was my favorite. If this were a movie, I’d want George Clooney to play his part. But Sanger’s the biggest hero of the story. Rock, in many ways, is the most interesting. And McCormick is the one I’d most want to spend time with. So I enjoyed my time with all of them and felt fortunate to be directing their drama.


How did you write that, Audrey Levatino?

Audrey Levatino knows what she’s talking about when it comes to farming and writing. She owns a 23-acre farm in Virginia, and with her husband, Michael, is the author of The Joy of Hobby FarmingHer new book, Woman-Powered Farm: Manual for a Self-Sufficient Lifestyle from Homestead to Field, is a practical and detailed look at exactly what it takes to run a profitable homestead. Recently I asked her about her writing process; here are her answers.

Audrey-LevatinoHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Woman-Powered Farm?

Audrey: A couple of things got me thinking about writing a resource specifically about and for women who want to farm. I got such a positive response to The Joy of Hobby Farming, a book my husband and I wrote, published in 2011, and much of the time it was women coming up to me at the farmer’s market or at events and saying how much they would like to do what I am doing. Also, as I grew more involved with other farmers in my community, I naturally formed relationships with the women, and was so impressed with all they were doing, and so interested in their stories and how they managed their farms. It seemed like the universe was having the same thoughts because around this same time I saw and read many articles about women being involved in farming and I realized that this is an important and relevant topic that could use more exploration. As I began to explore the idea, I realized that there wasn’t a book out there that addressed the unique concerns, approaches, and stories of women involved in farming.

Woman-Powered-FarmHDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Audrey: I wanted to include as much information as I could from women who are currently farming, so I sent questions out to women farmers around the country to collect their stories and information about themselves and their farms. As well as including current trends in women farmers and farming, I wanted to include information on the history of women and farming so I did a lot of reading on these topics. I felt it was important to recognize that, as women farmers, we owe much to the hard work and experience of those who carved out the path of farming, providing us with a viable and interesting career option today.

I also thought back to when I first began to farm and what information I would have liked to have that I wasn’t able to find at the time, which is why I included the step-by-step how-to sections with pictures of tasks which can be intimidating simply because you’ve never learned how to do them before (i.e., using a chain saw).

Because there are so many different ways to farm, and different things to farm, I visited the farms of local women farmers and interviewed them for profiles in the book.

In order to provide the step-by-step instructions, I persuaded my husband to take pictures of me doing my chores around the farm.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Audrey: Writing up the proposal for the book really helped me to organize my thoughts and ideas into a coherent form. I drafted the table of contents using the proposal as a guide. I always work from an outline, so I grouped the information I wanted to cover into topics for each chapter and tried to find the most logical progression of ideas.

I use bookmark folders to keep track of my internet resources. My book and print resources can get rather chaotic—lots of piles with sticky notes flagging specific pages.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Audrey: Once the book was accepted for publication, I had to get serious about organizing my time. I think most clearly in the morning, so it is the best time for me to research and write, but the morning is also when I need to be outside working on my own farm. Most of the work on a cut flower farm has to take place during the coolest time of the day. So throughout the whole process I always felt that I was not giving enough to time to either the book or my farm. I just couldn’t sit down and focus on the writing while knowing there was all that work to be done outside. It was pretty stressful. So, most of the actual writing took place after my growing season ended in October.

I really enjoy researching and can lose myself in reading and searching for things online. To write I have to designate a time and make myself sit down and do it. Sometimes it goes well and other times it is simply painful. As for promotion, I know I have to do it, so I pretty much just do what my publicist asks me to do. I can get very excited talking about my book in a casual way to people who are already interested.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Audrey: I tend to write in a stream of consciousness manner, so I love the cut and paste functions of word processing. I revise sentences and paragraphs many times. Cutting and pasting allows me to retain the ideas and thoughts that come out in scraps so that I can develop them further when I need them.

Bonus question: Could you walk us through the process of deciding to direct this book to a female audience?

Audrey: Mostly I decided to direct the book to women because it was a need that had not yet been met. That’s an important guide to choosing a topic. There may be many books on farming, but there are still subjects and points of view that have not been addressed.

When I first started out, I read all the books on farming and gardening. There are many wonderful books out there that I still reference today. But once I got into doing the farmer’s market and getting to know other farmers, I realized that most of the small farmers I know are women. And all the farmers I know that use interns or part-time help on their farms were telling me that 80-90% of their workers were women.

