Craft, General Writing, Technique, Tips, Writing process

A Few Thoughts on Editing

red-pencil

During a recent course I was teaching on researching for historical fiction and nonfiction, we got to discussing a bit about editing, as I mentioned that as an author, you can dump in everything that you learn that fascinates you on the first draft, but that much of it will need to be removed during the edit, to keep the story from dragging because of an info dump.

Not for the first time, I encountered a student who seemed horrified at the very idea of editing himself at all. I tried to reassure him that, when an author does it on his own work, it’s not really considered editing but simply rewriting. “Writing IS rewriting,” I told him. “No one nails it on the first draft, not even Stephen King.”

He was crestfallen. Clearly, the whole idea of having to go back over his work with a critical eye was absolutely mortifying. And of course, he’s not the first writer to have this reaction, but it did bring home to me how many folks really believe that everything that flows from their fingers on the keyboard or their pen on the pad is sacrosanct as written; held dear and precious, as though graven on tablets and handed to Moses on the mount.

I admit that at one time, I was one of those people. But having minored in writing in college and worked as a professional writer at least part time since about age 25 (I’ve since doubled that lap around the block and more), I long since got over any notion of precious writing. So I always have to remember that my students haven’t usually had that much time to adjust their thinking and grow a thicker skin.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they will have to get used to the notion that rewriting (or self-editing) is a necessity for serious writers. I hesitate to use the term “editing” for this process, because I don’t believe any writer can or should perform final editing on their own work. It’s really impossible: once you’ve spent that much time with a piece of work, you just know it too well. You’ve seen it too often to spot the errors, and simply cannot be objective enough. So it MUST go to a second party with fresh eyes (and adequate skill) to be called a true “edit.”

Until then, I consider all secondary activity by an author after the first draft to be “rewriting.” And I consider it a requirement of anyone hoping to be published (or even to publish themselves with any measure of success) to rewrite at least one round. Yes, there may be the rare exception to this rule, but I’ve never seen one. I’ve never encountered a single writer in all my years whose first pass won’t benefit from a fresh look, either from themselves or someone else qualified to evaluate writing.

So, with that thought, I offer this link to a great piece by Anna Elliott from Writer Unboxed, on The Dos and Dont’s of Editing. I hope you find it useful in your self-editing/rewriting, before you submit it to a real editor. Because I believe that first draft writing is largely about the creative and the technical, but the real craft of writing is in the rewriting. It’s where we get out of our Creator mind and into our Critic mind. Both are necessary to produce excellent work, but generally they do not happily co-exist at the same time in any given piece of writing. Good luck!

Creative process, General Writing, Inspiration, Writing process

One Writer’s Christmas Tradition

merrychristmas

I don’t know any creative person who isn’t curious about other people’s creative process. I always love to visit other writers’ workspaces, artists’ studios, crafters’ workrooms. I love to hear about their schedules, how they discipline their attention and divide their time to allow them to be most productive. I’m always interested in their little pre-work customs, the secret rites in which they engage to call forth the muse and bless their efforts. I even like to hear about other non-work rituals they enjoy away from the creative altar, that they do simply for enjoyment and to feed their hearts and souls.

I have some of those rituals myself, and it’s appropriate, I think, to end the year sharing with you a pre-Christmas tradition my partner and I have developed over the past ten years. It’s funny how these things come about. You do something once and the next year, remembering how you enjoyed it, you do it again, hoping to recreate the magic. Sometimes you can, sometimes not, but at some point you realize that in the effort, you’ve unwittingly created a tradition. And from then on, you consciously recognize and honor that tradition.

Ours begins with clearing our busy, not-very-often-in-sync schedules for an evening in the weeks before the holiday, after the tree is up and decorations are done. We try each year to choose from among the many fine, old inns and taverns in our beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and find one we haven’t dined at before. We go online to see the menu and make sure there will be at least one or two options we like (neither of us is big on fish, and I’m not a huge Italian fan, so sometimes that’s a little limiting), and make a reservation for two. We try to really go to the older stone inns, both for their ambience that usually includes a real fireplace, which so enhances that special holiday feeling, and to consciously keep our money in our local economy. We have tried a few newer style places here and there. We just always seem to gravitate back to the old ones, and fortunately for us, there are so many of those in our area.

