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How did you write that, Kevin Birmingham?

birmingham-e1426597952473What better subject for St. Patrick’s Day than that glorious work of Irish literature, Ulysses? Kevin Birmingham‘s new book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for Jame Joyce’s Ulysses, tells the fascinating story of the censorship battles that raged on both sides of the Atlantic over Joyce’s masterwork. Along the way, he fills the reader in on the origins of modernism, the women’s movement, Joyce’s passion and profligacy, and the cultural fallout from World War I.

Kevin agreed to answer a few questions about his writing process for How Did You Write That

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Most Dangerous Book?

battleKevin: When I was in grad school, my first dissertation idea (there were many) involved the history of literary obscenity and censorship in the United States. I stepped aside from that project and, years later (while in the final throes of my actual dissertation) I returned to the topic and realized that no one had written the full story surrounding Ulysses, and it was so fascinating. There’s quite a lot of archival material about the case itself and the people surrounding it, so I knew it could be a book. It may have taken that years-long break for me to see the subject in a new light.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Kevin: I sifted through the published material, put together a basic outline of events and started writing them out as vignettes. It got more complicated as time went on, but I wanted to start telling the story to help get the feel of it.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Kevin: I organized it mostly around people. I had big folders for “Sylvia Beach” and “John Quinn,” and I eventually turned them into notes compiled in various Word documents. I had well over a thousand single-spaced pages of condensed notes, and that was the raw material for the book.

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

Kevin: I’m best with a routine and no internet access. So I head to a cafe where I’d have to pay an absurd amount to get online. I sit in the same seat, order the same breakfast and start revising the last few paragraphs I wrote before plunging ahead. I listen to music without lyrics or in a language I don’t understand. After three or four hours, I have lunch. Then I press ahead for another couple of hours. If it’s a busy day I’ll put in three more hours at another cafe. It sounds tedious even to write about the routine, but it works for me.

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

Kevin: I’ve recently started using OCR software called Abbyy Finereader Pro. I scan books, and the software will turn it into a searchable pdf or a Word document far more accurately than other programs I’ve seen. So I now have a fully searchable copy of, say, the complete letters of a certain author, and instead of transcribing them into a Word document, I can simply cut and paste the information I need.

Bonus question: The voice of The Most Dangerous Book is lively and literary. What is your advice for avoiding a dry, academic voice when writing scholarly nonfiction?

Kevin: Imagine your audience—and not in some vague, idealized way. Imagine particular people, people who are intelligent and curious but who don’t know much about your subject. Then imagine that you’re telling them everything you’re writing. Do you have their interest or not? Are they bored or confused or anxious? Are they inspired? Do they want to hear more? The paradox of writing is that it’s a solitary task with a deeply communal purpose. You’re by yourself when you’re writing, but you should never feel alone.

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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, Andrew Kaufman?

Kaufman-Author-Photo-2-199x300Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Modern Times begins with An Invitation to the Reader in which author Andrew Kaufman admits, “We’ve had our ups and downs, Tolstoy and I, our disagreements, even a couple of separations.” Sounds like a normal relationship…with an author who’s been dead for over 100 years?

Andrew’s love affair with War and Peace began when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College. In it he found “a strange, hopeful vision of the world as a place that does, in the end, make a kind of sense.” Twenty-five years later, he’s written a book that he hopes will prompt new readers to take up the quest.

Reading about Andrew’s long-term relationship with War and Peace, I was reminded of something John McPhee said about his own writing: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety per cent.” I bet a lot of nonfiction writers could say the same. Make your own list — the topic for your next book might be on it.

Before we hear from Andrew about his writing process, a note: If you’re in the Charlottesville, Virginia area this winter, check out Andrew’s presentation at WriterHouse on December 7: “Descending from the Tower: From Academic to Popular Writing.”

In this interview you will learn:

  • How to find freedom in structure
  • About thematic organization
  • How incorporate a daily journal into your writing process


GWAPAC-Book-Cover-Final-e1413413853893HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Give War and Peace a Chance?