At the same time, farming has traditionally been a bit of a good-ol-boy club and I heard stories about challenges other women had in breaking into this club. I realized that none of the books I had read or used over the years addressed farming from a woman’s perspective. Our bodies are built differently, so the physical challenges are unique. Also, without stereotyping too much, women are generally more nurturing and care for their animals as if they were their own children. And I realized that women have always been the growers and the caretakers. It’s only in recent history with the invention of mechanized farming that women fled (or were pushed out of) farming for other pursuits. So I wanted to give women a book with a familiar voice and information that spoke directly to them in order to provide them with some confidence to get back into farming. It’s easier to imagine yourself operating a chainsaw if the instructions and the step-by-step photos are of women just like yourself.


How did you write that, Nancy Vienneau?

dsc_0150_edited1-1-300x263A few months ago we talked with Laura Pazzaglia about her cookbook writing methods. I’m now pleased to present Nancy Vienneau from Good Food Matters, here to talk about her cookbook, the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook.

Throw out what you think you know about potlucks — six kinds of bean salad, a few tired casseroles, and heavy desserts — and find out how Nancy put together a book of community-building stories and mouth-watering recipes:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook?

61ZTziggTWL._SL250_Nancy: It came from my life! In June 2009, my friend, urban farmer Gigi Gaskins and I began hosting a monthly potluck devoted as much to fostering community as to sharing good food. Our rules were simple: we would gather on the third Thursday of each month at 6:30pm. Each guest was asked to bring a dish of his or her choice. No scripted menu, no assigned dishes, no RSVP. We cast a wide net, inviting people from all over Nashville. We had no idea that it would become so embraced, but quickly, the potluck took on its own life. The food that people brought was fresh and seasonal, creative and delicious-the antithesis of many potlucks we’ve all had the misfortune to attend, populated with mystery casseroles.

We kept a journal-at each potluck, people would sign in, and write down what they brought. Over time, I realized that it held a wealth of ideas, recipes, and a cookbook waiting to be written.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Nancy: I think that conceiving the outline of a cookbook is akin to the creation of a tantalizing menu.

Many cookbooks are arranged into categories: soups, salads, entrees and so forth. I wanted to structure mine differently. I wanted to tell the story of our community potluck, how and why it formed, and let readers know something about the people who attend. Part of the book’s mission is to inspire others to start their own.

In weaving this narrative into a book of recipes, I envisioned each chapter as a month, with its respective story, menu, and recipes. That fit with our potluck’s local, seasonal focus. The chapters would carry readers through the cycle of a year. Once I had that framework in place, seeing the book as a whole, I could go forward: write the proposal, and ultimately fill in the pieces.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Nancy: There were three parts to this project: stories, menus, recipes. I knew the stories, but needed to choose the dishes I’d like to present. Once selected, I could fashion them into menus that fit with the potluck stories I wanted to tell.

As a chef and “recovered caterer,” I already had developed my recipes for the project. I used our potluck journal as a resource. I also have a food blog wherein I chronicled our gatherings. And I quizzed many of our attendees.

Over 30 people, all Third Thursday potluckers, contributed 150 recipes. It was a challenge to wrangle those recipes from them. Testing the recipes, tweaking them were crucial components. After that, I needed to write them in a consistent style, clear to even a novice cook.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Nancy: Each day is a little different. Some days I am anchored to my desk-reading and writing; others are spent in the kitchen, testing recipes, taking notes. Now that I am in the promotional phase of the project—the cookbook has been out since last summer—I’m often preparing some treat to accompany a presentation. You can’t sell a cookbook without feeding folks!

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Nancy: Reading can be a writer’s best tool; I have a number of friends and colleagues whose work I relish. It’s a good practice to get outside your head. I have my own library of cookbooks that span 40 years. It’s helpful to thumb through them with fresh eyes, study the recipes and head notes, their style and voice.

On words: having an online thesaurus at my fingertips has been invaluable. I’ve written a poem called “Food Writer’s Rant” (it’s all adjectives!) because I think that language about food can become tired.

Food itself is a powerful tool. A bite of toast and jam, a sip of ginger ale can evoke emotions, and trigger memories.

Bonus question: Cookbooks have exploded in popularity — How do you make a new cookbook stand out in a crowded market?

