Getting started on a non-fiction book

So, you’ve decided to write a non-fiction book and you have a topic in mind. An important question to ask is: where am I starting from? You’re almost certainly not starting from nowhere. You know enough to think that the topic’s of interest: you may well have already done some work, perhaps quite a lot of work, on the project. Having a clear idea of where you are now in relation to the end point (finished book) helps identify where you need to go next.

The most common type of first academic book (in the UK at least) is the ‘book of the PhD thesis’. Here you’re likely to be starting with a lot of the research already done, and an idea of what you want to argue, so the key thing is to think through what needs to change for the book, and to understand why those things need to change. Your examiners are a valuable resource here: ask them what they’d want to see more (or less) of in a book on the same topic.

Some books draw on academic research but take it in quite a different direction. My first book, Our Man in Rome/The Divorce of Henry VIII, was one of these. I had nearly all the information I needed before I started on the project – I’d written a related PhD thesis – but I had to change the writing style dramatically to make the book accessible to general readers. That meant thinking more about narrative arc and going back to all the fun human interest details that had taken a back seat in the academic work but now came in handy to engage readers with the people featured in the book.

If you’re starting research with a wider readership in mind then you can make a point of looking for these details from the start. I looked at the Medici wardrobe accounts very early on when I was researching The Black Prince of Florence and they became a central source for the book. Details of dress and furnishings can do a lot to help establish character and to create an image of place and period in a reader’s mind. Not to mention that clothes carry a great deal of social and political significance.

I should add a caveat about how you use those details in non-fiction writing. There’s nothing worse than getting into the spectacular arrival of, say, Charles V at Aachen, only for the writer to stop and give you the entire history of Aachen from the year dot. Detail should help you make a narrative point. It may be that an incident from twelfth-century Aachen handily foreshadows something that’s about to happen, in which case go for it. But if it doesn’t, think carefully about how much of the background your reader needs to know.

Finally, knowing when to stop researching is an important skill if you’re ever going to finish a book. My current project is a book for a general readership on sixteenth-century Italy, a place and period that I’ve taught at university level. So I’ve already read a fair amount of material on the subject; I have an idea of what people find fascinating and which bits are hard work. I began this project with a rough idea of what I wanted to say, which has been refined as I’ve done more reading in the areas that are newer to me. But the biggest challenge has been deciding what to leave out as much as what to leave in, and acknowledging that I need to prioritise.

So, some questions to ask as you start a non-fiction project:

  • Who’s this book for, and how does that affect the style and content?
  • What do I already know, and what extra research do I need to do?
  • What’s the priority for that extra research? Getting a larger range of data to support an argument? Finding some local colour against which the protagonists’ lives will play out?
  • What am I going to have to leave out? Can I decide that now and avoid doing a load of work that will later get cut?
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Writing, word counts and targets

One of the trickiest things about managing a writing project is keeping on track to meet deadlines. #NaNoWriMo and to some extent its academic equivalent #AcWriMo are about setting writing targets for the month of November in an effort to make a chunk of progress on a piece of work.

This year, they’ve come at entirely the wrong time for me, because I’m at the point with my next non-fiction book* where I need to start redrafting sections I’ve already written and working up notes into continuous prose rather than writing more. That’s my priority so although I have a fiction project on the side I’m not going to do #NaNoWriMo. I do, however, recommend it for kickstarting a project: I did it without really planning to in 2016 (I was trying to avoid the real world) and got a draft of a novel up from 15k to 31k words.

The big push tactic worked for me that November because I was writing something set in a place and time I knew very well and I didn’t need to do much research. I could just sit down, imagine and turn out 500+ words a day, even alongside a busy teaching schedule. If you’re not at that point, you might need to set a different sort of target. This is not a one-size-fits-all business.

Personal circumstances also affect target-setting and writing practice. I like writing first thing, but if you have to get children to school or be on a commuter train at 6am then that may not suit you. Targets have to work for you as well as your book.

With that said, some examples of targets I’ve set for myself in the past include:

  • Writing 2,000 words a week. Weekly targets didn’t work very well for me. I tended to leave all the writing to one day, which meant that if I missed a week because I wasn’t feeling well, or because something urgent came up at work, then I had a lot of catching-up to do.
  • Writing 1000 words of notes/super-rough draft a day. I’ve had this target for my new non-fiction book to keep the research on track and was consistently beating it (though not in teaching term).
  • Writing 200 words a day. I have this mini-target at the moment for the side fiction project and again am ahead. That either means I’ll finish a draft ahead of schedule or (more likely) I’ll buy myself space for when I need to stop and work exclusively on finishing the main project.
  • Editing 20 pages of fairly polished draft a day (okay when I didn’t have much else on: a stretch alongside teaching).
  • Editing 3500 words of notes/super-rough draft a day (this is new: we’ll see how it goes).

I’ve found three big advantages of writing daily to modest targets. First, they keep the work fresh in my mind, which means I’m not constantly coming back to it after a break thinking ‘oh dear, now where have I got up to?’ Second, setting targets that I can often beat helps me feel like I’m ahead of the game (a good feeling) and means I have slippage time factored in if things go wrong. Third, reasonable targets help stop writing from sprawling into what should be time off. I find it much easier to stop and do something different if I can tick off my target for the day, which is in turn good for my work/life balance.

* My next non-fiction book, provisionally titled The Crucible of Europe, is about various people and things you have heard of from sixteenth-century Italy (and some you probably haven’t) and how they are connected. All being well, it will be out in Spring 2020.