Andrew: War and Peace had been roaming in and out of my life for about twenty-five years—in almost a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of way. Each time I encountered the novel, it was a different book, evoking whatever was most alive inside me at that point. I happened to be rereading the novel in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis that was turning many peoples’ lives upside down—mine included. War and Peace became a new book yet again. I was able to clearly glimpse something I’d only vaguely understood in my previous readings: that whatever else this novel is, it’s a book about people trying to find their footing in an unstable, ever-changing world. How do you live in such times? Where do you find meaning and even joy in a troubled world? In 2008 these became deeply personal questions to me, and I sensed that many other people were—and are—struggling with them as well. I came to recognize War and Peace as the book for our times.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Andrew: Fortunately, much of the research had already been accomplished, since I’d spent many years thinking and writing about Tolstoy. My main tasks were to decide how to structure the book, and what not to include. After a lot of sifting, trial and error, I concluded that, since my focus was to be on Tolstoy’s wisdom, I would organize the book thematically, with each of the twelve chapters focusing on a single theme: love, happiness, family, death, perseverance, etc. There are twelve themes in all.

From that point on the thematic focus was primary, but then, after several months into the writing, I realized that I also wanted my book to roughly follow the plot of War and Peace itself. So I did a lot of rejiggering, changed the chapter order and some of the examples used in each chapter. That was quite a complicated process. Finally, it was important to me to interweave stories from the novel with stories from Tolstoy’s life and my own twenty-five year journey with Tolstoy. I had to decide which stories would be most appropriate in which chapters.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Andrew: This happens organically as I become clearer and clearer about what I’m trying to say in the book, and what I want the reader experience to be like. For example, once I settled on the thematic focus of Give War and Peace a Chance, I then went through War and Peace for about the fifteenth time and selected the passages that I thought would best illustrate Tolstoy’s wisdom on each of the twelve themes I discuss in my book. Perhaps the biggest organizational challenge was that there were four things happening simultaneously in my book: the thematic discussion, a digest of the plot of War and Peace, stories from Tolstoy’s life, and stories from my life. I first had to get clear on how I was going to prioritize each of these different layers–I prioritized them in the order listed here—and then I fit the examples and the stories into their appropriate place in the scaffolding.

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

Andrew: I try to carve out my mornings for writing, and my afternoons for business. I drop my son off at school, head over the Whole Foods, where I buy my iced tea and my oatmeal drenched in nuts and berries, and sit at my favorite table in the restaurant. I spend twenty minutes warming up by writing in my journal, and then I open my laptop and type away. I try to turn off my phone and ignore any incoming email notices. At about noon I head back to my other office and make calls, send emails, etc. During the research phase of writing, I’ll spend a few hours in the afternoon reading, but I always try to write something every day. When I teach, this schedule gets much messier, which is why I try to keep my teaching all on the same day. Structure and routine is critical for me as a writer. When I have that structure, I can then play and experiment creatively. A lack of disciplined routine actually inhibits rather than enhances my creative freedom.

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

Andrew: My daily journal has been a staple of my writing life. I got the idea from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and have religiously kept a journal for the past six years. I have almost two full shelves in my office filled with these journals. I find it is a wonderful way to get me warmed up, to tune into to what I’m feeling, and to write through those critical voices chattering away in my head. Also, whenever I read an article or a book and am not sure about the meaning of a word, I love looking it up in the dictionary. I make sure to keep up on contemporary events through daily news articles so I know what people are thinking and talking about. I always keep a good book at my bedside for late evening reading. Rarely will that book have anything directly to do with my current writing project. It’s just a way to stimulate my thinking in new directions and invite my subconscious to go to work while I sleep.

Bonus question: Did you incorporate any of Tolstoy’s writing habits into your own process?

Andrew: Yes. I married a good woman who loves me, supports me in my often tortuous writing process, and puts up with my eccentricities. When somebody gives me my own thousand-acre estate with 300 serfs and I no longer have to work for a living, then I’ll probably incorporate a few more of Tolstoy’s habits.

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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.

How did you write that, Dr. Laurence Steinberg?

laurence-steinberg-249x300You may have heard that publishers want nonfiction authors to have a platform. What is a platform? Well, it’s a confusing concept. (Jane Friedman has one of the best explanations I’ve seen here.) In a nutshell, your platform is your means of reaching readers. Publishers like to know there’s an audience of readers out there who are predisposed to buy what you’ve written.

One proven author platform is professional expertise. If you are a recognized expert in your field, you have the influence and authority publishers — and readers — want to see in an author.

Of course, that means you have to find to time to build up professional experience and write books. Dr. Laurence Steinberg — a Temple University professor of psychology, member of numerous professional organizations, and the author of hundreds of studies and articles for professionals, parents, and the general public — has made the combination work. His latest book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, draws on and extends his extensive study of teens and young adults.
age.of_.opp_In this interview you’ll learn:

  • The power of sharing ideas with your network
  • Why you don’t have to know everything about your subject before you start
  • Ways to schedule your time for maximum productivity

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Age of Opportunity?