Nancy: First we eat with our eyes. It’s important to have images to both welcome and entice the reader; the photography needs to capture the feeling of the book. The cover of Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook is a colorful overhead shot of a full table of potluck dishes; an inside shot shows the potluck in action-hands grabbing plates, carving ham, serving cake. Food is celebratory, and food is messy!

Approachability is another factor. As much as we admire the work of fine chefs, we are less likely to cook like them. I don’t want my readers to feel intimidated by the recipes.

People who love cookbooks enjoy reading them like novels. What defines a good cookbook is not just its body of recipes. It’s the people behind the recipes—the farmer, the gardener, the butcher at the market, the neighbor down the street. We want to make those connections.

People are as hungry for story as they are for a good meal.

How did you write that, Catherine Reef?

Frida-Diego-coverCatherine Reef writes award-winning biographies for young people. On her website she says, “I have so many ideas for books that I want to write, and I get most excited by what’s next. This is because I truly love my work.” A perfect subject for How Did You Write That, wouldn’t you agree? Here’s what she had to say about her latest book, Frida & Diego:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Frida & Diego?

Catherine: I like to write about creative people. I had written biographies of poets, novelists, and composers — of E. E. Cummings, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ernest Hemingway, Leonard Bernstein, and others — but I had never written about a visual artist. And after completing my books on Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, I wanted to move away from England and the nineteenth century, to enjoy a change of scene. I considering several subjects before settling on Frida Kahlo. She was such a colorful figure, in every sense of the word, and she was a pioneering self-portraitist.

Catherine-Reef-June-2014-240x300As I delved into Kahlo’s story, though, I became equally intrigued by her husband. Diego Rivera was larger than life-again, in every sense. He, too, was a significant artist, one of the most important muralists of the twentieth century. I also saw how tightly intertwined their stories were and how tumultuous their marriage was. Their intense love drew them together, drove them apart, and brought them together again. It didn’t always make them happy. But here is what fascinated me, and what I admired most about the pair: however much each one hurt and disappointed the other in love, they remained true to each other as artists. Rivera appreciated Kahlo’s talent, encouraged her, and championed her work, and she did the same for him. This was the beautiful story I wanted to tell.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Catherine: I began this project as I begin every book, with lots of reading, searching, and thinking. I needed to get a sense of the shape of the story I would be telling, which in this case was a complex one, rather like a double helix, with two life stories joined and twisted together. I started mentally pairing pictures with unwritten text, because it helps me to have an image of the finished book in mind as I work, even though it is bound to evolve. I also thought hard about how to enter my story. Would I simply start at the beginning, or would I write a brief opening chapter that introduced my subjects at a key point in their story, thus giving my readers some background that would be helpful as they moved into the book? In this case I settled on the latter approach. My readers encounter the two artists on a fateful day in 1928 when a very young Kahlo asks the established artist Rivera to look at her early paintings. Although the book would move back in time to explore their lives before this moment, this was when their combined story began.

Once I had done this preliminary work, I wrote a sample chapter. I am a very organized thinker, but it is in my nature to balk against regimentation on paper or in life. So I prepared a loosely structured outline of the rest of the book. This chapter and outline, along with a detailed cover letter, constituted the proposal. My editor and I had discussed this project, so she knew the proposal was coming. The chapter and outline were helpful to both of us, as they gave us something concrete to work from.

HDYWT: How did you organize your research?

Catherine: I am not someone who can write anywhere, and this is because of the way I organize and use my research. If I wanted to get work done at a writers’ retreat or coffee shop, or even in my backyard, I would have to lug along my laptop, a stack of folders and papers, and another stack of books, minimum — and then hope I hadn’t forgotten anything!

I organize my research notes roughly chronologically, and I place them in folders according to the way I plan to break my story into chapters. In another folder I stash images I have come across in my research that I may want to track down later, when I start choosing illustrations. In my office, arrayed behind me, are books I will need to pick up for quick reference and fact checking as I work. And within reach are some old friends: my trusty thesaurus, a world atlas, and several well-worn dictionaries.

Does it all look organized? Maybe not, but my system works for me.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Catherine: On a day devoted to research you will likely find me in a library or archive, examining primary sources. Too many times I have discovered inaccuracies in secondary sources: authors who present as fact material they haven’t bothered to check, quotes that turn out to have been fabricated or altered substantially from the original — I could give you a host of examples. Also, seeking out original sources leads to exciting surprises, from details other researchers have overlooked to opportunities to correct the historical record, if only in a small way. I’m always on the lookout for unpublished images as well.

