biography

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.

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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!

 

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How did you write that, Chip Bishop?

COB-Crop-050414-203x300America’s appetite for the Roosevelts is seemingly insatiable. For instance, over 30 million people* watched “The Roosevelts” this fall on PBS, making it Ken Burns’ third most popular series to date. If you’ve caught the Roosevelt craving, then Chip Bishop‘s newest book, Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War, is for you. It’s the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, his secret romance with a member of the Vanderbilt family, and his heroic service in World War I.

A note about the author — who sounds as though he’d be a great subject for a biography, too:

Chip grew up in Woonsocket, R.I. and was graduated from Boston University. His lifetime of achievements includes time as a campaign and administration aide to President Jimmy Carter, Capitol Hill lobbyist, business entrepreneur, local elected official, and disc-jockey during the fabled 1960s British Invasion.

Chip is a member of the board of directors of the Biographers International Organization, a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and the executive committee of its New England chapter.

He serves his community as vice chair of the board of trustees of the Mashpee Massachusetts Public Library. He loves doo-wop music, old German stamps and the Red Sox when they were champions.

Chip lives in Mashpee on Cape Cod with his wife and business partner, Jane Nichols Bishop, and Benjamin and Sabrina, their two black, rescue cats.

He is the great-grandnephew of Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt’s authorized biographer, who was profiled in his first book.

quentinI asked Chip how his latest book came to be. Here are his answers:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Quentin & Flora?

Chip: While I was researching my first book, The Lion and the Journalist, I was struck by the deep heartache that Theodore Roosevelt felt at the wartime death of his youngest son, Quentin. Theodore exalted war but he never expected it to take away his favorite child. When it did, he was overwhelmed not only by grief but guilt. He had sent his four sons into battle after he, himself, was denied the opportunity to go to Europe and fight the oppressors. These events motivated me to dig deeper into the Quentin story. And, at the suggestion of my then-literary agent, I added the “love interest” story of his relationship and secret engagement to Flora Payne Whitney, a Vanderbilt descendant.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Chip: Of course, I researched secondary sources among the many Theodore Roosevelt books and several others written about Flora’s family. Then I discovered that the T.R. Collection at Harvard University held about 125 letters that Quentin and Flora had exchanged during their courtship. The letters opened up the intimate world of Quentin and Flora and gave me the rich texture of their brief time together. Interviews were virtually impossible since all of the principal characters of the era had died. But I was fortunate to obtain the support of Flora’s daughter who offered great insight, photos and previously unseen documents.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Chip: The floor of my study was littered with three-ring binders and spiral notebooks where I keep excerpts of the letters and many hand-written notes, organized by subject and potential chapters. I code my resources in a way that I can pull together every bit of information by topic when it is time to draft the manuscript on my laptop. It works very well for me, despite the mess.

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

Chip: I’m a morning person, so you are likely to find me at my desk as early as 4:30 or 5 a.m. when the house is quiet and everyone else (including two black rescue cats) is asleep. I find that my mind is fresh after a good night’s sleep and, if I’m lucky, the words will flow from my fingers. I read the first draft of a chapter (the worst draft, I call it) to my wife, Jane, over breakfast. She is my best critic, and I usually accept her suggestions. Later in the day, I return to the keyboard and update the text with a fresh perspective. My final manuscripts are the result of heavy editing, four or five times over.

I am a marketer by profession, so I am on the road locally every week, reading from Quentin and Flora to audiences that will have me.

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

Chip: Theodore Roosevelt and his family do not lack for informational resources. The finest, by far, are the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library and the online files of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. I have spent hours at Harvard reviewing original manuscripts and letters, and an equal amount of time online with the Center’s collection. I admit that I would be at a loss without Dictionary.com and my online thesaurus.

Bonus question: Quentin & Flora is painted with a rainbow of feelings — joy, sorrow, love, fear, warmth, and humor. How did you go about creating an emotional portrait of your subjects?

Chip: I admit to getting too close to my subjects as I wrote. At times, I got choked up while reading the manuscript out loud to Jane. I righted myself during the final editing, worked hard to restore perspective, and delivered to my readers what I felt was a fervent but impartial narrative. It is Quentin and Flora’s tale, of course, but fortunately for all, Theodore Roosevelt shines like the sun in the backstory.