We usually make an earlier dinner reservation for 6 or 6:30. This allows us to snag desirable seating in a not-yet-crowded dining room, and lets us enjoy a leisurely dinner with a special seasonal beverage beforehand, appetizers and our entrees, and sometimes even dessert, if we’re not too full. Based on our choice of restaurant, we have decided ahead of time where we’ll go afterward, which is always a bookstore. Our preference is to go to locally owned indie bookstores, but sadly their numbers are dwindling in our primarily rural region, so sometimes we must settle for a Barnes & Noble or other big box store.

So, appetites sated, off we go to the bookstore. Once inside, we head right for the children’s section to take our time perusing the Christmas-themed titles. We look for stories that appeal to both children and adults, and length isn’t really an issue. What IS paramount is that the book must offer a  good, ultimately uplifting story. It can have sad parts, as long as it ends happily. The secondary requirement is that it must be profusely illustrated with rich, beautiful pictures by a talented artist. If possible, we prefer it be a hardcover with dust jacket. It’s the one time of year we indulge ourselves thusly.

The Carpenter's Gift

This year, we chose The Carpenters’ Gift by David Rubel. It’s about the birth of the tradition of placing a large Christmas tree in the square in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center, and contains a touching message endorsed by Habitat for Humanity. Though we don’t usually go in for “cause” books, this one was too hard to pass up, and even without the Habitat link, this story conveys a strong message about the true spirit of Christmas through engaging prose and beautiful pictures.

We then make our purchase and take it home. Sometimes we read it together, but most often it’s late by the time we get home, and we save it to enjoy at leisure throughout the holiday season. So we add it to the growing collection we showcase proudly on our living room coffee table until the decorations come down. The colorful covers themselves create a festive area of holiday decor.

The best part of this ritual is that these gifts keep giving back to us every year, as we revisit them and their lovely, beckoning pages. The secondary gift is that we know we have contributed to our regional economy by enjoying a great meal at a deserving local restaurant; have contributed to the health of the book industry by buying a hardcover book; and usually contributed to the health of an indie bookstore by making our purchase there. It’s a winner any way you look at it, and a tradition we now look forward to with great delight each year.

I wish you all an enjoyable holiday season, and a peaceful and prosperous New Year, and leave you with a reminder that the quality of the first draft isn’t as important as the fact that you got it out of you and onto the page. That’s what editors are for.

“Another damn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble — eh, Mr. Gibbon?”
– Duke of Cumberland to writer Edward Gibbon

Author Interview, Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Writing process

Author Interview: Thriller Mistress Amy Shojai – Part II

Trailer for Amy Shojai’s thriller Lost and Found. Check out the advance praise at the end! 

 

In honor of today’s release of her latest book, we’re back this week with Part Two of our interview with bestselling author Amy Shojai. Amy’s brought her enormous knowledge of pets and animal behavior to bear on her first novel, Lost and Found. This thriller has a breathtaking premise:  An autism cure will KILL MILLIONS unless a service dog and his trainer find a missing child…in 24 hours. I’ve already read the free excerpt, and that alone was enough to get me into the story. Now I’m getting ready to read the whole book (Full disclosure: Amy has provided me with an advance reader eCopy for review). Can’t wait to dig into it!

But meanwhile, let’s learn more about the author’s writing process and thoughts about this, her first thriller. We left off Part I talking about the book’s characters:

Author Amy ShojaiMe:  Speaking of characters, which do you consider the protagonist of this story: September? Steven? Shadow?

Amy: The main character is September. Shadow is very much the secondary main character.

Me:  And I have to ask: How did you come up with the September character? Is she your alter-ego, and should we expect to see more of her?

Amy:  LOL! I attended the awesome writers conference Thrillerfest this past year and sat in on some terrific seminars presented by bestselling thriller authors. Lee Child commented that in his experience, most protagonists seem to be written as someone better looking, more athletic, taller, thinner, and smarter. Yes, there are parts of September that are similar to me, such as her love of animals and passion for them. But she’s more athletic, taller, thinner, smarter–and younger than me. Oh, and she doesn’t like bling. Pity.

Yes, I do think you’ll see more of September. There are two more books planned at this time.

Me:  As authors, we all have different hopes for each of our books, aside from wanting them to be successful. In your writer’s heart and mind, what does success look like for Lost and Found?

Amy:  Success would be readers enjoying the book, and saying so. It would be having them better understand their dogs’ behavior, realize that cats CAN be trained. And having readers ask…no, demand…to know what happens next.

