Writing Non Fiction 3-Research and digging up gold

For some authors, research is a necessary chore; for others it is much of the fun. I happen to belong to the latter group. Research is like rummaging around in a well stuffed attic full of books, old steamer trunks, clothes, odds and ends, an amazing discoveries. You never know what you will find. It can even lead to another book!

Today, research is easier than ever thanks to the Internet. So how do you start?

Primary and secondary sources- A primary source is a straight from the horse’s mouth source and a secondary source is one step removed. For instance, if you are doing a story of, say, the letters of J.K. Rowling and you were able to examine the actual letters, that would be a primary source. If you were to interview J. K. Rowling, that would be a primary source as well. If you reviewed the letters from another book about the letters, or a synopsis, or if you used other papers written about the letters or interviewed someone who once knew someone J.K. Rowling corresponded with, they would all be secondary sources. Secondary sources are very useful, especially when dealing with events long past. Reviewing other books on the subject can give a fresh perspective. Reviewing several books can point up inconsistencies in how the topic is perceived by others and that can be valuable as well.

Wikipedia and specialized web sites- Although it is fast and often thorough, Wikipedia has a community editing feature that is both its strength and its weakness. Enabling lots of people to make additions or edits vastly increases the spread of knowledge available to any article, but it can open the door to ax-grinders as well. My own rule is to be very skeptical of Wikipedia when the topic is anything political or controversial, because such topics can attract people who want to insert their opinions and have them accepted as fact. For more mundane topics such as the history of garlic, how a jet engine works, or the Treaty of Ghent, however, Wikipedia is great. The articles are richly detailed, thorough, and annotated with lots of links to other sources. Wikipedia is also a place that cover more obscure topics that are hard to research elsewhere.

Specialized websites fall into the same category, especially sites run by enthusiasts. A J.K. Rowling site might be rich with resources, links and inside information, but don’t expect objectivity.

Libraries- Libraries have lots of resources you won’t find elsewhere and are adding more databases of materials all the time. One great one for historical research is ProQuest, a digitized archive of major newspapers, searchable by topic and date, all the way back to the 1850s! It beats scrolling through microfilm files by a mile! And there are specialized libraries for law, medicine, locations, famous people, etc. Not all libraries have ProQuest, but it is available by subscription.


Government sources- You pay your taxes (I assume.) so why not make use of government resources? The National Archives, Library of Congress, FBI, etc.  have tons of files, documents, photos, and historical documents both in D.C. and on line.

People: Relatives and descendants- If you are writing about someone who is deceased, you can still track down relatives and dependents who may know about the person. When I wrote about the long-gone Ellis Parker, I found grandchildren and cousins of both Parker and others involved in the events. (Including Hope Nelson, the daughter of New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman.) They contributed inside info, clues, and a lot of family photos available no where else. One had a collection of his pipes and another had all of Parker’s old driver’s licenses and membership cards in the Elks!

Field trips- Going to the scene of whatever you write about is invaluable. You can get a feel for the time and place a lot better than at a library. When I went to the Lindbergh house, now a school for boys, and actually experienced the layout of the place, it became obvious that some of the theories of the case were wrong. One author thought the kidnapper did not come back down the cracked ladder, but crept down the stairs and out the front door. Since this would have taken him directly in front of the room where Lindbergh was sitting at the time, I could see this was pretty much impossible.

Museums- Some places have local museums about historic events and some places have specialty museums. There are museums of magic, plumbing, UFOs, trains, aviation, potatoes, and even cockroaches. In addition to the exhibits, specialty museums often have libraries dedicated to the subject and people who are enthusiasts and have been digging for info their entire adult lives.


