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.