Me: Yeah, that’ll always be the most excellent reaction from a reader, won’t it? I understand you have a giveaway for Lost and Found on Goodreads.com. Want to share more about that?

Amy:  Thanks for asking! Yes, here’s the link. I will give away three copies of the paperback, and happily autograph the books to the winners–or paw-tograph to their favorite pets. The giveaway runs from September 1 to November 15. Simply follow the link, click “enter to win” and fill in your mailing address. The book releases today on Kindle for those who can’t wait, and will be available in all eBook formats and print shortly thereafter.

Me:  What other events and appearances do you have scheduled to support “Lost and Found?” Anything else you’d like your readers to know about you, your newest book or your career?

Amy Shojai's new book, "Lost and Found"Amy: I’ll be appearing thither and yon on a variety of blogs between now and the first of the year. A book launch and autograph party happens locally in Sherman, Texas in mid-October – date to be determined, because I’m scheduled around a musical play co-written with a friend, that we’re performing earlier that month. And I’ll be speaking at the 20th Anniversary Cat Writers Association Conference the first weekend of November in Los Angeles, and signing books, as well as in Houston the first weekend of January at the Houston Cat Club Cat Show.

Me: Amy, as an author myself, I know what a thrill it is to see and hold your newest book. It never gets old, does it? But I think sometimes readers believe that once we get published, all our books will be bestsellers. If only, right? In reality, we all depend on our readers to support our books by helping us create the buzz they need to get attention. I understand you’ve created an easy-to-follow list of helpful things readers can do to help promote your books. Can we share that here?

Amy:  Sure thing. I appreciate every little bit of support from my readers, and here are a few tips to make it easy for them to help get the word out if they like my books:

READER-ICITY RULES FOR GETTING BOOKS NOTICED

  1. “Like” it (just click the “like” button on the Amazon or Facebook page, for instance).
  2. “Like” the author page. Here’s mine on Amazon.
  3. “Tag” it. These are descriptive words or phrases that help others find the book when they search for it. (On the book page, type TT to open the tag box, highlight the tags and copy into the box, and save).
  4. Read it. Love it. Hate it. Talk about it. Share with friends. Argue about it. Get hissed-off about it. Wag about it. Say it’s GRREEEAAAT! Say it SSSSSUCKS! And then . . . .
  5. Review it (on Amazon, GoodReads, Barnes & Noble, your blog, etc.) ONLY IF YOU REALLY READ IT!

Me:  Great tips! Thanks, Amy, for the interesting interview. And I understand you’ve got a free eCopy of Lost & Found to give away to one lucky reader of this blog — how generous! So, readers, here’s how to enter our giveaway for a FREE EBOOK of AMY SHOJAI’S NEW THRILLER, LOST and FOUND:

  1. Watch the book trailer at the beginning of this post and LISTEN CAREFULLY to the narrator, September, explain her story.
  2. Go to the Contact Form of my blog.
  3. Send me a message with the Subject line: I want to be Lost and Found!
  4. In the message field, tell me something that New York Times bestselling author James Rollins has to say about Lost & Found — it’s in the book trailer.
  5. Of all the correct entries received by midnight on Sunday, September 30, a random name will be pulled from a hat to receive a FREE eCopy of Lost & Found, directly from author Amy Shojai. (Your entry into this contest constitutes your permission for me to share your contact information with Amy.)

So ENTER NOW, and you’ll be one step closer to the edge of your seat with Amy, September and one really smart dog.

 

Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Plot, Point of View (POV), Publishing Industry, Technique, Writing process

Author Interview: Thriller Mistress Amy Shojai – Part I

Amy Shojai's new book, "Lost and Found"Okay, y’all (stop it, I’m allowed! My interview subject is a Texan!) – I’m very excited to be sharing with you the first half of an info-packed interview I recently did with an author whose work I admire, and who just happens to be one of the funniest, most interesting and truly sweetest people I know. Oh, and she also happens to be a bestselling author, did I mention that?

Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant, and the award-winning author of 24 bestselling pet books that cover furry babies to old-fogies, first aid to natural healing, and behavior/training to Chicken Soup-icity. I met her at my first conference with the Cat Writers Association, which she founded and still supports with gusto. (Come to think of it, there ain’t much Amy DOESN’T do with gusto!) You can learn more about Amy at her website, where you’ll also find her blog, Bling, Bitches & Blood. She’ll explain the title when you get there.