Laurence: The idea evolved over time. Originally, I planned on writing a book about the elongation of adolescence as a stage of life – in fact, the working title of the book was The Longest Decade. But as I wrote, and through conversations with my agent, Jim Levine, and my editor, Eamon Dolan, I came to see that this was probably not the main point I wanted to build the book around. The fact that adolescence is longer than ever is interesting, but the fact that it is a time of incredible brain “plasticity,” or malleability, is much more exciting, and has many more implications for parents, schools, and society. Unlike the previous books I had written, the narrative of Age of Opportunity changed a lot as I wrote it.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Laurence: I think my work on the project really began when I started searching for a new literary agent. I was emailing with the terrific journalist and author, Jennifer Senior (All Joy and No Fun), who had interviewed me for a piece she was writing about adolescence. I told her what I was thinking about and she encouraged me to develop it into a book proposal. I began emailing agents I was interested in working with, which forced me to put into words the ideas that were just only beginning to gel. I’m sure that if I were to go back to those initial emails, I’d see a very different idea for a book than what I ultimately wrote. Once I decided to sign with Jim (Levine) and started writing a proposal to take to different publishers, he and I began talking and emailing about the book and, as we did, it became clear that the focus of the book should be the fact that adolescence is the new “zero-to-three.” I give Jim credit for that. The next step was developing a final proposal, which is when the outline of the book really took form, although even that changed as I began working with Eamon (Dolan).

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

I’m pretty obsessive in this regard. I write detailed outlines for each chapter and then create folders on my computer that correspond to different sections. Because the book covers a lot of topics I’ve been studying for some time, I knew where to go for the latest research findings. As a professor at a major research university, I automatically have online access to virtually every academic journal that is published. So it was fairly easy for me to find the most important articles published on each topic, download them, and file them on my computer. As I read, I’d discover new leads and follow them up by tracking down articles that had been referenced. Because I’m trained as a scientist, I know how to go through a scientific publication fairly quickly and find the information I need. If I didn’t understand something (some of the brain science was very technical, and I’m not a neuroscientist by training), I’d email the author with questions or ask one of my colleagues. People were amazingly generous with their time. I suppose it helps to be a member of the same “club.”

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

Laurence: A typical day of research in connection with writing Age of Opportunity involved a lot of internet “foraging.” I’d come across an interesting paper that raised a point I hadn’t considered, then I’d start searching for more information on the topic. I’d keep at it until I felt that I had gotten a handle on it. I learned so much while working on this book. For example, in one part of the book I needed to explain why the age of puberty had continued to drop, so I started poking around the endocrinology literature. Then I serendipitously discovered a couple of papers from a group of scientists in France showing that kids who live near the equator go through puberty earlier than those who live closer to the poles, and that this had something to do with exposure to light. This then led me into the literature on brain chemistry and how exposure to light affects melatonin production, which in turn affects the production of a substance called “kisspeptin,” which triggers the onset of puberty. One of the factoids I discovered is that kisspeptin got its name because it was discovered in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where chocolate “kisses” are manufactured. So those research days were a lot of fun, and I never knew where the foraging would take me.

I keep a very disciplined schedule when I am actually writing. I tend to do my best work in the morning, so I’m usually at my desk by 7. I always begin by rereading and editing the chapter I’m working on at the time. I start at the beginning of the chapter, no matter how far along I had gotten the previous day, and edit the material again. Then I start writing new material where the old stuff left off. I force myself to write at least 1,000 words of new material a day. Writers have different styles – some are slow and methodical, and their first drafts are very similar to their final drafts. That’s not me. I write very quickly and then do a lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. I also try to get up and walk around my study a bit every hour or so. When I’ve hit the wall (as long as I have 1,000 new words), I stop and head to the gym. When I get back, it’s usually cocktail hour.

Days when I’m promoting the book vary a lot, so it is hard to generalize. Usually I’ll have a series of phone interviews for live or taped radio, or for podcasts, which have been arranged by my publisher. During the intense period following the book’s launch, I travelled around the country doing a combination of media interviews (some in person, others by phone from my hotel room) and evening lectures.