A day of writing (and most days are writing days) is a quiet day at home. I spend many hours at my desk, but my day is hardly free of interruptions: chats with my husband, walks with our dog, or laundry and other chores that need my attention. Despite the fact that daily life draws me away from it, the writing gets done.

I like to promote my work is by speaking to others about it at conferences and other events, or through interviews. I have long been a student of literature and prose style, and I enjoy speaking to readers and writers of all ages about my books and about the craft of nonfiction, especially biography; I have a great deal to offer. But, truthfully, I’m convinced that the best way to promote my work is to do it, to make each book the best it can be.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Catherine: I live within commuting distance of the Library of Congress, which is an invaluable resource. Two or three times a month I spend a day there looking at manuscripts, rare books, prints and photographs, films, newspapers and periodicals, and other materials I might not find elsewhere. While researching Frida & Diego, for example, I was able to locate in the library’s collection the Venezuelan newspaper that printed the eulogy delivered by Andrés Iduarte at Kahlo’s funeral, and to read it in its entirety. I tracked down as well articles from the Mexican press and obscure Latin American and European books that clarified or expanded on what I had learned elsewhere.

I honestly never know what I will encounter in the library’s collections: old photographs with notes penciled on their backs in Walt Whitman’s hand; A. Philip Randolph’s unpublished memoir of his early years; the rare first edition of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, which was printed in series form; a photo album that was snatched from Adolf Hitler’s bookshelves at the close of World War II; affectionate correspondence between Leonard Bernstein and his friend Aaron Copland. I can’t imagine how I could live anywhere else and do the work I do!

Bonus question: What are the differences between writing for adults and writing for young readers?

Catherine: We writers all think about our audience. We consider what our readers are likely to know, or not know; what will interest them; what questions they might ask us, if they could. Addressing these concerns as a writer for young readers means that I may devote more space, proportionally, to historical background or cultural context than I would if writing for adults. I cannot assume, for example, that my audience is familiar with such terms as surrealism and cubism; that they knew who Stalin and the Rockefellers were; or that they have read about the rise of communism in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The challenge then is to weave this information into the narrative so that it becomes part of the story I am telling. I consider children’s and young adult nonfiction to be an art form. A nonfiction book to me is a work of literary art, and a biography is a portrait in words. So the last thing I want is for the portrait I have been so carefully creating to fade while I digress for too many informational paragraphs.

My books are heavily illustrated with photographs and historical prints. Illustrations are helpful to young readers who may feel discouraged at the sight of too many pages of unbroken text. More significantly, though, illustrations enrich the story I am telling. Through carefully chosen images and their captions I can present aspects of history that go beyond the scope of the narrative, or I can reveal another side to a biographical subject.

In closing I will say that I feel fortunate to write for young readers. There is no more important audience for literature than our young people, and they deserve the best books we can give them. I do my best for them every single day.

P. S.: Catherine’s next book Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is coming in August 2015. Be on the lookout!



How did you write that, Katrin Schumann?

katrinKatrin Schumann is a busy book doctor, editor, writer, and teacher. Her most recent book is The Secret Power of Middle Children, co-authored with Dr. Catherine Salmon.

For the expert, co-authorship is a powerful way to get one’s ideas heard. But what’s it like from the other side? How does the expert find a co-author, and what is the co-author expected to bring to the collaboration?

In this interview, you’ll learn

  • Katrin’s tips for staying organized and on-time
  • what you need to bring to a book partnership
  • the necessary requirement for succeeding in traditional publishing

secretHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Secret Power of Middle Children?

Katrin: My agent approached me with the idea. She was working with a birth order expert on putting together a proposal and they were having trouble finding the right voice and organizing the manuscript. I was immediately interested because I have three children and was intrigued by the notion that the middle is overlooked and underestimated.

Also, I felt I could bring something valuable to the table as I had done a lot of parenting research and surveys for my first book. My co-author was an academic expert with no experience in the field, so to speak (she is not a parent). I far prefer collaborations in which I can explore my own ideas and insights. When I am committed to the core idea of the book, the process of planning, researching and writing is exciting for me. Finally, I loved the idea that this book is the first of its kind.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Katrin: I started by writing a proposal, which was harder than I expected. We knew what the book was going to be about, but we hadn’t quite figured out the angle or the hook. It took a few iterations and some major rewrites of the first chapter to figure out both the hook and the overall structure.