Author Amy Shojai, her dog Magic and cat Seren
Author Amy Shojai, her German Shepherd, Magic, and her Siamese cat, Seren

For now, I asked her a few questions about her newest book, Lost and Found, which is her first foray into fiction. But to be honest, I got to read an excerpt, and you’ll never know Amy’s not a veteran master at the thriller genre.

WOW! I can’t WAIT to read the rest of this great debut novel when it comes out in eBook on the 20th of this month (print fans, you’ll need to wait another week, but hang in there…)! She skillfully blends her background as an animal behavior consultant with her storytelling abilities, to weave a tale you’ll have a hard time putting down. But in the interests of “show, don’t tell,” I’m gonna stop here and let the interview speak for itself:

Me: We know it’s not your first author rodeo, with all your terrific nonfiction books out there enlightening the world, but Lost and Found is your first novel, right? Why a novel at this point in your career?

Amy: Yes, this is my debut fiction and I’m “thrilled” to be launched as a thriller author. The dirty li’l secret is that I first started out wanting to write fiction, and I couldn’t get published. Yes, I have five complete novels, plus one partial, under the virtual bed that will never see the light of day! Meanwhile, as I tried to write and publish fiction and submitted to agents, my nonfiction articles – and then a couple of books – were published. One of the agents I pitched for a novel said, “No thanks…but show me your nonfiction.” After that, I became so busy paying bills with the nonfiction (no complaints there!) that the fiction writing sat on the back burner, literally, for years.

Today, though – as you know – publishing has changed. It has especially affected the nonfiction, prescriptive types of pet books that I write. So I’ve needed to find new ways to get the furry message out there, and fiction seemed a fun and innovative way to do this.

Me: And why the thriller genre? Those of us who know you think of your Southern charm, your bright, bubbly personality – not necessarily the kind of brooding writer you’d expect to produce a thriller. What was your intent as an author in using this approach and format? Or perhaps it’s more correct to ask why you felt this format best served your story’s needs?

Amy: What a great question – and I’m flattered. You’ve a hefty dose of charm yourownself. <smile> Maybe I’m a twisted personality. Those other under-the-bed novels were horror, or probably more accurately, psychological thrillers. That’s what I read, that’s what I enjoy, so that’s what I write.

A novel must pose a question, and challenge the characters to answer that question. How that’s done somewhat defines the genre. A mystery presents a body at the beginning of the book, and asks, “Who dunnit?” A thriller may do that, but often shows the dirty deed, so readers know “who dunnit” and the question becomes “why dunnit?”

While I’m not a fan of being scared in real life, or the blood-and-gore school of storytelling, a rollercoaster ride via a great plot and characters I can root for offers all the vicarious spills and chills without the risk.

Me: I LOVE the fact that the excerpt from your book is written from Shadow’s point of view. Is the rest of the book written that way? How did you decide which POV to use?

Amy: Thank you! My early readers have without exception noted that Shadow’s chapters are their favorites. He’s a nine-month-old German shepherd pup, and a service dog (in training) to an autistic child. Part of the reason for the dog point of view was that I hadn’t a clue how to write the point of view of an autistic child and didn’t feel comfortable trying. So any time the little boy is “on stage” in the book with the dog, it’s from Shadow’s viewpoint. There also are chapters in dog viewpoint to offer insights into the story that the human characters couldn’t possibley know – through scent, for example.

I’ve always “imagined” what my dog and cat might be thinking, and there’s nobody to tell me I’m wrong. <grin> I think most pet lovers do that to some extent. I could also do this from the background of my pet behavior expertise and debunk some common misconceptions, while shining a light on other pet realities. I very much wanted to include animal companions in the story, in part because it’s a way to “edu-tain” readers about dog (and cat) behavior and care, without a dry lecture.

And yes, there’s also a hero cat in the story, although this book doesn’t feature a cat viewpoint. Maybe that will happen in future books. But in this story, the cat is a trained kitty and figures prominently in kicking bad-guy-assets at the end of the book.

LOST AND FOUND is very much Shadow’s story, probably as much as anyone’s.  His viewpoint is featured in one-third or more of the book. I consciously alternated viewpoint characters between the humans and the dog. Just as the human characters have a story “goal” and character arc, so does Shadow. He wants to belong and be loved, he wants to be a “good-dog” more than life itself, and being a good-dog means obeying and following the rules of the people he adores. But what if that gets in the way? What if the people are wrong – in his estimate? What’s a good-dog to do?

