How to write a nonfiction book

Want to write a book about an event? A good story you want to share with other people?

The first step is thinking about your audience. Who will read the book? Who will pay for it? How will you tell your prospective readers about your book? What similar books can you find already on the market?

If you think you have a reasonable chance of selling your book, begin your research. Because you’re writing about an event that might have hit the news, hunt for all the documents that contain facts and clues that will help you tell a clear, accurate story. Stories in newspapers and on broadcast stations, if reported in depth, will supply names of witnesses and references to records and reports. Court documents, such as affidavits, vital records and trial testimony are mostly open to the public. Letters, emails, diaries and other personal correspondence can provide important insight into events and the people involved.

When I wrote ‘Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance,’ I read all the court files I could find. The federal prison file for Jerry Myles, the longtime convict who instigated the riot, ran about 700 pages. I contacted surviving relatives of guards and inmates to ask for letters and other documents. As much as possible you’ll want primary sources, meaning documents written from the actual event or people who were involved in it.

You’ll also want to interview everyone you can find who has first-hand knowledge of the event. Some of them will want to talk. Others won’t. If the event was traumatic, such as the riot I investigated, people will be wary. Be persistent but not overbearing. Sources are less inclined to talk when they’re being hounded and pushed. Be careful of people who claim to have knowledge of an event because they read it someplace or falsely claim they were involved in the event. (Yes, it happens.) Corroborate everything you hear. Primary sources are always the best, but even people with first-hand knowledge of an event sometimes forget key facts.

Once you’ve collected a sizable body of information, outline your book. What key points do you want to make? What would interest readers more? What would put them to sleep? When you begin writing, prepare for long hours alone in a room where you can concentrate. Writing will take months. Often it can take years. Your first draft is only a start. You’ll find new angles to research. I put Jerry’s Riot through at least 15 revisions before I considered it publishable, and I’m a journalist with years of experience. It took me 10 years to complete the book from the first research to the last proof.

Many people who want to write their first book underestimate the skill, commitment, sacrifice and devotion necessary to write and publish. That discovery can be awakening to some folks, discouraging to others. Occasionally, though, first-time authors will leap all the hurdles to successfully put a book into print. That’s an achievement to celebrate.

2 thoughts on “How to write a nonfiction book

  1. When I taught writing to 8th graders, 4th graders, and 2nd grade, I always encouraged them to keep journals of their experiences. And to think about their senses. What they smelled, saw, heard with the experiences.

    • Great idea, Karen. I wish I had done the same way back when. No doubt some of my teachers encouraged writing in a journal. I probably spent my time chasing girls instead. Kevin

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