This is where the agent and I really worked well together, and where you must be willing to shift and refine your ideas if you want to succeed with traditional publishing. I believe in hammering out a succinct and solid proposal—it will impress editors (we went to auction on the basis of the proposal) and it later provides a well-thought out plan for writing the book.

It was only after writing and selling the proposal that I flew out to L.A. to meet my co-author, go through all her research, and discuss the finer details of each chapter. I didn’t necessarily have to do this, but I figured if we’d be working together for a year and eventually doing publicity together, knowing her personally would be helpful.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Katrin: I am a big fan of visual aids, which means I tend not to rely much on technology. I take notes on college-lined spiral bound notebooks (of which I now have dozens). I write on only one side of the paper so that I can scribble additional information (quotes, anecdotes, research, questions) on the facing page later as I begin the process of writing the book.

I use Dropbox for sharing material and I create bookmark folders for each chapter. I have a whiteboard, which I use to write down my to-do’s and map out each day. I also use a corkboard to tack up chapter titles, images, reminders etc.

An important thing I do immediately is work out my deadlines: when is the book due and how much do I need to write per week? As I’m usually working on more than one project at a time and often collaborating with other people, this is critical. I am meticulous about staying on schedule as it keeps stress levels in check for all concerned.

One aspect of this work that I have improved over the years is gathering references together for all the research in the book. I used to be sloppy about this and have learned the hard way that it pays to be more organized.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Katrin: My schedule has varied a lot over the years because of my responsibilities running a household and taking care of my children. I used to hire babysitters and work about six hours a day—but those hours were sporadic. Now that my children are older and drive themselves or take a bus to school, I have a lot more freedom.

Typically, I am at my desk at 7:30am. I have a small office outside the home now as my husband began working from home and having him interrupt me was making writing tortuous. I like to work in an attractive environment (i.e., I like to be surrounded by beautiful colors and plants and artwork). This might be because I work with intense focus and rarely get up to eat or walk around. I average about ten hours a day when I’m in the office, and I love it. I’m trying to be better about taking breaks and doing things like exercising. Whenever I teach in Boston or am doing interviews or traveling, my days are much shorter.

Promotion is quite different. I try to clear my schedule for a few months so I can engage in promotion without going crazy. I have to be ready at the drop of a hat. I make sure I have appropriate clothing at hand, and notes in various formats so I’m ready for TV and radio, as well as print and online media. This part of my work is incredibly time consuming but also quite a thrill.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Katrin: I actually think my favorite tool is the one I use the least, which is indulging in something that is pure fun. Invariably, when I go to a museum and see a gorgeous painting, make time to go to another writer’s reading, hang out with my kids, watch a great show on TV or lounge around reading the New Yorker or People magazine, an idea pops into my head that later helps me with my work. It seems I am always thinking about writing in one way or another, even when I’m not aware of it.

Bonus question: What’s your advice to someone who is thinking of co-writing a book with a subject matter expert?

Katrin: Leave your ego at the door. Always be professional and timely, not obsequious, authoritative but not bossy. Hammer out timing details early on and make sure each person knows exactly what he or she is responsible for. Never send an e-mail when you are frustrated; wait a few hours. Be upfront about everything, including your limitations, interests, talents, ideas and concerns. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong and don’t insist on recognition if you’re right.

Stay focused on your goals. Ideally, bring energy and insight to the project rather than relying solely on the expert. Before you launch into the publicity phase, recognize that the expert may have different goals than you do. This will help avoid disappointment and allow you to enjoy the experience more.

How did you write that, Sarah Park Rankin?

sp-e1428056938680Sarah Park Rankin is a writer and book designer living in Mount Holly, North Carolina. She recently published Common Threads: Gastonia and Gaston County Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, and has worked as a designer, production artist, and photo editor for a number of other books and publications. If you’re interested in writing about local history, you can learn from Sarah’s experience.

  • How to shape your book within a given framework
  • Ways to work with images
  • Which tools can make your project more manageable

threads-e1428056974999HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Common Threads?

Sarah Park: I used to work for the Gaston County chamber of commerce, and when they were approached by the publisher to sponsor a book commemorating their centennial anniversary, they hired me for the project. The publisher works with organizations like chambers of commerce and historical associations across the country to produce books with a “then and now” focus, which generally feature a lot of photography comparing historical buildings and landmarks and their current status.