Me: Yeah, that’s a fantastic point of conflict to propel the story forward! And the whole concept of Lost and Found makes it such a groundbreaking book in several ways: Your first thriller, a dog’s POV without it being a humorous approach, and one of the main characters an autistic child. Where did the idea for this novel come from?

Amy: LOST AND FOUND was more than three years in the making. I wanted the main character to be an animal behaviorist or trainer, and to include a dog and/or a cat. But the main character, September (yes, that’s her name!) needed to train more than puppy manners. I’ve interviewed trainers of service animals, and my own dog’s breeder has placed autistic service dogs. Once one notion came to  mind, the others followed. Also, the most interesting characters to me are damaged, too, which means they must overcome internal and/or external obstacles to succeed. September suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress, and hates the thought of leaving her safe, secure home but goes out in the blizzard anyway to find her lost nephew.

Me: As you know, in my own book Almost Perfect: Disabled Pets and The People Who Love Them, we strive to build awareness that special needs pets can lead whole, happy lives even though they may not have the same abilities as most animals. I get the feeling from the excerpt that with Lost and Found, you had to deal with that on two levels: It seems you had to straddle the line concerning how people perceive both canine cognitive abilities and how they misunderstand the cognitive dissonance that may be occurring in the minds and senses of those living with autism. In researching your novel, what most surprised you about your own understanding of autism, and as a writer, how did you leverage what your animal behaviorist self knows about the way dogs interact with and respond to their humans in service to the story?

Amy: Wow. Let me think on that. I’m not sure that I’m able to fully understand how autistic people feel or think, but I am able to observe behaviors. The child character, Steven, is reported pretty much as observation – by the dog, Shadow. So I pretty much avoided – or tried to, anyway – making my own assumptions about what might or might not be happening regarding Steven. Instead, the story has the dog interpreting (correctly or in error, from his own canine perspective) what Steven’s actions and reactions mean. Therefore, when Steven claps his hands over his ears, Shadow can relate because he also wishes hands could cover his own ears to muffle too-loud noises.

What most surprised me was that one of my beta readers told me that I nailed the autistic child and adult Asperger character, as far as behavior and dialogue. Wow. This is a teacher who works with autistic children and also lives with a daughter partnered with a service dog.

END OF PART I

Isn’t this a fascinating interview? I’m learning a lot about novel craft as an author working on her own first novel! I hope you’re getting as much out of our conversation with Amy Shojai, and hope you’ll be back to join us here for Part II of this engaging interview!

Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Setting, Technique, Writing process

Creating Chemistry

Today, I’m pleased to host a guest appearance by my fellow author and friend, LM Preston, whose new eBook, Flutter of Luv, has just debuted and is making the rounds among YA fans and adults who just like a good love story. LM shares with us today some tricks to creating chemistry among your characters, and — better yet — between you and your readers! Check out what she has to say:

Flutter of Luv book coverHave you ever read a book and, when you finished, missed the characters? Or better yet, fallen in love while you were reading how a character was falling head-over-heels in love with another character?

Well, creating chemistry in your novel can be with anything:

– Between the reader and the character
– Between multiple characters
– Between the scenery or scene (that you make a connection to)

Reader and Character Love

While writing my latest release, Flutter Of Luv, I really worked hard at making the character into the reader’s friend. Writing in first person allows for this type of connection.

Have you ever had a friend tell you some juicy news, gossip or prediction that you couldn’t stop listening to, because they told the story in such a way that captivated you? Well, that’s the frame of mind you, as the writer, need to be in when you are creating your character. You want to reveal what makes the character tick, get a strong voice, and slowly seduce your reader into falling in love with your character — flaws and all.

Characters’ Chemistry with Each Other

Reading a scene in which two characters have sparks firing can bring the reader right into the action through the use of the senses, bringing believability and substance to the relationship. This is a writing trick romance writers have a talent for.

To get your writing in ‘the chemistry zone,’ think about what makes you connect with other people, fall in love, or ‘click’ in a friendship. Those tools should be used to develop and unfold your characters, to bring substance to these on-paper relationships. The key is to make the reader connect with each character, fall in love with them, before you make the characters realize their love for or connection to one another.