 

*Just to put that in perspective, 2014’s most popular show, Big Bang Theory, draws about 23 million viewers per episode.

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How did you write that, Adam Parfrey?

As soon as I heard about Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes, I knew I had to get my hands on this book. Big-eye portraits were everywhere when I was a kid — hanging in friends’ homes, advertised in magazines, and peering down from the walls of doctor’s offices, giving them a “sick children welcome here” vibe.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an example:MargaretKeane-225x300

(Even the kitten has big eyes!)

Citizen Keane is a great read for art historians, mid-century nostalgia buffs, and fans of the Big Con. This book blows the whole big-eye phenomenon sky-high. I reached out to Citizen Keane’s publisher and co-author, Adam Parfrey, for the backstory on how this book came to be. Here’s his reply:

Adam: Citizen Keane was originally published as a cover story I wrote for The San Diego Reader in 1991.

How I got involved with that weekly paper is a story in itself. A couple staffers — one a short Jewish guy, and the other a tall blonde girl — came up from San Diego to visit me one afternoon. I had never met them before, but apparently they enjoyed books I had published through Feral House. We spoke throughout the evening but they were apparently too drunk to drive home, so I invited them to crash at my rented East Hollywood bungalow that I was in the middle of cleaning up and varnishing years-old layers of cat piss. I woke the next morning with the blonde in my bed, which confused me as I assumed she was the short guy’s girlfriend. In any case, they recommended me to publisher Jim Holman.

citizen.keane_I wasn’t aware that Holman was a high-level Catholic who often visited the Vatican and contributed to anti-gay and anti-abortion movements in California. He nevertheless hired me to write features and a column for the paper called “HelL.A.,” my weekly disquisition on weird L.A. individuals and institutions.

When I was underway writing a feature about a strange cult, I ran into notices on telephone poles about a self-published paperback by Walter Keane called “The World of Keane.” I phoned the number on the poster and reached Keane directly, and made plans to interview him for an article. I knew of the man and his supposed art, and owned a two volume hardcover set. One of Walter Keane’s work, of the big eye kids, and the other was about Margaret’s work, mostly of Modigliani-style young women. Walter has a strange way about him, asking me intimate questions about my life and my sexual preferences. I started to wonder what made San Diegans so damn strange.

The more I researched the Keane article, obtaining transcripts of his legal troubles, the story became odd as hell, truly a great potential article. Both Walter and Margaret had been launching lawsuits for over a decade regarding the true painter of the big eye kids. The final lawsuit had just finished in Margaret’s favor by the time I interviewed them. Walter was bitter about the whole thing, and made sure to tell me creepy sex-oriented accusations about Margaret that were no doubt total lies. Margaret was a lovely and agreeable woman who devoted her life to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. By mail she sent me a few signed JW books, and its art seemed Keane-like to me, although she had nothing to do with them. After the nine or ten thousand word Reader article was published, Walter Keane wrote a letter to the editor accusing me of being paid off a million dollars by the Witnesses.

The article got quite a reaction at the time. Hip coffee shops and nightclubs started to put up Keane paintings, and a new lowbrow art magazine, Juxtapoz, reprinted it, and it later appeared in my 1994 book collection called Cult Rapture.  Margaret got an exhibition at an art museum in Laguna Beach. A couple years ago I heard that the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the ones behind the Ed Wood movie that properly paid credit to the Feral House book, were doing a new film with Tim Burton again, this time about the Keanes.  What do I think of this? I won’t reveal this in print, but at least I could publish a revised, enlarged and illustrated version prior to the film’s release. So happened the book Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes. Author Cletus Nelson assisted me with its research.

I’ve got a busy schedule acquiring, editing and publishing a number of books through the Feral House and Process Media imprints. It’s really a full-time occupation.  The Keane story and other articles or books I’ve written take quite a bit of focus and time…

A big discovery about writing stories is that one should try and call people you’re interested in reporting about. You might get a lot. For example, I found in the phone book a listing for former Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty. A visit to his house yielded three great columns.

How did you write that, Adam Henig?

Author-Photo-Adam-Henig-e1412788590841For his first book, Adam Henig set an audacious goal: self-publishing a biography of the creator of one of the biggest publishing phenomenons of the 20th century. Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey is the story of what Roots meant to the country — and to its author.