Artifacts- In museums, antique shops, or even your attic might be objects relating to your topic and the objects can be used to inform both you and the reader. An old spinning wheel or old typewriter can show how mechanical creativity was used before electronics. Even that old souvenir Japanese rifle your great grandfather brought back from the Pacific after World War 2 has an informative tale to tell. On the receiver, the metal part just behind the rear sight and in front of where the bullets go in is the stamped image of a Chrysanthemum, the symbol of the Emperor. On almost every rifle, the symbol has been almost filed or ground off so that the Emperor wouldn’t lose face in defeat. (The picture on the left is the untouched stamp; on the right is one filed down.)


This was done at great effort at the end of the war, even though the country was in ruins, and speaks volumes for the way the Japanese regarded the Emperor.

Two more rules- There are two other rules for non fiction research; use multiple sources to assure completeness and verified accuracy, and know when to stop. You can get wrapped up in research so much you never finish, because there will always be another source to run down and another lead to investigate, and another tidbit to add. When I wrote Master Detective, someone else had been working on a similar book for 20 years, but died before it was ever finished. Don’t be a victim of analysis paralysis!

Next time we’ll cover various ways of organizing your non fiction masterpiece.

Reporters who don’t read the news

If you were a reporter, wouldn’t you feel it necessary to actually be somewhat familiar with current events? I don’t mean memorizing everything around the world, but maybe learn at  least the basics of the story you are supposedly investigating?

Recently, a video reporter for the TMZ website tried an ambush interview with Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio at an airport. Did he ask about politics, foreign policy, or economics? You know; the sort of things presidents actually are responsible for? No way. He asked about Cecil the Lion, no doubt hoping for a sensational or controversial response from the ambushed candidate. Now neither Rubio nor any other candidate has any special knowledge or insight into the event, and, as president, would almost certainly never deal with it, so there is no earthly reason their opinion should be sought. Of course, reporters can ask what they like, no matter how idiotic. But at least they should have a nodding acquaintance with the background.

The reporter asked Rubio about Cecil the Tiger. It would have been wonderful if Rubio had said “He’s grrrrrreat!”, but he went along, gently correcting the idea that Cecil the Lion was a tiger.

Well, just a slip of the tongue, right? Sorry, there is no excuse for so basic a mistake. None.

Thousands of articles have been written about this incident in the last week or so, and every one used the word lion to describe the animal in question. I am not aware of any that ever used the word tiger. And even if every article had mistakenly claimed Cecil was a tiger anyone with a basic education should have known this was impossible. The only way to kill a tiger in Africa would be to go hunting in a zoo, because tigers live in India and Southeast Asia, not Africa.

Yet the reporter asked about Cecil the Tiger.

Where do they find these guys? Are they capable of shame?

Writing Non Fiction 2- So how do you pick a topic?

All right, so you’ve decided to write non fiction. Congratulations. Now what do you write about? Of course, if you’re already an expert on something, give it a go, but what if you’re not? Well, here’s the dirty little secret of non fiction writing: You don’t write a book because you’re an expert; you’re an expert because you write a book! Writing a book gives you instant credibility. Even working on a book does the same. It shows you are serious, and not just some blowhard. My book on Ellis Parker and the Lindbergh kidnapping resulted in my appearance on TV’s Mysteries at the Museum, a place on an “expert” panel on the Lindbergh kidnapping the the New York Musical Theater Festival, and invitations to scads of lesser venues. My criminology background? Well, I once got a parking ticket.

So the sky’s the limit pretty much. So that brings us back to picking a topic. Your object should be to find something new and original to say about a compelling topic that will resonate with the public. Simple, huh? Of course, that could be a basic course taught at the Academy of the Blindingly Obvious. How do you actually do it?


For most people, finding a topic is a mixture of luck and determination. You have to be alert to hints you see or hear drifting around you all the time; a newspaper article; a book; a factoid you heard somewhere; a folk tale or rumor, or some crazy factoid or blog you stumble over on the Internet. Almost anything can set you off in the right direction, but you have to be scanning your environment constantly. The more you read the better, but your own experiences are a good source as well. Here are some of mine:

A paragraph about famous detectives in an anthology resulted in Master Detective

A History Channel special about the capture of a U-boat and its encoding machine became Evasive Action

Stumbling upon the ruins of an old hotel during a vacation in the Bahamas led to Nassau

An old book about the French invasion of Mexico led to Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico

A  footnote in a book about the conquest of Mexico led to The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero

An email from a retired heart surgeon who had personal knowledge of a mysterious double killing in New Jersey led to the entire Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mystery series based on true cases.

