​So You Think You Want to Write a Nonfiction Book…PART ONE

Disclaimer: My experience is limited to writing nonfiction. If you want insight into the process of writing and then publishing fiction, you will find more on that pursuit via other avenues. For the purposes of this series, I will be focusing on writing a nonfiction book, more specifically a research-based historical account of a particular life and its context.

Right before my first book Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown came out last year, an anonymous delivery man left a heavy box on my front steps, simultaneously kicking off one journey while concluding another. Over the last year, ever since I opened that box, I have had readers, interviewers, and more ask me the same question: how didyou do this?

If you walk into any bookstore, you will see thousands and thousands of books, each with a similar question at their heart. An inquiry entered into any search engine will produce thousands of links to authors’ responses, each with their own particular experience. While each book is unique, I hope you will find some information that will be useful for you as a writer with an idea.

You Have an Idea

All worthwhile pursuits begin with an idea. If you are here, you likely have one that might be fully formed and ready to go or is a seed waiting to be planted. For me, it started with the love of a sport and the desire to be a part of it somehow. I have been a fan of the sport since I was ten years old and I know my talents lie in writing and research so that seemed like a logical place to start. I knew the 100th anniversary of the Triple Crown was coming and I knew that the first horse to do it was Sir Barton. As a long-time horse racing fan, I thought I knew his story, but I also could not remember seeing a book on him, just him. I had several on the Triple Crown itself and its eleven* winners and had seen ones on other winners, but I had not seen a book on him alone. I had my idea.

Check Its Viability

Once I had the idea, I had to research to ensure that I was correct that no book on him already existed. Publishers and agents look at the marketability of your idea first. You might find six books on Secretariat, but if I can prove that people are interested in this subject and that my take on it is something new or timely, then my idea should find a home. In my case, if no other book on Sir Barton existed, that coupled with the anniversary gave me an edge that should make such a project worth my time. To ensure that a book on Sir Barton did not already exist, I searched libraries, bookstores, and other avenues to find only a memoir on that era in racing written by J.K.M. Ross, the son of Commander J.K.L. Ross, Sir Barton’s owner. Outside of that and the books on the Triple Crown, I found nothing. My efforts to write one would fulfill an unmet need. Bingo!

My idea now had to be put into practice. If I were to write this book, I had to make sure that I would have enough information to create the 250+ pages I envisioned such a story would need.

 No one else had written a book on him which sounds great on the surface until I realized that I would likely not be building off of another person’s work and adding to it. I was going to have to start from scratch. To do that, I needed to know that I could access the most crucial aspect of a project like this: research. I had the library at my fingertips already, but I live in Alabama so I needed access to resources that were not anywhere near me. Fortunately, resources like Newspapers.com and the Daily Racing Form archive were both easily accessible online. Interlibrary loan helped me gain access to books that weren’t available locally. A few trips to Lexington and hours spent in the Keeneland Library covered the rest. Not only was writing about Sir Barton viable from a business standpoint, but this kind of access to information made it feasible as well.

Create a Plan

Now here is where you might find yourself feeling a shade overwhelmed. It’s one thing to put a query in a search engine and sort through links to find information you need to answer a question or learn more about a topic, but the research necessary to write an entire book is another story. I have a B.A. and M.A. in English so I have had training and experience in a task like this one. However, that does not mean that only people with my background can write a nonfiction book. Anyone can provided you start with this important step: create a plan. Not an outline: a plan.

The great thing about a book about a life is that it has a natural progression to it that does much of the heavy intellectual lifting for you. He was born, he did some things, and then he died. Beginning, middle, end, done. I had a fixed series of milestones which made up the majority of the plan for the book, leaving some gray areas in terms of how to connect them. I made a list of twenty potential chapters and then set about finding the material needed to write.

The other plan I made was a series of deadlines for certain milestones. I wanted to have the book out by a certain date and then I had to estimate when I needed to complete other tasks in order to meet that goal: first draft by this date, agent by this date, publisher by this date, etc. While I was researching and writing, which is truly the vast majority of the time needed to create a book like this, I also had to bear the business side of this pursuit in mind. I knewI could write the book, the aspect of this undertaking I had control over, but I still needed to learn more about and consider the business side of this as I was working. A book is not just the words printed on pages bound between covers: it is also the mechanisms that get those words from screen to page.

Start Writing Already

Ironically, I’ve spent quite a bit of time to this point discussing issues peripheral to actual point of this blog: writing. Aside from the business aspects of writing, you can create plans and set deadlines, but none of it means a thing if you don’t actually do it. For obvious reasons, this is the part that took the longest. I started with my preliminary outline and then used the DRF archive to help me create a draft. I wrote about each race first and then started building bridges between each. I researched and then crafted the story of Sir Barton’s early life and then his post-racing time at stud   both in Virginia and then in the Remount Service. That initial draft, using only a few sources, was at least 60 pages. If I could get that much with a minimal amount of research, then how much could I do with additional research?

This part was not easy; I had days where I questioned whether or not anyone would want to read this. I wrestled with my confidence over my writing style and my research skills. Some topics thrilled me while others tested my resolve. I also discovered that I could not write this book part-time. Early on, I had continued teaching writing courses at a local university while writing and researching when I was not grading and preparing. However, it became apparently rather quickly that I could not sustain both. To write Sir Barton’s story, I needed to focus on that alone. I quit teaching and started writing full time.

All of us have demands on our time. You are the best judge of how you can and should use your time. Writing a book like this one is doable – as long as you accommodate for the demands of your life outside of this. As I wrote the early drafts, I had to adjust my expectations about what I could get done in a day, a week, a month. Understanding your writing process is key to the writing part of this task. This is why I spent time planning both the writing and the working part of this project. I needed those deadlines as I wrote to keep me focused on both research and writing. You may find that you need to do the same.

My list of chapters changed as I wrote. I adjusted to the changing demands on my time from my family and from this book that had become my magnum opus. I had days where words flowed out of my hands like water and others where I questioned how well I knew English. When the going got tough, as it inevitably will, I stuck to my plan, relishing my small victories while pushing through the trouble spots. As I inched closer to finishing the book, my office awash in piles of books and other research, I knew it was time to look at the next phase of this writing process: getting the darn thing published.

Next Time: Part II –Finding Your Idea a Home

Jennifer Kelly‘s book Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is available for order from your favorite bookseller. Check out her blog The Sir Barton Project for more on Sir Barton and his era as well as for information on Jennifer’s upcoming projects.