In this interview, you’ll learn how to:

  • Focus your topic
  • Keep up with self-publishing trends
  • Creatively test-drive a cover design


adam.henig_HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey?

Adam: I’ve always been fascinated with African American culture—books, film, music and politics. Five years ago, I was home all weekend, watching the Roots mini-series and when it ended, I was curious to find out what had happened to its author, Alex Haley. So, I searched his name on Google and was surprised and disappointed that there hadn’t been a biography written about him. At the time, I was an unpublished writer looking for a subject and as I began sifting through articles about Haley, I realized this was what I was looking for—an untold story of an American writer who reached the highest echelons of literary fame only to see it fade away.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Adam: Google News is a treasure trove of information for biographers. There were hundreds of articles I was able to easily access and document. From there I turned to books, periodicals, scoured a local university library for hard-to-find articles (from such publications as Saturday Evening Post and Coronet—both of which Haley had written for) and eventually made trips to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (Special Collections) and Harlem, New York, home to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Initially, I was planning to write a full-length biography, but after I completed my research, I realized that this was too great an undertaking given my limited schedule. Consequently, I decided to focus on the most tumultuous portion of Haley’s life—the period following the publication of Roots.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Adam: Every document I used I typed into a Microsoft Word file. Not only do I include my notes but the source’s title, author, copyright date, and publisher. Keep in mind, the sources are not in any particular order. My objective is simply to transfer the information to my computer. Once I’m done with my research, I outline the narrative (in chronological order). Then I go through all those files that include my notes and sources and begin copying and pasting them in each of the chapter headings. For example, any material I had on Haley about his years in the Coast Guard were placed in either USCG 1939-1949 or USCG 1950-1959. Or, if it had to do with the end of his life, I placed it in “Final Years.” It’s a simple process that, surprisingly, took me a while to perfect.

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

Adam: I wish I had a schedule that could be entirely devoted to writing and research, but that does not exist for me (at this point). I’m not a full time writer. I have a full time job that has nothing to with publishing. Married with two little boys, any time I can allocate to writing or conducting research is limited. It is usually done at night, after the boys go to bed. I suppose the one advantage I have is that I can’t afford to get “writer’s block.” When I am working on book-related business, I’m usually doing one of the following: typing up notes from a source, working on a new blog post for my website, or catching up on the latest articles about the ever-changing publishing industry.

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

Adam: I’m not only a writer and a researcher but I am a publisher too. It’s not enough to keep abreast of my subjects that I’m writing about, but I need to know what are the latest trends in self-publishing because it is in a constant state of change (thanks to Amazon). The way I am able to stay informed is through podcasts and blog posts—for me, it’s the equivalent of Publisher’s Weekly. There are three podcasts that I listen to regularly—The Creative Penn, The Self Publishing Podcast, and the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast. And as for blogs, WiseInk, David Gaughran, and D.G. Kaye are my favorites.

Bonus question: You found a unique way to choose the cover design for Alex Haley’s Roots. Tell us about that process.

Adam: Beside the fact that the royalty split is 70/30 in favor of the author, the best part about being a self-published author is selecting your book cover. Since I’ve published my book in January, I’ve used two different covers. For the first one, I hired a professional designer who was recommended by my editor. The designer charged his standard fee for a single design. If I wanted another design, there would be an additional fee.

Following publication of Alex Haley’s Roots, I began having second thoughts on the cover. I wanted one that was more eye-catching. I began looking into other options. One day, while I was listening to The Self-Publishing Podcast, I had an epiphany. The podcast is sponsored by 99 Designs, a San Francisco-based web company that provides a marketplace for graphic designers to showcase their work based on a business’s needs.  The designers compete for the job (paid for by a business or an individual), and, whichever design is selected by the person(s) paying for the service, the winning artist receives two-thirds of the fee. 99 Designs takes the other third. The best part about working with 99 Designs is that there is no obligation if you don’t like any of the designs. You’ll receive a full refund. Actually, I’m paying the same amount for scores of designs instead of just one. In fact, I received nearly 200 submissions.

Although the decision in the end was mine, I conducted a poll among my blog readers to see which design they preferred. I’m glad I did because I ended up choosing the design that received the highest rating, different than the one I had initially favored.

5 Links for Nonfiction Authors

creativesHere are five quick links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.

Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emcculloughjoin my Diigo group, or contact me here

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

How did you write that, Marc Leepson?

leepson-173x300Like many children, I learned the story of Francis Scott Key and “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school, so I was surprised to learn from author Marc Leepson that there had not been a new biography of Key since the 1930s. But this week the Key situation has has been remedied with the publication of Marc’s newest book, What So Proudly We Hailed, on June 24.

In this interview, Marc reveals

  • How he maps out a research plan
  • Where he found free, keyword-searchable books for his research
  • A surprising source for old newspaper articles


whatsoproudlywehailedHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for 
What So Proudly We Hailed?

Marc: It was in 2011 after I’d finished my previous book, Lafayette: Idealist General, a concise biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. My agent and I were going over ideas for my next book. I was thinking about 2014 and 1914, that portentous year when World War I started. I did a lot of searching around, but couldn’t come up with anything suitable.

Then I thought about 1814. “The Star-Spangled Banner” immediately came to mind. And I remembered that when I was doing the research for my book Flag: An American Biography in 2003 and 2004 I couldn’t find a current biography of Francis Scott Key. The most recent one had been published in 1937.

So I checked and, sure enough, that was still the case. I thought it was time for a new one, convinced my agent, and wrote a proposal. An editor at Palgrave (which had published my Lafayette bio) liked it and offered me a contract.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Marc: The way I always do. I read the best secondary sources, including the two bios of Key published in the 1930s. Among other things, that provides a road map to the primary sources, which is what I concentrate on after that: letters, journal entries, diaries, newspaper articles of the time, memoirs, official documents.

I also contacted historians I know who are more familiar with the time period—the Early Republic—than I was and asked their advice.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Marc: I find that in general one thing leads to another. You read and read and you see references to more materials that you need to find and read. I try also to go to the libraries and archives early on and gather as much material as I can and then go over that later back in my office. That also often leads to more sources to find.

In addition to Word files, I usually print out most of the material and organize that in physical file folders which I keep on my desk.

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

Marc: I am an early riser. First thing, I write in my journal and then exercise, have breakfast and get to my desk at around 9:00 or 9:30, somewhere in there. I work on whatever tasks I need to do.

I typically start the day with a handful of things to do. As soon as I hit my desk, the list begins to grow. I break for lunch at around 1:00 or 1:30. I used to eat at my desk. No more. I need to get out of the office—if only into the kitchen—to give my brain a rest.

I usually work till around 6:00-6:30. I have an early dinner most nights. And I often go back to work for an hour or two after dinner. I work seven days a week, but usually only for a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. However, when I’m in full-time writing mode, I have been know to work nearly all day on the weekends—and some nights, too.

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

Marc: Google Books has been amazingly helpful to me for my last three books. I have found more than a few memoirs that I hadn’t even known existed on Google Books. And there they were, right on my desk top, searchable and printable. The same is true with books containing official records—as well as good secondary sources. I can’t even begin to calculate how much time that has saved.

I made great use of ancestry.com and genealogybank.com for the Francis Scott Key bio. I used them mainly for the wide number of newspapers they have going back to the 18th century. They are searchable by word, and you can narrow your searches to states, cities, and individual newspapers—along with date ranges. I found many, many contemporary newspaper accounts of Key’s activities I hadn’t run into in any secondary source. Invaluable stuff. Plus, they also have birth and death certificates, as well as Census materials.

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Friday Nonfiction Five

special fiveFive quick links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.  Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emccullough or contact me here

Last week I mentioned one of my favorite tools, Evernote. Nina Amir has the scoop on my other favorite tool, Scrivener.

When I’m not writing, I love to read about writing. Here’s a list of books on writing mechanics from Elizabeth Covart.

Carl Rollyson reviews The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley.

Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed newsletter focuses on tools for writers.

The Clovers Project seeks to match up student, emerging, and established writers for mutual support. They are currently taking applications through August 15. (HT: Monique Brouillette)

How did you write that, Beverly Gray?

Beverly Gray describes herself as “movie-mad.” In the 1970s her madness led her to Hollywood, where she worked closely with legendary B-movie director Roger Corman. He would become the subject of her first biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers

In this interview, Beverly talks about:

  • How she chose her subject (or did he chose her?).
  • Her low-tech organizational methods.
  • How her relationship with her subject continues to evolve.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Roger Corman?