Well, you get the idea. Subjects pop up all the time. The question is; how do you select one? Here are a few ideas:

First of all, it has to be something that will interest the public, that is, if you expect anyone to actually read the book. Just because you have had a lifelong fascination with Albanian cheese recipes doesn’t mean anyone else will.

Second, it has to be something that interests you. You are going to be spending a lot of time on the project, so you’d better like it a lot or you will be miserable and probably never finish.

Once your topic gets check marks in the first two requirements, there are some more considerations.

Is it researchable? Some topics, especially biographies simply do not have enough resources to research. Maybe the records were burned, lost, in private hands, or never existed in the first place. Remember, you can’t just make stuff up. If you can’t find the information you need, you will be shot down sitting in the hanger.

Will you be able to find some new angle? Most topics have been done in one way or another. You will probably not be the only one to write on the topic, so why should they select your book? Good luck if you plan to write a book about Lincoln, for instance. Whatever your topic, you will need an angle; a hook to grab readers. Maybe it’s new information from a new source (like undiscovered diaries). Maybe it’s a new theory on a famous event. Maybe it’s a more extensive treatment than has been done before and with new details. Maybe it’s a new interpretation or a combining of previous theories. (You see this a lot with books “identifying” Jack the Ripper). Or maybe you can take something familiar and turn it into a self help book. (Management Secrets of Mussolini, maybe) There is actually a self-help book out that claims to be able to teach you how to make money by writing self-help books!)

I know these guidelines are pretty non specific, but finding a topic is like finding a mate; you can apply rational standards all you want, but there will always be a huge amount of subjective consideration that goes with it. Some things feel right and some don’t. You have to figure it out for yourself.

So, assuming you find a compelling topic and think up a fascinating angle on it, how do you do the research?

We’ll talk about that in Part 3.

Improving on Reality by Writing Non Fiction 1 (Why bother?)

Writing falls into two very broad categories; Fiction and non fiction. The conventional wisdom, at least for beginning writers, seems to be that fiction is the way to go because non-fiction is much more difficult and demanding. Non fiction requires that the author be an authority on the subject and must tackle the mysterious and forbidding world of research.

If it’s really that intimidating, it’s a wonder anybody writes non fiction, but is it really that bad?

Well, not really. Nobody who is writing fiction should be afraid to try non fiction. The reason is simple: if you are writing fiction, you are already writing non fiction. Look at it this way. Fiction has to be believable, and that means it has to be firmly grounded in reality. That means the characters have to act and react as real people do; places have to have the look and feel of real places, and details have to be accurate and fit in with the story. In short, every work of fiction must be firmly grounded in non fiction elements. So, if you are writing fiction, you are already writing non fiction.

Well, that’s all well and good, but you still have to have to do all that research and getting the facts right. So why would anyone bother writing non fiction when you can just make things up? Why muck around with all that research and fact checking? After all, with fiction, you are in control; you are the god of your particular universe. With non-fiction, though, you are at the mercy of other people and events. Someone else is calling the shots. Well, there are several reasons you might want to go the non fiction route in spite of its drawbacks:

1- Maybe you just like non fiction better.

There are many readers who won’t touch fiction, preferring the real world and believing they are learning something as well as being entertained. Maybe you are the same way. Maybe you just enjoy the real world more than, say, Hogwarts. If this is the case, you will find non fiction writing more satisfying and rewarding. After all, if you don’t enjoy something, why do it? Certainly not for the money!

2-You want to actually add to the sum total of human knowledge.