A Scene Or Place Can Invoke Chemistry

I would’ve never thought this, until I started reading travel books – not the books that tell you how to visit a place, but the ones that show you how to EXPERIENCE a place. These travel books and authors have a gift for bringing a place alive, creating chemistry between the reader and the locale of choice, to the point where the reader falls in love with a place based simply on the way it’s experienced through the writing.

Chemistry takes time to build when writing, and the best way to figure out how to express it is to figure out what causes your own chemistry to spark.

You can find LM’s newest book, Flutter of Luv, which is ALL about the chemistry, at Amazon. Be sure to leave her a good review there if you like it — these reviews are really important to indie publishers.

LM will be guest posting tomorrow at the Searching For An Escape blog.

She invites you to the Twitter launch party for her book next Friday, July 27th, from 5pm – 6pm EDT. Get on Twitter, follow @Lm_Preston, and use hashtag #FlutterOfLuv to participate. (Hint: It’s easiest to do a search on the hashtag to isolate the conversation, especially if you’re using Tweetdeck or some other feed management app).

LM also welcomes you to the book’s Facebook Launch Party! Log on next Saturday, July 28th, from Noon-9pm EDT and navigate to the Party on LM’s Event Page!

Craft, General Writing, Motivation, Writing process

Writer’s Block: Um…no.

This legacy blog post first appeared on August 28, 2009:

Writer's block

I’ve long believed that “writer’s block” is a fallacy; nothing more than yet another excuse not to write. And today I found one of most lucid arguments for this point of view over at Publietariat.

So I’m sharing it here with you, because it’s one of those things I believe can derail a promising young writing career.

So, read and enjoy, and let me know what you think!

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Research, Writing process

Researching Historical Nonfiction, Part III: Finding Sources and Archival Photos

This is another legacy blog post from April, 2009:

Researching in a library

As promised, here are some tips on starting out with historical research:
Local Media Sources – It seems a no-brainer that you’d start your research with media outlets that exist today, especially if they were around during the event you’ve decided to chronicle in your book. That’s certainly what I believed. I looked forward, too, to talking with other professional writers and journalists at our regional newspapers and other outlets.

Sadly, I discovered that certain of our regional newspapers — the Easton Express-Times being the most egregious — were unwilling to let me use their photos, even though I offered payment for that right. The EE-T re-publishes their own photo essay on the flood of ‘55 every 25 years on the anniversary, and somehow felt that allowing me to use those shots would lessen their sales, I guess.

Stupid, because that original booklet, published about a week after the flood, was what started my whole interest in the subject. I would have GLADLY included a page in my book promoting their booklet as a great addition to anyone’s flood collection, because obviously I couldn’t include all those photos in my book. Not only was this very short-sighted and promotionally retarded on their part, but I also think it was a real evasion of their responsibilities as a keeper of important historical public records.

On a more positive note, several other papers, such as the Pocono Observer-Record, was fantastic and very helpful. More than one staffer there went out of their way to help me make this the best book it could be. I’m grateful for their interest, help and dedication to their craft.

Regional Sources – Running into that roadblock, I had to depend on other sources for the images I’d use in my book. So, I got creative. I put out a call for people along the river to let me know they had private photos. It was a huge task, with many related efforts:

  • I put out several press releases to newspapers from Trenton to Port Jervis on both sides of the river.
  • I posted requests on some websites including those for historical societies and any private historical groups located in those areas (Craigslist would be a good one.)
  • I wrote to some historical societies in the affected regions with my requests, and that was productive. Many referrals to members and then those members referred me to friends and acquaintances they knew had photos and old newspapers, etc.
  • I also put up posters in as many communities as I could get to in the affected areas.
  • One element I will add next time I’m doing this kind of research is a website about the project. I’ll make sure it has lots of relevant keywords and phrases that people might search on for that subject. Then I’ll post my requests on there.
  • I’ll also blog regularly there on the progress of my project. This creates activity on your site and that excites the search engine crawlers to pay attention to you and rank you much higher than a static site.

A nice by-product of this kind of blog is that it makes people aware of what you’re doing and creates automatic customers of your regular blog visitors when your book comes out. They will have followed you from the beginning and have a sense of personal investment in the success of your project.

This is called “platform building,” and any publisher you talk with will want to know what kind of promotional platform you have before they commit to your project.

With any historic nonfiction project, don’t overlook any group where older folks congregate: civic organizations (Kiwanis, Lions, Knights of Columbus, etc.), church groups, senior centers, book clubs and reading groups in retirement villages, etc. Call them and send a request letter to be published on their website and in their newsletter.

