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?

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.

Autumn news

I realised it was a while since I’d posted an update here. This is a busy teaching term for me, but I have several events coming up, including a couple of talks in London, which are listed on my Events page.

I’m particularly looking forward to the first rehearsed reading of a new play on which I’ve been historical advisor. Shakespeare and his Black Mates, by Lynda Burrell and Fran Hajat, is at Nottingham Playhouse on Thursday 2 November, and it’d be great to see people there.

In academic life, I’ve been writing for and co-editing a volume on Queenship and Counsel in Early Modern Europe, which is close to completion and I hope will be out in 2018. That (I think) will be the last of my publications relating to the history of diplomacy, and I’ll be turning my attention to sixteenth-century guns for a while (as a research topic, that is).

Alongside all that, I’m writing a new non-fiction book for Bodley Head with the working title The Crucible of Europe. This will be my take on the period of the Italian Wars, 1494-1559. There are lots of famous names from these years (Christopher Columbus, Lucrezia Borgia, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli, Isabella d’Este, Michelangelo Buonarroti…). This is a book about the world in which they lived, and also–importantly–about lots of other people who you probably haven’t heard of but are just as intriguing. Publication is some way off, though: it’s a big project!

And… some of you will know that I’ve been writing a novel. I hope to have more news of what’s happening with that in the New Year.

Now to survive Intro Week and evade the pernicious Freshers’ Flu.

2017: New Year, new projects

2017 will feature some family history

Happy New Year! (You can insert the obligatory “wasn’t 2016 awful” line here.) I’m now a year and four months into working at Swansea University and have some big new projects for the coming year. (And, below, a few thoughts on managing workload and the REF.)

More Radio 3 Essays: In January you’ll be able to hear some very early findings from my new research project on the history of handguns as part of a Radio 3 Essay series on gun culture. And in March there’s a very new historical departure for me: I’ll be at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead with an Essay about my grandparents, who were missionaries in Dhaka and Kolkata from the 1940s to the 60s. This is some way out of my historical comfort zone, but I have done a fair bit of teaching on public perceptions of Britain’s imperial past. A few years into lecturing I’m finding new topics emerging from the teaching side of the job.

New research: There will be more research on that handguns project, which focuses on Italy c. 1500-1550, with a first paper at the Renaissance Society of America conference this spring. And some (more) grant applications in the hope of getting funding for the archive research I really need to do to get this up and running in a bigger way. Fingers crossed. I also have a couple of outstanding articles/chapters from previous projects to write up.

Fiction: For a while now I’ve been playing at writing a novel that’s a spin-off from The Black Prince of Florence. I’m going to finish it in 2017. I have no idea whether it’ll be publishable quality but the process is raising some interesting methodological issues for me about writing history so at the very least I’m hoping for a theory article.

Non-fiction: Yes. I hope to have news about a new non-fiction book project soon… and various other things that are at different stages of development… stay tuned…

Lectures: Besides those for my students, I have public lectures coming up at the British School at Rome (January), in Swansea (March) and in Leeds (September). I list these on my Talks & Events page, so keep an eye out there for details.

Is this an unfeasible workload? I agree it’s an ambitious one. But I’m not planning to finish all the big projects in 2017. And in the past few years I’ve got a lot better at breaking down larger writing tasks into tiny pieces. If I write 200 words a day every day for a year, for example (the equivalent of ten or eleven tweets a day), that’s a full draft (73,000 words) of an academic monograph. And with a 200-word daily target on a project it’s also possible to get ahead of the game by writing more some days, which is psychologically a lot more comforting than setting higher targets and then stressing about getting behind.

Academics reading this post may be wondering about how this pattern of work connects to the demands of the REF. One of the consequences of the huge uncertainty about the rules at the moment (to port or not to port, how many outputs per person, will impact be less linked to outputs, etc.) is that it’s basically impossible to plan. So I decided to stop worrying and work on things that interest me, which is probably, to be honest, the best route to turning out good publications.