My book fits that basic framework, however I wanted to do something a little different. Since the sponsoring organization was a hundred years old, I wanted to narrow the focus of the book to the first quarter of the twentieth century. Gastonia was the epitome of a New South town, for good and ill, and those few decades were literally explosive. I could write about it forever. And because the chamber of commerce is primarily concerned with the civic, business, and commercial life of the community, I wanted to focus on that as well.

Luckily for me, the publisher was willing to stray a bit from their standard format. The book is still mainly focused on images, but they underpin the narrative I wanted to present: a portrait of a specific place at a specific time.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Sarah Park: Project is a good word for this. I was as much project manager as writer. This book is actually made up of production calendars and spreadsheets, databases, Dropbox folders, and metadata. So much metadata. One of the things that most excited (and later terrified) me was that every aspect of the book was mine. I did all the research, writing, photo sourcing, as well as the design and production work. Because of the publisher’s business model, I also had to produce about 40 local business profiles for the book, which were enormously complicated to schedule and organize. I spent a lot of time and took much geeky delight in setting up a flexible, powerful system to keep track of everything.

I started with photographs and I started with maps. The first call I made when I got the project was to a friend whose passion and personal mission is to archive, digitize, and restore images of Gaston County. He’s very generous but also very protective of his collection—as I said, he has a very strong sense of mission. I’d worked with him on a few other projects, and he knew my heart was pure, so to speak. I wanted active, visually compelling images with a strong sense of place. From many thousands of images, I built a database of a thousand or so, which ultimately were winnowed to the approximately 150 that made it into the book. I spent about a year researching, organizing, and really, just staring at them.

I also spent a lot of time with maps. Since I had restricted the scope of the book to the early twentieth century (though there is a bit of leeway on either side), I was obsessed with knowing what was where, and how it had changed over time. I wanted to know as precisely as possible where every image was taken, and I wanted to be able to stand in the same spot today.

As is the case in many towns, the mid-twentieth century brought a lot of changes to Gastonia’s downtown that most people regret today. In particular, a significant portion of downtown was demolished to sink train tracks below street level. Today it exists only in maps, photographs, and memory. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which exist for most communities in the country, were my main resource. Their level of detail is astonishing, and luckily for me several sets of Gaston County maps have been digitized at high resolution and made available online by the University of North Carolina. I overlaid them on the present day map in Google Earth, and spent a great deal of time moving back and forth in time. I also spent a lot of time driving and walking around, usually with a camera.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Sarah Park: This book really established how I will organize research for future projects in which text and images are completely integrated. A primary goal is to make sure my notes and work stay attached to the images, and that I can call up what I need without a lot of trouble. Again with the metadata.

I relied on a few reference works, but tried to use as many primary sources as possible—mainly maps, photographs, and city directories. When I wasn’t online, I was in the local history room of the public library.

I am always on the lookout for the PERFECT system, which is a highly efficient way to prevent myself from actually getting any work done.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Sarah Park: I like to write and think in the morning, and research in the afternoon. Writing is hard. I’m always fighting the urge to jump up and do something else, especially, for some reason, when it’s going well. When I’m researching, I need to have very specific goals or I’ll look up and realize I missed Christmas or something. I think I lost a presidential election and maybe a moon landing to Google Earth. I am terrible at promotion, and mainly work at not feeling too embarrassed to even talk about my book.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Sarah Park: My public library has a wonderful local history room. I am usually the only person in there, and through some combination of friendly spirits, light, and dust I’ve never found a better place to work. As a University of North Carolina alumnus, I am proud to say that their online library resources are incredible. So much great stuff has been put online, including all the Sanborn maps and decades worth of city directories. I can’t even say how much I love city directories. They are unbelievably rich and endlessly fascinating sources of information.

I am a big Dropbox user. My publisher was in Alabama and I’m in North Carolina, and everything we did was via shared Dropbox folders. I used Apple’s Aperture to organize and manage my whole collection of images, and Adobe Creative Suite for everything else. I like Scrivener, but more as a management/organization tool than as a writing tool.

Bonus question: What are the special challenges of writing about local history? What’s your best advice for someone who’d like to tackle a similar project about their hometown?

Sarah Park: I believe understanding the “where” of a place will lead you to the “who” and even the “why.”