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

Laurence: As I mentioned earlier, the most important tool for me is unlimited online access to scientific journals through my university’s library. My favorite writing tool is actually The New Yorker. I love the rhythm of their good nonfiction pieces, and I try to get that rhythm into my head, almost like a piece of music. It actually doesn’t matter what the topic is — in fact, I try not to read things on topics that are very close to what I’m working on. But during times when I’m writing, I read a lot of nonfiction from that magazine. I also like to read and reread Phillip Lopate’s great essay, “Waiting for the Book to Come Out” during the time between submitting the manuscript and publication.  It helps keep expectations realistic.

Bonus question: You have studied and written extensively about adolescence for forty years. What keeps this subject fresh for you?

Laurence: I find it endlessly fascinating, and there is always new research being published, so there are always new things to think about. Because I still am actively teaching and doing research — and have a textbook that I have to revise and update every three years — I need to stay on top of things. My problem is never a shortage of things that are interesting. It’s that there is always too much to read, and too little time.

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5 Links for Nonfiction Authors – August 6, 2014

35thEditionCover-227x300It’s been a slow month for interviews, I know. But in the meantime, here are five more 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

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5 Links for Nonfiction Writers – July 24, 2014

Five more 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

How did you write that, Kathryn Joyce?

Kathryn-Joyce-250x300Kathryn Joyce’s writing and reporting bring light to issues that might at first glance seem highly personal — religion, adoption, abortion, gender roles — but upon examination turn out to have important implications for national policy. Her latest book, The Child Catchers, is a clear-eyed, highly informative, and compassionate investigation of adoption in the US and abroad.

Kathryn took time out from pressing deadlines to answer our five questions (plus bonus). In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • How a magazine article can generate a book project.
  • How to recognize themes in your research.
  • How online communities can enrich your reporting.

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

child.catchersKathryn: I came to this book in two ways. In part, The Child Catchers evolved out of work on my first book, Quiverfull, which was about a conservative Christian movement that advocates forgoing contraception to have as many children as God gives a family. While I was reporting that book, I started noticing that these already-large families were beginning to adopt as well, for reasons related to their faith. That gave me a first glimpse into one tiny corner of the Christian adoption movement, which I would come to realize was much larger and far more mainstream than just this relatively small subculture.

quiverfullBut I think my emotional investment into this subject came more from the first interviews I conducted with first/natural/birthmothers—parents who felt they’d been coerced into relinquishing their babies for adoption. I started speaking with a few such mothers in 2008 while reporting an article for The Nation on how crisis pregnancy centers were involved in adoption, but soon found that more women were getting in touch with me, hoping to share their stories, than I had time to interview, and their stories were among the most painful and upsetting I’d ever heard. I began to read the work of other writers who’d covered past abuses in adoption, and started realizing this was a huge area of concern for anyone who cares about reproductive justice and women’s and children’s rights. I think those stories are what gave me lasting motivation to keep working on the project for four years.

HDYWT:  How did you begin work on this project?

Kathryn: In the way that one story often leads to another, after I’d begun looking at domestic adoption, I began to hear back from more and more people, suggesting I look into other issues within adoption. I started to think this project might be more than an article, but a book.

I started to broaden my focus to look at international adoption, and was reading some of the great work done by other journalists, writers and academics, many of them adoptees, biological or adoptive parents. I initially thought that I would only look at a couple of stories of international adoption, but then in early 2010, as I was pitching the book to publishers, the devastating earthquake happened in Haiti, and I felt that I was watching the dynamics I’d been reading about unfold before my eyes. There was an overwhelming humanitarian tragedy that affected nearly everyone in that country, but in much of the media coverage, it was being turned into an adoption narrative centered around the hopes and fears of U.S. parents. I knew then that this was a much larger story than I’d originally had in mind, and while I couldn’t undertake a definitive history of adoption, I had to find a way to report stories that illustrated the issues I was seeing.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Kathryn: I think when working on a big, long project like a book, I’ve had the luxury of letting research sort itself, in a way, into its natural themes. I tend to cast a wide net when I start reporting, reading widely and doing as many interviews as I can. When I hear the same stories repeated numerous times from different sources, they tend to emerge as general themes I want to focus on. Often those turned into chapters — about defrauded birthparents in Ethiopia, and U.S. adoptive parents told lies about the children they spent years trying to adopt; about Liberian children who were bounced from one family to another, and sometimes out of the country; or about South Korean adoptees growing up into adults who challenged the ethics of the system through which they were adopted — though not always. With this book I took a lot of time playing with the structure, and moving things around. My original plans looked a lot different from the final result.

