HOW TO WRITE A HISTORY BOOK

By Patrick T. McBriarty

 

Each author has her or his own approach, but the trick to writing a book is trusting the process.  As Hemingway advised a young writer, “the first draft of anything is shit!” explaining that the real work comes in the revising, rewriting, and reworking of a manuscript as many as forty, maybe fifty times, to get to the finished product.

For many writers, myself included, the first draft can be the hardest to complete, even though it is rarely where the bulk of the time lies.  It is difficult because it means turning off one’s internal editor, eschewing expectations, and silencing your ego to get something, anything, however bad, on the page.  Trying to make it good, let alone great, out of the gate is neigh impossible and just slows or can kill the process before it even begins.  The desire for perfection at the onset just causes procrastination or at worst writer’s block.

A few years ago, I received great advice (thanks Motsey!) from a fourth-grade class sharing the concept of a first draft as a “sloppy copy.”  Thinking of it in this way – that the initial draft does not matter – helps take the pressure off and encourages free writing.  No expectations.  Just write.  The first baby step in the process.  Of course, it is not your best work.  That IS the point!  Get some ideas on paper (or into the computer).  Calling it a sloppy copy reminds you not to worry how it looks, because later you will of course edit and fix it up.

Though my friends may beg to differ, I do not really consider myself creative.  So my process leans heavily on research, often gathered over the course of several years, regularly immersing myself for days, weeks, and ideally, months at a time in original sources, secondary books, and related topics to develop a story.  Intensive immersion gets much of the material in your head to encourage long jags of writing (and editing) so the words and ideas can flow and pour out.  This is ideal when there are little or no interruptions externally, or internally – like feeling the need to look things up or fumbling with gaps in the story.  In early drafts one trick I use to minimize internal interruptions is to quickly identify a gap and move on.  I do this by simply acknowledging to myself, “I don’t know this part,” and make a note in the text like, [check this], [look this up], or [source?] to leave it behind and keep on with the flow of writing.  By making these notes in bold and brackets they are easy to pick off and deal with later during an edit review.

Of late I have been collecting original documents surrounding Chicago on the cusp of the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1816).  I have come to trust in the process of developing a collection, which was how I approached my first book on Chicago’s bridges.  Collecting itself prompts additional queries and research needed to fill in gaps and offers, for me at least, what becomes a very powerful launching pad of expertise.

 

Patrick T. McBriarty is author of Chicago River Bridges and the children’s picture books Drawbridges… Airplanes.. & City Railways….  and co-producer of the documentary Chicago Drawbridges.