Not only will you find many people to interview in these places, you’ll also find they’re enthusiastic about what you’re doing. They’ll be excited that someone cares about something they personally remember, and will lead you to all kinds of other interview subjects and people with archival letters, diaries, photos, etc.

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Research, Writing process

Researching Historical Nonfiction, Part II: Finding old maps

This post originally appeared on my legacy blog on April 11, 2009:

1838 Philadelphia map

Revisiting Amanda G.’s discussion forum post, she asked:
 How do I get maps of old towns that no longer exist?

That could probably be a little tricky. Depending on how old the towns were at the time they disappeared, there are a number of places you might look for maps. Here are a few ideas:

Historical societies are often the best place to start. Find the “keepers of the collections” and you’ve likely identified the people who not only know best what the collections include, but also about other resources you can consult, like other people and their personal archives. The trick is to really let them know you value and respect their vast knowledge.
Municipal or county clerks or recorders of deeds — depends on the town. They have official records of any properties that ever existed in their area of authority.

Public Libraries – They usually have a local history collection, and I have made some of my most interesting and surprising primary source finds in these. Make sure you as for the reference librarian, not just a page or front desk worker. You want someone who knows that collection up and down.

University and college libraries – They often have collections donated by alumni and other individuals in their immediate communities. East Stroudsburg University has lots of info on the flood of ‘55. The public library there has an awesome local history collection, and I’m thinking this would be your best bet.

Government Agencies – If you’re researching an area now encompassed by a national park, recreation area or other official preservation designation, the National Park Service will be a primary resource for you. They always have vast historical archives, usually have designated park historians (who are almost always obsessive about their subject). They’ll likely have lots of maps, photos and other visuals available. They’ll also want to stock your book in their visitor center gift shop when it comes out!

Secondary sources – Though this isn’t always the case, often if you’re looking for a map to an old place that no longer exists, you’re not the only one looking. It’s likely others before you have wondered the same thing, and sometimes were persistent enough to find what they were looking for. This helps you, because they’ve already done the work. So don’t pooh-pooh secondary sources as legitimate places to do some research. No use reinventing the wheel if it’s not necessary – remember, work smart, and you won’t have to work so hard. Think of other people who may have need of the same map you’re seeking, and try them first, before launching off on your own search. Lots of people need or want locator maps for now-extinct municipalities: land surveyors, real estate developers, fossil fuel energy companies, metal detectorists. See if maybe they haven’t already done the work for you!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources for research, but it’s a good starting point. Good luck to everyone taking on such a project. It’s a worthwhile effort, but a challenging one.

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Research, Writing process

Advice to a would-be author: Researching Historical Nonfiction

This post from my legacy blog was initially posted April 11, 2009.

Archival research for historical items

Montgomery County, PA, writer Amanda Greenfield posted to my discussion board with several questions about how to go about researching a historical nonfiction book she’s working on about the Delaware Water Gap. It’s a huge subject area, and an ambitious project.

I wish her all the luck in finding a focus for her work that will allow her to cover what she’s most interested in, while making sure she can also delve deeply enough to add the detail her readers will want. It’s always a balancing act for any writer. In my experience, knowing what to leave out is at least as important as knowing what to put in.

Amanda asked where I got all the historic photos I used in “Devastation on the Delaware,” the documentary I wrote about the flood of 1955. She said, “I have been making phone call after phone call to only be on a wild goose chase.”

Unfortunately — and this is especially true for a first-time author who’s never done this kind of project before — finding sources for images and other archival material can prove more than daunting. And since — as a responsible historian — a writer needs to start with the research, such an issue can bring your project to an abrupt halt.

It helps to have a guide, a place to start. I’ve often thought about this since I completed that book, which was my first effort in writing contemporary history (the kind where there are still people alive who lived through the event you’re chronicling).

I wish I’d had such a guide myself, but I didn’t. I figured other writers could benefit from having one, so I’m actually formulating a workshop right now, titled “Researching Historical Nonfiction.” I’ll be teaching this course live in some of our local community schools, but I will also eventually be offering it as an online course. If you’d like to be put on the notification list when I’m actually ready to teach it, let me know: courses@thewordforge.com. Put “Historical Research course” in the subject line.
Meanwhile, my next entry will include a few observations and pointers to help you with your own historical research projects.