When you research a non fiction work, you dig up facts and find sources to shed light on the topic. Sometimes you can find a whole new perspective or theory about a topic.In short, you can actually add to what people know about your topic in some small way.

3- You might want to shine a spotlight on a previously unknown or neglected topic.

Maybe you think the contributions of left-handed Methodists in the Quartermaster Service during the Boer War have been neglected for too long. Well, here’s your chance to make it right. Maybe you think the world is woefully ignorant of barn paining techniques in nineteenth century Nebraska. As the saying goes, you can make a difference. In my own case, I stumbled on the story of Ellis Parker, a New Jersey detective who got involved in the Lindbergh kidnapping case and obtained a signed confession from his suspect…after the state of New Jersey had sentenced someone else! The story was not unknown, but was regarded as a sidelight to the case. No one had even looked at Parker’s life and career in depth, and I thought it was a story worth telling. The result was Master Detective.


4- You are an unknown writer

Look, if you are famous already, you can write pretty much any old dreck and a fair number of people will buy it. If you’re also a good writer, like Steven King or Janet Evonovich, people will buy your work just based on your name and be glad they did. But if you’re an unknown, you have an uphill fight. This is where non fiction comes in, because when people consider buying non fiction, they are not as particular about how well known you are. Fiction buyers often go by the author’s name, and support their favorites. An unknown fiction writer has a hard time getting their attention, much less their money.

Fiction is a crowded field. If the buyer must choose between you and a “name” author, the name author will win every time. If you look through fiction listings, the stuff all starts to look the same. Consider the standard write up for a mystery for instance.

“When (fill in a quirky profession or personal trait here) Mary Smith visits (fill in random town, city, national park, or other quaint location here), she finds more than she bargained for when a corpse in found in the (fill in quirky location and/or position here). As she and her (BFF, mother, accountant, parole officer, fiancee, cat) investigate, they find the old (town, resort, train station, country club, mansion) holds dark secrets that no one wants them to know. Soon, another corpse turns up and Mary wonders if she’ll be next.”

If you are inclined to read something like this, why spend good money on an unknown?

Non fiction buyers, however, are looking for subject matter. If they think the subject of your book is one they would like, they will be far less particular about whether or not your name is well-known. If you are looking for a book on, say, Seventeenth century alternative lute tunings, and there is only one available, who cares if the author is J. Doppler Squidapple, Jr.? Of course, if you are writing a book about quantum physics in your spare time from your job as a billiard ball polisher, you might meet some sales resistance anyway, but by and large, your fame is not nearly as important in non fiction.

So now that we’ve covered why you might want to write non fiction, we’ll talk about how to get started in the next post.

The Unsinkable Violet Jessop

People who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 were a select fraternity. After all, there were only a few hundred of them. But how many had the experience twice? As far as we know, there was only one: Violet Jessop.

Violet Jessop was a stewardess on the Olympic, the first of three state of the art sister ships of the White Star Line. The others were the Titanic, and the Britannic. The ships were almost identical. On one of her first voyages on the Olympic, the ship collided with a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke. Although two watertight compartments were flooded, the Olympic was able to limp back to port and Violet Jessop counted herself lucky to have survived a near disaster. A few years later, she was on the new Titanic on her maiden voyage. When the ship hit the iceberg, Violet found herself in a lifeboat. As the boat was being lowered, someone thrust a baby in her hands for safekeeping. After a long night in the lifeboat, Violet, the baby, and the others in the boat were rescued by the Carpathia. On the Carpathia, Violet says, a woman took the baby from her and disappeared without saying a word.

Now she had survived two collisions in two identical ships.

Violet_jessop_titanic But fate wasn’t through with Miss Jessop just yet. In 1916, she was on the third of the sister ships, the Britannic, which was operating as a hospital ship carrying wounded in the Mediterranean. One night, the Britannic struck a mine (or was possibly torpedoed.) off of Greece while cruising with the portholes open for ventilation. Once again, Violet Jessop went into a lifeboat, after being sure to take her toothbrush, but jumped out to avoid the propellers. She was rescued from the water after hitting her head on the keel of the lifeboat.


