tips

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.

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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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Friday Nonfiction Five

billiard

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

Prime Number magazine is looking for nonfiction submissions.

Simon Winchester writes about the advice that launched his career.

Marc Leepson reveals five facts about The Star-Spangled Banner.

Should you add a 19th century technology to your 21st century workflow?

Charles Shields has a new book out, Imagine: The Story of a Song, which makes creative use of e-publishing in a shorter, read-in-one-sitting format.

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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How did you write that, Mark Morrow?

mark-morrowGhostwriting and book development are profitable areas for nonfiction writers to consider. Mark Morrow recently guided CEO Roy Williams’ Only Retire Once: How to Avoid the 9 Deadly Mistakes of Retirement into publication. He took time out from a busy schedule to talk with HDYWT about his work as an editor, writer, and book development specialist.

In this interview, Mark shares

  • The value of a book proposal—even if you plan to self-publish.
  • His favorite online tools.
  • How he keeps a project on track.

Only Retire OnceHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for your most recent project?

Mark: I got a call from a New Jersey public relations firm in the Spring of 2013 about a ghostwriting project with a “tight deadline.” Not a good sign and a situation my experience has taught me to avoid due to its train wreck potential. Still, I was willing to listen since my friend at McGraw-Hill had recommended me for the job.

The project I’d be working on, according to the PR firm, involved the CEO of a large financial planning firm. The CEO wanted to write a book, but unfortunately he was too busy to do the writing, a very a typical scenario for busy, successful people.

I was told that the raw content would be delivered in the form of a transcribed interview based on a detailed outline of the book. That also sounded like something I could handle. As a veteran developmental editor and journalist, I’ve transformed and in many cases completely rewritten dozens of books (some with even less solid content than what the CEO was offering) on a range of business topics. In fact, being handed a “train wreck” of a manuscript with the instruction to “fix it” has always been a challenge I relished.

Then I asked about the deadline—six weeks I was told. After taking a moment to squelch a less dignified and professional response, I simply replied, “That’s not possible.” I went through a laundry list of reasons why the deadline wasn’t reasonable and why attempting it would be a “train wreck” (I did use that phrase). In the end, I just said “No thanks.” But PR folks are persistent and so I agreed to participate in a Skype interview with the client and his team just to hear them out.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll provide Cliff notes version of the rest of the story.

I did the interview and I really liked the CEO, and it turns out he felt the same at least to some degree, I guess, because we both had Southern roots, or maybe because I was honest and said right up front that his project couldn’t be done with a six-week deadline—at least done in any form that we’d want to call our best work. We signed off from the call and a few weeks later I was working on the project. The resulting book, Only Retire Once: How to Avoid the 9 Deadly Mistakes of Retirement, was published in May 2014 as a self-published book.

This narrative, of course, does leave out a few project plan changes that I’ll mention here as flavoring for my main point. I never got the recordings since the CEO was too busy, so I ending up traveling to the client site and doing two days of interviews as content background. And, since a substantial part of the book involving tax, estate and Social Security law needed interpretation and explanation for the “every person” audience, a considerable amount of research was required. Along the way, I offered the book to several major publishers who took a pass despite the CEO’s marketing platform and investment in the project, so the client self-published.

We’re working on some follow-on books now and perhaps will have better luck with traditional publishing next time—although it’s not essential to the client’s business strategy.

And your point, you ask? I guess my point is that it’s important to be flexible and approach each project with a learning attitude. Had I walked away from this project, not only would I have lost an excellent client I really like, but I would have missed the opportunity to do something we all need to do in a serious and methodical way—plan for retirement. If fact, I learned so much doing this book that when we met with our own financial advisor recently, both he and my wife were impressed with my knowledge and understanding of the financial details. That’s some benefit for an aging writer and journalist.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Mark: One advantage of preparing a formal book proposal for a publisher is the requirement to distill the book’s raison d’etre down to just a few sentences—a pitch, really—and I’ve found the process helps keep me moving in the right direction throughout the book writing process. If I have a question about including content or digressing in a certain way, I just have to go back to my road map, and if the content doesn’t fit, then that’s a data point to not go there. I often tell my clients to prepare a proposal as if they are preparing to submit to a publisher even when they plan on self-publishing. In most cases, these proposals are an essential business plan for the project since one of the requirements is to spell out specifically a marketing plan and to project how many copies of the book you might sell through various channels.

For the Only Retire Once project we had gone through an extensive content and proposal crafting process so I knew exactly where I was going and what should be included in the final book. In addition, part of the proposal process is to write a first chapter so I had established the tone, voice, pacing and approach to the material (client approved) so I had what you might call a “running start” to finish the book.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Mark: For this project, I did all my research on the internet using trustworthy sources such as federally sponsored data (Social Security, census and actuarial data) or brand name research entities such as Pew Research and/or well-regarded financial data sites.

One of the difficulties with the project was that I had to fill in various gaps in the narrative that occur when the content source isn’t sure about the statistical accuracy of the data they cite to back up their points or corroborating data is missing for a general conversational statement, i.e. a statement such as “The 2008 financial crisis impacted the retirement plans of millions of Americans.” I used internet resource organizing tools such as getpocket.com as my research folders, and detailed bookmark folders organized by subject areas so that I could go back and check data and sources.

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

Mark: I typically work—if nothing intrudes into my day—5 to 8 hours a day with lots of short breaks as a reward for finishing a section, a chapter or definable amount of work. It’s easy to burn up 4 hours at one sitting if I don’t pay attention, but I find it’s good to go out and stand in the sun for a few minutes or take a walk through the garden or just see what my dog is up to—no surprise, sleeping usually. These minibreaks help me refocus and work more efficiently.