I believe the biggest requirement in writing local history is to doubt everything you think you already know. Act as though you’re newly arrived and you know nothing about where you’ve just landed. Challenge the mythology. Never assume. Be respectful, but don’t worry so much about upsetting people. Local history can be very personal, which complicates and enriches the story in equal measure.

The most important question I ask as I research and write and even produce a book is, whose voice is not being heard in this story? Whose face is not being seen? In Common Threads, I thought it was crucial to keep everyone in the same story. I was writing about a small Southern town in the early twentieth century, and there were a lot of people whose experiences, whose work, whose presence simply wasn’t included as part of the story. At best it was a side note or an afterthought, at worst it just wasn’t there. The story of a place or a time is the story of the people who were there.

Don’t leave anyone out.


How did you write that, Daniel Pink?

tsihDaniel H. Pink has written five best-selling books and is highly in demand as a speaker on motivation, sales, and other workplace issues. He gave one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time, and last year was the host of a National Geographic television show, Crowd Control. His latest book is To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, which uses social science and fascinating stories to offer a fresh look at the art and science of sales.

I helped Dan with some of the background research for To Sell Is Human, and in the process got a close-up look at the writing habits that have made him so successful. In this interview, you will learn:

  • How to choose the right topic for your book
  • The importance of a book proposal
  • A simple way to organize research and see the big picture

dhpink1-230x300HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for To Sell Is Human?

Dan: It was a mix of self-recognition and frustration. The self-recognition came when I looked at what I’d done during a two-week stretch and realized that much of what I was doing was selling. I wasn’t always selling in the traditional sense (trying to get people to buy my previous books) but in the much broader sense of persuading, influencing, convincing other people — from editors to airline gate agents to business partners to my own family.

The frustration came when I looked at books on selling and persuasion. With the exception of Robert Cialdini’s classic, Influence, most of the books were pretty bad. They were either devoid of serious content or, worse, were largely about how to hoodwink people. So I decided to write a book about sales that I’d want to read myself — indeed, a book about sales for people who might never read a book about sales.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Dan: I began as I always begin — with a book proposal. I wrote a proposal, about 45 pages long, that described what the book was, who it was for, and why it was different than anything else on the market. For me, writing a proposal is always essential. It forces me to think about an idea deeply, to wrestle some of the concepts to the ground, and to assess whether what I’m noodling is really a book — rather than just an article or a vaguely interesting, vaporous idea. That’s hugely important.

A few years ago, I sent my wife and kids to my in-laws for two weeks so I could write a book proposal. Ten days later, I called my wife and said that I had both good news and bad news. The good news was that everybody could come home now. The bad news was that I realized in trying to write a proposal that what I was envisioning wasn’t a viable book. Painful as that was, it’s much better knowing it before committing to write a book than after.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Dan: Think of a tortoise, not a hare. And think of a pretty analogue tortoise at that.

For this last book, there were two main sources of material. One was the interviews and reporting I’d done. The other was a giant collection of academic research. For the interviews, I recorded them digitally, but read through and highlighted each transcript on paper. For the studies, I read nearly all of them on paper, marking them up with a pen. Then I took this massive collection of dead trees and sorted it into old-fashioned file folders, on which I affixed an old-fashioned label made with my trusty labeler. After that, I methodically went through each folder, page by page, harvesting the best material.

To keep an eye on the big picture, I use giant post-it notes on which I scribble key concepts and begin trying out skeletal outlines of the entire book and of individual chapters. It’s a bit laborious, but it’s a way to “see” what I’m thinking.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Dan: It really depends. When I’m working on a book or a long article, I take a pretty workmanlike approach. I get to my office, which is the garage behind my house, by about 9am. And I give myself a word count to hit — say, 500 or 750 words (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for me is always difficult). Then I stay in my office, with occasional breaks, until I reach my word count. Sometimes that happens quickly. Many times it takes a long while. But I don’t check email or answer the phone or do anything else until I hit my number. Do that over and over and over again for many months and you can actually produce a first draft of a book.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Dan: I’m a pretty simple guy. I cover about 90 percent of what I do using Word, Dropbox, and some manila file folders.

Bonus question: How do you decide what to write about next? 

Dan: The most important question is: Is this topic interesting enough to me to live with for many years and perhaps for the rest of my life? That’s a pretty high bar. And it has disqualified many topics.