Every time I start writing a new book, I intend to read or re-read books about the craft of writing as I work. (The practice evaporates about two weeks into each project.) For the current book, I actually pulled all the books I wanted to read off the shelf and stacked them on the floor next to my reading chair, where they sat as a reproachful monument to good intentions.
Earlier this week I led a Zoom discussion about writing history for the American Society of Journalists and Authors as part of their virtual conference. In the course of preparing, I pulled those books about writing non-fiction and dipped in and out, reading the passages I’d marked as inspiring or thought-provoking or simply irritating.* (Yes, I am a barbarian and mark up books as I read. It’s my way of having a conversation with the author)
It turned out to be a useful exercise, not only in preparing for the Zoom discussion, but as a manageable version of my idealized reading project. I sought out passages I remembered. I stumbled onto passages I had forgotten. I made a list of tips and ideas and anecdotes to share with the participants in my Zoom discussion.
The heart of what I had to say came down to three ground rules:
1. You can’t make stuff up.
Which is not to say that you can’t engage in imaginative re-construction based on what you do know as long as you tell the reader that’s what you’re doing. In fact, historians depend on some variation of “We don’t know whether ————, but it seems likely and this is why.” The authors of two of the most exciting works of history that I have read in recent months take this one step further. (Reviews of both are coming to a blog post near you at some point in the future.) They envision a scene, and then step back to discuss the evidence on which they based the scene. I’m not sure I have the chops to pull that off.
2. You can’t leave stuff out if it will change your story, your conclusions, or way we view your main character in significant ways.
3. You need to keep a grasp on the chronology, both in your head and on the page. Even if you abandon a straight line from beginning to end–and realistically, every story requires at least one side trip–you need to leave your readers clues that allow them to orient themselves in time. As a reader, I hate it when I think “Wait a minute, when is this?”
Nothing surprising here, but sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves of the basics.
Today my non-fiction library is going back on the shelf. Job accomplished.
*I am embarrassed to admit that it didn’t occur to me until this morning to look at earlier issues of my newsletter: twice a month for almost five years I’ve written about thinking and writing about history. *headsmack* If this is something you might be interested in, here’s a link to a recent issue: https://bit.ly/3hGyh3l