If I have more than one project due within the same time period, I organize my time to write in the morning on one and the afternoon on the other. My journalistic ADD training allows me to easily switch between projects and focus.

Finally, after a long time of intending to do it, I spend exactly one hour a day working on my fiction projects, i.e. the ones that will never pay. I belong to a local fiction writing group and they’ve been encouraging me to “finish something” for two years now, so that’s what I’m trying to do. The main problem with fiction is that I get so involved I often blow past the 1 hour alarm and continue working, sometimes for 3 to 4 hours. Not recommended for making a go as a writer for hire.

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

Mark: I don’t have any particular writer’s tool I use other than the amazing world of Google and Chrome browser. Having every account on a single sign-in—email, bookmarks, extensions, Google+—is a comfortable and efficient platform for me.

One tool I have been using successfully is a Google extension called todoist.com. For me it’s an amazing organizing tool that follows you everywhere on all devices and is seamlessly integrated with gmail and a related app for smartphone devices. I highly recommend it.

Bonus question: What advice do you have for a someone who would like to get into business or technical writing?

Mark: First, I don’t have to say that it’s a difficult business to be in these days for so many reasons beyond the fact that there’s not a lot of financial respect for what a good editor or write can do except at the top of the scale, i.e. Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone. Writing has become pretty much a winner-take-all business due to the collapse of the middle tier of writing, editing and journalism—the thousands of jobs lost writing for good or even excellent newspapers, magazines and other print media. Digital media is the way forward, and I adore the technology that has undermined the middle—I absolutely never buy a print book. I love my Kindle.

Eventually, we’ll sort it out and it will be great, maybe better. But for now, it’s tough to make a go of it at 5 cents a word or $1500 for an 8,000 word piece that takes 40 hours of research to produce. Just not enough money, but someone’s got to be in the club of extraordinary writers that Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone and the New York Times (the holy grail) hires, so if you think you can, go for it.

 

Friday Nonfiction Five

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

Researchers, take note: Lisa Peet uncovers a do-it-yourself-digitizing trend.

Want to know more about Neil Swidey? He talked to Nieman Storyboard about writing Trapped Under the Sea.

How to come up with — and follow through on — good nonfiction ideas.

Contest opportunity: The Susan Glaspell Writers & Critics Series at Drake University is accepting submissions of first books of Literary Non-Fiction for its sixth annual Drake Emerging Writer Award.

Are you courageous enough to make the Curiosity Call?

How did you write that, Neil Swidey?

Photo credit: Denise Drower Swidey

Photo credit: Denise Drower Swidey

Deep-sea diving. Waste management. Chemistry. Engineering. Municipal contracts. In his latest book, Neil Swidey brings together all these topics and more into a gripping story about the men and women who made Boston’s vision of a clean, safe harbor come true.

Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness is the product of years of research, countless hours of  interviews, and solid story-telling. After reading this book, I had to know: How did you write that, Neil Swidey?

In this interview, Neil talks about:

  • Where he found his idea.
  • How he organized massive amounts of research.
  • How to write clearly about highly technical subjects.

Trapped Under the SeaHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Trapped Under the Sea?

Neil: I was at a birthday party for one of my daughters’ friends about seven years ago, and began chatting with a lawyer friend from the neighborhood. When I asked him if he was working on any interesting cases, he mentioned that he had sat in on a deposition for a case involving divers who were sent to the end of an unventilated miles-long subsea tunnel. They had used Humvees for the first part of their journey and then continued on foot the rest of the way. The mission had taken place years earlier, but I was struck by why I had never heard of it. I soon discovered why. It had been overshadowed by the spotlight-dominating story at the time: the plane crash involving John F. Kennedy, Jr. But as soon as I started looking into this tunnel story, I was immediately hooked.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Neil: I moved from my defense lawyer friend to the plaintiffs’ lawyers who had represented the surviving divers as well as the families of those divers who had been killed. That led me eventually to the surviving divers themselves. None of them had ever before spoken publicly about the horrors they had endured at the end of an unventilated, pitch-black, 10-mile-long tunnel built hundreds of feet below the ocean. So it took a good deal of effort to secure their trust.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Neil: Chronologically, mostly. I amassed an unholy amount of material as part of my research — not just thousands upon thousands of pages of documents, but also audio tapes, video tapes — documentary evidence of pretty much every kind. To bring some semblance of order to it, I created a series of massive, annotated chronologies, which I updated continually.

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

Neil: Research days were generally exhausting but fascinating — on the move from morning until night, attaching myself to the hip of compelling people. Writing days were generally exhausting but enervating —  a sedentary, solitary and sometimes soul-sapping exercise. But what a feeling of relief and accomplishment when it was all done! Promotion days have sometimes been tiring but have also provided a fantastic opportunity to connect with readers who are passionate about the book.

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

Neil: J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, which I find more useful and user-friendly than Roget or any other thesaurus. And like my writing teacher father used to tell me: Use a thesaurus only to help you identify the perfect word that was already hiding out somewhere in the back of your mind. Don’t use it to find a fancy word you wouldn’t otherwise use. (And when in doubt, cross reference with the dictionary —  bound version, not online —  to make sure it truly is the perfect word for the sentence.)

Bonus question: What is your advice for writers who are dealing with highly technical source material? How do you make it accessible for the reader?

Neil: Never pass on fogginess to your reader! Resist the temptation to fall back on jargon in order to hide something you don’t understand. Read your source material multiple times. Find people who are specialists but who are also effective translators, and lean on them for help in clearing up your fogginess.

Also: before you get too deep into your research, and long before you start understanding the field like an expert, write down the basic questions you had at the very beginning. Then, when you sit down to write, refer to that list of initial questions. That will refresh your memory on what seemed most opaque to you at the start, so you can make sure your explanations effectively clear the air.

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)