On a practical level, the notes and interviews I ended up having filled nearly four file drawers, and that’s a lot of material to organize. I still rely a lot on having my interviews and research in hard copy form. It’s impractical in some ways, but it allowed me to physically mark research up, shuffle it around as I thought about structure, and set things to the side as I was working through my first draft. I know there are good software programs that other writers swear by, and I may try one for on my next big project. But I imagine I’ll also have a file cabinet full of paper notes as a backup.

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

Kathryn: Honestly, for the first three-and-a-half years I was working on the book, most days started with getting ready for my day job. But on nights and weekends, I was often applying for grants and pitching articles that would give me an opportunity to report out parts of the book I wouldn’t have been able to afford to cover on my own. I ultimately left my full-time job in order to give as much attention to writing the book as I had in reporting it.

Now that I’m just freelancing, a typical day often consists of a mix of research, reading, tracking down sources, conducting interviews, writing, editing, pitching and communicating with editors, and sometimes talking with other journalists with questions I or they have about a subject. I often have a few stories in different stages at once, so I may be writing for part of the day, and doing interviews and pitching editors later on. For me, early mornings, before emails start to arrive, tend to be best for writing, but I’m not always as good as I should be at keeping myself offline.

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

Kathryn: Though my father is appalled by the thought that people need this sort of deterrent, I found the internet-blocking program “Freedom” to be a big help in forcing me to start writing every day. Even a short period of enforced offline time — as little as 30 or 60 minutes — can be enough to help me switch modes from multi-tasking emails and social media, etc., to being focused on the work in front of me.

Lastly, this isn’t quite a tool, but in terms of reporting, I find one thing that isn’t often well-utilized is simply finding out where online people are talking about your subject, and following those conversations. The internet is such an incredibly vast place that there is almost always a community that revolves around the issue you’re reporting on, and often one that’s being overlooked next to other, larger outlets. Read the blogs that the group you’re reporting on read, and follow their discussions. I think the reason so much reporting can come across as out-of-touch is because reporters often aren’t availing themselves of the complex discussions and debates being hashed out in public by the affected communities. It’s indispensable not only for getting a lay of the land, but also for understanding the subtle differences in opinion that are usually part of any community or movement people report on. Understanding that complexity can make for a fuller and truer story.

HDYWT: Your work explores emotionally fraught territory: adoption, abortion, domestic violence. What are the rewards of writing about difficult or painful subjects?

Kathryn: I think the reward is in being able to do work you care about. It’s a difficult time, in a lot of practical ways, to work as a freelance journalist. The money is lousy and there’s no job security. But almost everyone I know who does this sort of work does it because they feel deeply and passionately about the issues they cover, and usually see them as part of larger questions of social justice. I think every journalist I know and admire is driven by the idea that they might be able to make a difference, even if it’s just in getting people to understand more about a subject or a group of people than they did before. That’s certainly what drove me on this book.

 

Friday Nonfiction Five

fire crackersFive on the Fourth: Five 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

Science writers share their tips for getting sources to open up.

Book revenues are up — and ebooks are responsible.

The rise of ebooks could mean the fall of dedicated ebook devices, though.

If you’re struggling to get started on your project, here are some kickstarting tips from Nina Amir.

The title says it all: How I Wrote 400K Words in a Year.

How did you write that, Peter Cashwell?

2013.12.17.pete_.cashwell.headshot.lh-362-e1403717777346Birder, sports fan, teacher — Peter Cashwell deals in boundaries all day long: the characteristics that distinguish a Carolina wren from a Bewick’s wren; the line that divides a basketball that’s out from one that’s in; the fine line between vernacular and Standard English usage. So it was natural that his second book project would tackle boundaries and their meanings.

I asked Peter to answer our standard five questions (plus bonus) about his latest book, Along Those Lines, but he cautioned me that he had swapped questions one and two — “For a reason. I started work on this book before I had the idea for it.”

In this interview you’ll learn:

  • The value of a skill you might (or might not) have learned in high school
  • How a long writing project is like building with LEGOs
  • The ways in which experts, colleagues, and friends can enrich your writing


alongthoselinesHDYWT: How did you begin work on Along Those Lines?

Peter: Along Those Lines had its genesis in my first book, The Verb ‘To Bird’. As I described some of my birding experiences in various states—Delaware, Iowa, South Carolina, etc.—I decided to make it a personal quest to see a life bird (a bird I’d never seen before in my life) in each of the 50 states. Not only would I have a lot of fun traveling and birding, I could write about the experience, and bam, a second book. I could call it “Fifty-Fifty” or something.