The Britannic

Violet Jessop continued her seagoing career and was briefly married. At one point, many years later, she claimed she got a phone call from the now-grown baby she rescued on the Titanic, but the records aren’t clear.

None of her subsequent ships sank, but she remains the only known person to have survived the sinking of both the Titanic and the Britannic, as well as the collision of the Olympic- the trifecta of maritime disasters as far as the Olympic class ships are concerned. She died in 1971.

Maryland gets it right on sales tax for book sales- (Yes, you read that correctly)

Some time ago, I wrote a post called The Taxman Commeth about the onerous requirements of the New Jersey taxation folks when I wanted to sell some books at a talk I was giving in that state and  asked how I was to submit any resulting sales tax. (Normally, I can get a local bookstore to take care of the sales and tax issues, but this time, there wasn’t one available) In the Garden State, it turns out, I would be required to register with the state and submit tax information for my business prior to the event, then, after the one-shot event, submit new forms to close out my previous registration (after sending in whatever sales tax I collected). In addition to the red tape, and the sales tax itself, I would be required to pay a fee of $150! I would have to sell books to at least half the people at the event just to break even. I decided to not sell at the event. I simply referred interested people to an on line bookseller and hoped they followed through.
So you can understand why, when faced with a similar event in Maryland, I approached my home state’s tax people with some trepidation. After all, Maryland is not exactly a low-tax state, nor is it known for avoiding fees, ad-ons, or Kafka-like compliance requirements on occasion. So, imagine my surprise when the nice lady at the tax office took my information on the phone and said they would be sending me a simple form to fill out and return with the appropriate sales tax once I had completed the one-time event. What’s more, there was NO CHARGE for this form or for any processing! The form duly arrived and I used it as stated, sending in the sales tax, but nothing additional. The whole experience was painless and sensible. So while I seldom find myself singing the praises of very much in the Maryland Tax Code, they at least got this part right. If you want people to pay taxes and pay them fully, make the experience as rational, simple, and easy as possible. Don’t punish them for trying to send you money.

(Plus, when people are voluntarily trying to comply, don’t have the gall to charge then an onerous fee for the privilege!)

Adding (or subtracting) cats from your story

More than one writer has resorted to adding a cat character to spice up a story. Well, if one cat is good, why not several hundred? Here is a (supposedly) true story that features all the cats you could ask for. True or not, the story offers great possibilities to someone who wants to write about weird events.

Poplar island in the Chesapeake Bay  a few miles south of the bridge(s) was once a small community, but eroded away to just a few acres over the years, before being restored with dredge material from the Baltimore shipping channel in a state and Corps of Engineers project. The ongoing operation is very impressive in its scope and in what is being learned about restoring eroded land with dredged material. After almost disappearing, Poplar Island is being restored and the shipping channels are being kept deep enough for commercial traffic up and down the bay.

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No place ever escapes its past, however, and Poplar Island is no exception. Stories abound about some of the peculiarities on the island in the old days. One such story involves a man in the 1800s who had an entrepreneurial spirit.

At the time, he noticed  there was a big demand for black cats in China. The Chinese were apparently making fur coats or similar products out of them and were paying good prices. Poplar Island was sparsely inhabited at the time, and the man started gathering black cats to ship to China. He paid a few cents for strays and found a local fisherman to supply him with fish parts to feed them. Soon, he had hundreds of cats on the island, and was ready to ship them off to China. Unfortunately for him, it was now October, and he thought it was too risky to depend on a sea voyage with winter coming on. Best to wait for spring and ship them off then, he thought.

Big mistake.

That winter was unusually cold, and the water between Poplar Island and the mainland froze over. Seeing their chance, the cats all crossed the ice and disappeared on the other side, leaving the cat tycoon penniless on an eroding island.


So long, suckers!