Beverly GrayBeverly: My situation was not a conventional one. B-movie legend Roger Corman was my boss both at New World Pictures (1973-1975) and later at Concorde New-Horizons (1986-1994). As Roger’s story editor, I was deeply involved in the making of 170 low-budget features, until the day in 1994 when I unexpectedly discovered I was out of a job. (It seems Roger had decided to hand my position to a former employee who was talented, needy, and willing to work for much less than what I was being paid.)

Desperate for a new source of income, I began teaching screenwriting through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. That gig entitled me to take the occasional UCLA Extension course, free of charge. So I enrolled in a class called “Writing the Non-Fictional Book Proposal.”

At the outset, I had no idea what I wanted to write. But on the first evening the instructor impressed upon us the fact that in order to break into the publishing industry, it was essential to choose a topic that no one else could handle quite as well. For me it was a lightbulb moment. I went home and wrote, “The first time I ever saw Roger Corman,” because I had a really telling anecdote about my job interview back in 1973. Then I wrote “The last time I ever saw Roger Corman,” and explained why I was no longer on the Corman payroll. Those two stories were featured in my book proposal, and they ultimately kicked off the introduction to my published Corman biography.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Beverly: Of course I began with my own recollections, as well as memorabilia I’d collected over the years. And I did some important research in the Roger Corman files at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while also reading every book that had previously been published about Roger.

But most essential to the success of my biography was the series of interviews I conducted with Corman alumni, many of whom had been my colleagues and friends over the years. I remember that actor Dick Miller was one of the very first I approached. Like so many others, Dick spoke to me at length, going into lively detail about both the admiration and the resentment he felt toward this B-movie giant.

By the time I completed the book, I had traded Roger stories with well over a hundred former Cormanites from every phase of his career. Biggest coup? Maybe the tracking down of Charles B. Griffith, the eccentric but brilliant writer of such signature Corman films as Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood. I found Chuck in Australia, and a long email correspondence ensued. I should add that I’ve somehow never stopped researching Roger Corman, and my collection of interview files continues to grow.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Beverly: For the purposes of this book, I invented an elaborate but low-tech system involving large, colorful index cards. Each chronological phase of Roger’s career was assigned its own color. For example, I chose the color yellow to represent Roger’s New World Pictures era. Using my stack of yellow cards, I gave each one a heading, like Money, or Family, or Death Race 2000. Then, moving methodically through the printouts of all my transcribed interviews and other materials, I pulled quotes and details that fit the topic and notated them on the appropriate card. Eventually I ordered my cards in sequence, and that’s when I began to write.

It was a long slow process, made even more difficult on the day that the ceiling above my dining room table started leaking (because of a poorly installed second-floor shower), leaving many of my cards sopping wet.

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

Beverly: I never have typical days! I’m a wife and mother, and am quite used to being pulled in many directions, sometimes needing to set my professional life aside completely in order to deal with family obligations. It’s not the most efficient way to work, but I must say that I never get bored.

And the Corman project, which had a short deadline, was such a labor of love that I found myself being remarkably productive. During the writing process I remember going to bed late and rousing early, always knowing exactly where I would pick up the narrative thread when I sat down at the keyboard. Despite all the pressure, I slept beautifully and woke up happy. Writing has never been quite as exciting for me since, though I’ve regained some of that joy in the last few years by way of my Beverly in Movieland blog, which covers movies, movie-making, and growing up Hollywood-adjacent.

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

Beverly: It’s hard to imagine, but when I wrote the first edition of the Corman book a lot of the tools we now take for granted didn’t exist. My tape recorder was hardly high-tech, and I had no special equipment for transcribing interviews. The invaluable Internet Movie Database was available but full of errors, and neither Wikipedia nor YouTube had yet made an appearance. Of course today I constantly use all three of these sites.

I also use a number of film archives, of which the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California, is by far the most comprehensive. It’s also a delightful place in which to work.

Bonus question: Have you found any unique challenges in writing about Hollywood celebrities?

Beverly: Great question! Hollywood celebrities, whom I’ve interviewed for all sorts of writing projects, are very good at being self-protective. They are often surrounded by handlers, and they like to use their clout to put their own spin on a writer’s findings.

