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!

Why writing is like sex

In a way, writing is like sex; there are a lot more people talking about it than actually doing it.

I once had a job where I dealt with various architects on building projects. One of the architects was known to have a lively interest in Meso-American archeology. (Stick with me here: it gets better) Anyway, everyone knew about this passion of his, and several people told me, in a reverential tone. “He’s writing a book.”

Of course, I thought this was very cool and kept looking for this book. That was years ago and I’m still looking. Apparently, he either never finished the book, or never started. I have since learned that, where writing is concerned, there is often a big gap between saying and doing.

Writing is a prestigious activity to most people, a possible throwback to the dark ages when literacy was a sign of enlightenment denied to ordinary people. As a result, there are a lot more people talking about writing than actually doing it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If everyone who talks about writing were to actually be writing, the market would be even more crowded than it already is.


Still, knowing who is and who isn’t writing can be tricky. As a guide, here is a handy translator for some of the statements people make about their own literary endeavors.

“I could write a book.”

Translation: “I have a lot of experience in what I’m talking about.”

( This person will never actually write a book.)

“I’m going to write a book.”

Translation: Same as above, only with a little more emphasis.

(The chances of this person actually starting to write a book: about 1%. The chances of this person actually finishing a book: 10%)

“I’m writing/working on a book.”

Translation: This person may actually be writing a book, or may be just trying to come off as an authority on whatever he was just talking about.

(The chances of this person actually writing/working on a book: 60%. The chances of this person actually finishing a book: 20%.)

“I wrote a book.”

Translation: “I have written a book. It may or may not have been published.”

(Unless the person is a brazen liar, they have actually completed a book. Congratulations. Although one person who made this claim actually showed me the book. It was about 40 handwritten pages on notebook paper.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go; I’m writing/working on a book.

Clean reading- What the fudge is that?

Lately, a lot a writers have been buzzing about the “Clean Reading” app. What this app does is take an ebook or other digital piece and filter out objectionable “dirty” words and substitute a cleaner version of the word on your screen. (Movies edited for TV do something similar) The reader can even select the exact substitutes he wants. The app doesn’t actually alter the document, and thus avoids claims of copyright infringement. The app simply changes the way selected words are displayed to the reader.

Now a lot of authors, and even a lot of readers are outraged that readers would mess with the purity of the author’s vision, thinking it’s like painting a veil on the Mona Lisa. “If you’re not mature enough to handle a few dirty words,”  they say, “you shouldn’t be reading books with adult themes”. Besides, language helps define character. You cant have a Mafia hit man talking like the Duke of Wellington. Real people use rough language, so real characters should as well.

While I understand these arguments, they seem, to me, to be missing the point. I doubt that many people object to a few stray profanities in a story. The problem, I think, is that some authors lather it on so thick that it’s mind-numbing, and seriously gets in the way of the story. A character that uses the f word as noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, and all around filler in everything he says is like a character that sneezes, or says “ya know” between every word; boring, annoying, and tedious. Yes, there are real people who speak this way, but I wouldn’t shell out good money to listen to them. I think this is what the readers who embrace the clean reading app are saying, and I think it is a message that writers should not ignore.

A quick burst of profanity at the right place can be shocking and provide emphasis, as when Rhett Butler said “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Yes, I know that’s a movie, not a book, but the same principle holds.) And when straight-laced, proper Marge Simpson was at the end of her tether in The Simpsons Movie and yelled out “Homer, just throw the goddamned thing!”, it was hilarious because it was so unexpected and so out of character. Contrast this with a movie such as Goodfellas, an otherwise superb film, but one in which the relentless barrage of f words came so thick and fast they threatened to bury the story and probably made the film 20 minutes longer. But what about authenticity? Authenticity through language is overrated; all the Japanese in Memoirs of a Geisha conversed in English, but the story didn’t suffer in the least.

So, if you’re a writer, maybe you should look at what you are writing and make sure readers don’t feel the need to use a filter to read it. Getting people to read your work is hard enough; don’t put in obstacles and turn offs.