I thus started writing about the places I was going, as well as the birds I was seeing, and because I’m a geography geek as well as a birder, I sometimes found myself discussing the geography of my target states—the weird layout of Maryland’s borders, or the insane time-zone-hopping I had to do in the Four Corners area—as well as the birding issues that sometimes arose because scientists had changed their minds about which birds belonged to which species.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for this project?

Peter: By the time I got near the halfway point of “Fifty-Fifty,” I showed the manuscript to an agent, and he offered a rather cold, but very useful, observation. The birding parts, he said, were mostly boring, simply recounting the birds that could be seen by anyone who went to those places. The interesting parts were the ones where I addressed the issue of the borderlines between states and time zones; that was a topic that nobody else was writing about.

I thought about his comments, and I realized he was right; after all, I’d had a lot more fun writing about the boundary issues than just recounting my sightings in California and West Virginia, so why wouldn’t that be true for the reader as well?

At that point, I shifted my focus; instead of a personal narrative about birding, a topic I knew well, I was now writing an examination of boundaries, and that meant I’d have to educate myself. Luckily, I know some very smart people who educate others professionally.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Peter: I started by asking myself which aspects of human life were divided by lines, and I very quickly realized there were too many to use in a single book. That suggested a different question: who did I know who could talk about these aspects in an interesting way? Some of my colleagues at Woodberry Forest School immediately leaped to mind, not only because of their expertise in their subject areas, but also because of their extracurricular knowledge. I also had other experts farther afield, some of whom I’d known for years, and thanks to a sabbatical working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology back in 2011, I knew a few big names there.

My art experts, though, were more serendipitous finds. I had followed Ursula Vernon‘s work on the web, and I knew she was a birder, so I emailed her out of the blue in hopes that our mutual interest might incline her to sit for an interview. To my surprise, she was a fan of The Verb ‘To Bird’, and she could not have been more enthusiastic or more knowledgeable about the use of lines in art. My discovery of Shawn Smith‘s sculptures, as I mention in the book, was a complete fluke, and I feel very lucky to have seen his work in D.C. and to have gotten him on the phone for an interview.

Once I had the names of my interviewees, I had to assemble questions for each one, and that was challenging; I was trained in English and creative writing, not journalism, so I struggled a bit with the interview process. I would usually have a little bit written about the subject area before I interviewed my expert, but I was definitely improvising a lot in order to get follow-up questions written.

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

Peter: I wish I knew. I don’t think I have a typical day. I write when I can make time for it, and since I teach, that often means I’m writing at odd hours, or grinding out long stretches of text in unusual places. A lot of this book was written in the Sapsucker Lounge at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with me perched on a table near the window looking out over a pond full of waterfowl, and if I had my druthers, I’d write like that all the time.

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

Peter: One thing I learned from the interview process: knowing how to touch-type is a HUGE advantage when you’re taking notes. Keeping up with an Abigail James or a Matt Boesen would be damn near impossible if you had to use a hunt-and-peck approach. If you haven’t taken that typing class, give it some real thought, folks.

For this book, I also found myself using two online tools that most writers use, but perhaps not the way I did. First, I was Googling like a madman on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes in my reading, whether in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology library or my own, I’d come across a reference to a study or an incident that looked useful, and then I’d have to track it down on the web. That occasionally required creative application of search terms; if you don’t think ahead about the terms you’re using, you’ll often get 150,000 haystacks containing 150 needles among them. If you take a more active, more precise approach to setting up your terms, you can get ten or twelve needles in a single bunch of hay.

The other tool, one which is hideously easy to misuse, is Wikipedia. As I tell my students, it is not a reliable source for a research paper! It is, however, a terrific place to get both an overview of a topic and a bunch of links to sources that do offer information that a researcher can rely on.

Finally, to keep making progress and maintain my sanity, I would often need to ask questions of other writers, or sometimes just vent about the frustrations I was going through. That’s where the forum at BookBalloon.com became extraordinarily important to me.

Bonus question: As a full-time teacher, avid birder, and writer, how do you maintain momentum on a long-term project like a book?

Peter: LEGOs are a topic that came up in the book several times, and in some ways they’re a great metaphor for my writing: you have to work one brick at a time. Eventually you’ll have enough bricks to make the thing look like a house, or a castle, or the Alamo, but you have to put them together one at a time. And every day, that pile of bricks will look slightly more like the Alamo than it did before… or at least not any less like the Alamo.

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