Roger Corman, in particular, did his very best to take control of my work, even after I told him that one of the key things he’d taught me over the years was the value of artistic independence. Now, even though my book has been hailed by critics and Cormanites alike, he’s still finding subtle ways to show me his displeasure, by (for instance) having me edited out of commentary tracks that are intended to accompany Corman video collections. I provide a few more details of his low-key vendetta against me in the new 3rdedition of Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. It’s quite an eye-opening tale.

How did you write that, Charles Shields?

Charles Shields is the author of a number of nonfiction books, including biographies of two notoriously elusive literary figures: Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, and And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. How does a writer write about writers? Let’s ask him:

HDYWT: How do you come up with the idea for a new book?

Charles: I rarely hear stories that strike me as an idea for a book. I suppose that’s why I don’t write fiction. I don’t hear anecdotes or see incidents that could be spun out into a novel. Books, articles and news events are my resources for nonfiction.

Even so, I seriously pursue only a fraction of the possibilities I run across. Here’s an example: the other day I heard of someone with the last name “Bowditch.” That reminded me of Nathaniel Bowditch, the 18th century American mathematician regarded as the founder of modern ocean navigation. I read a few articles about him online, but then I ran up against what usually kills an idea: Who would want to read about Bowditch? I’m not a scholar; I’m a writer of popular nonfiction, and if an idea doesn’t have wide appeal, I drop it. (A professor of mine in graduate school encouraged me to get a PhD in African history. But when I realized that scholarship means publishing monographs in runs of a few hundred, I applied to be a high school teacher and left campus. Never looked back. I want to see my books in bookstores.)

Charles ShieldsIf an idea clears the hurdle of “Who will read it?” then the next question is, “Will the subject hold my interest for a few years?” And that’s why I keep coming back to literary biography. I’ve been interested in the lives of authors since I began reading biographies in college — on my own, incidentally, they were never assigned. And so, the ideas that cross the finish line are always about authors. And even then, some get disqualified because I’ve lucked into writing two books on authors who never had full-length biographies before. If an author already has a biography, I’m less interested. Therefore, as I start work on my third literary biography — Cormac McCarthy — he wins because he fits all the criteria: broad appeal, difficult and challenging for me, never been done before.

HDYWT: How do you get started on a project?

Charles: First, I read all the things about my subject that are easy to find, always keeping in mind that these probably aren’t reliable. After I’ve scooped up all the names, dates, and so on in a person’s life that are commonly known, then I have to start excavating: Has anyone my search turned up donated papers to a library? Where? Are there any contemporary accounts such as oral histories, newspaper articles, diaries? I make lists of names I come across — editors, children, classmates: Are they still living or dead? My unsorted inventory gets bigger.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Charles: One desktop folder splinters into dozens, like when Mickey Mouse chopped up the enchanted broom and it turned into an army of them. The very first folder for instance might be “Harper Lee Biography”; then inside, as I find out more information, folders begin to multiply: family, childhood, schools, church, early writing, and the all-important one, “Chronology.” The document inside the Chronology folder grows longer and longer as years break down into seasons, and months — maybe even days.

From the files in these folders I build an outline.

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

Charles: Well, I used to be more disciplined. When I started writing full-time in 1997, I dressed as if I were going to work in an office every day: dress shirt, tie, trousers. And I was at my desk by 7 am (my wife was still commuting then and left the house at that time). I took an hour for lunch downstairs and worked until 5 pm. But I don’t have the stamina anymore I did then. I drink coffee in the mornings and look out the window; I talk to my wife; I mosey upstairs when I’m good and ready.

When I’m deep into a project, I work on whatever my energy is in the mood for that day: maybe it’s interviewing some people, or outlining, or doing more research. Sometimes I can write for five or six days at a stretch. But the point is to keep moving the project forward by working on some aspect of it. The variety of switching from task to task keeps me interested.

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

Charles: I love online finding aids in library collections. The lists of correspondence, materials, and photographs are like a raw index of the book I’m working on. They’re treasure maps to me.

Bonus question: What do you wish someone could have told you before you started this project?

Charles: I always wonder at the beginning whether I’m the right person to write this biography. Even finding out everything there is to find out about a person doesn’t guarantee that a book will be well-received. Interpretation, insights, pacing — and most important of all: empathy with the person — are all places where I might shine or stumble. So I have to answer my own question in the affirmative: Yes, I am the right person to write this book. No one else knows except me until it’s finished.