Between Books: Methods for Writing Non-Fiction

Every time I write a new non-fiction book (I’ve finished three now, somehow), I feel like I’m making it up as I go along. There aren’t many guides out there to writing non-fiction books the way there are for novels. Whenever I go looking among the “writing instruction” stacks, all I find are books about how to structure your this, that, or the other kind of novel, 30 days to finishing your novel, elements of the novel, etc. On non-fiction? Almost nothing. And the stuff you can find is likely to focus on the theory, rather than practice, of non-fiction: What is non-fiction? What are the ethics? There might be a little something about how to research, but that’s about as practical as they get. I have two guesses as to why this is: 1. By the time you need to write a non-fiction book, you’ve likely sold it on proposal, so there’s not really a market for books that explain how to do it. In other words, millions of amateurs can dabble in novel writing, making it a viable market for instruction. Non-fiction writers are already at some level of professionalism; they’re also a much smaller market. 2. Nobody really knows how to do this, and we’re all making it up as we go along.

Here, a few things I’ve learned so far through the trial and error of writing non-fiction books. Maybe it will help a few other struggling souls. If you’ve got tips of your own, I would love to hear them.

1. Google the crap out of your topic, and look for names that pop up more than once. Those are your potential interview subjects.

2. Google the crap out of each of them, until you find a way of contacting them. Email is ideal, for a variety of reasons: It’s low stakes. It allows you to explain who you are and what you want in writing, in a clear fashion, rather than assaulting your targets over the phone at their home when they have no idea who you are. If email isn’t available, I try mailing a letter. This is like email, but on paper, and slower. In the letter I explain myself and give them my phone number, asking them to call me. This has worked a number of times for me. It’s also fun and old-fashioned and intriguing: A letter from a stranger asking them to call a number!

3. Do tons of interviews. Interview everyone you can think of. Even if they’re not major “characters” in the action, they’re worth talking to. They’ll lend a different perspective. And often they’ll remember things better than the major players, who were too caught up in their lives to notice. A great example of this in my forthcoming book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is a guy named Joe Rainone. The producers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show mentioned him to me a few times, and I kept searching for him. Alas, they’d remembered his name wrong, so it took a while. But just before my book was due, I found the show’s original super-fan, a 20-year-old kid from Rhode Island who wrote the producers detailed letters every week analyzing each episode. He eventually visited the set a few times. What was particularly great was that he remembered the set and the people in such vivid detail, because he didn’t spend every day there, and this was a big deal in his then-young life. Whereas the producers weren’t sure, say, where the finale party was held, Joe remembered the party and the cake and the exact progression of events. He also ended up making one hell of a character in his own right, but that was just a nice bonus.

4. Go back and cross check interviews, as much as possible. If you can get people back for a quick follow-up phone, or even email, interview, check on details you didn’t nail down the first time. If you didn’t ask before, make sure you get all the little things, like what people wore or when things happened or what the weather was like. You’ll need all this when you start writing. To make it easy, just tell your subjects what you’re doing: “I want to re-create this scene in my book as accurately as possible, so I’m going to ask you a bunch of weird, detailed questions.” They’ll get it, and usually help out.

5. Consider having some of your subjects read the parts of the book that are specifically re-creating their personal experience, with the caveat that you’re not giving them carte blanche to take back things they revealed to you or to edit to their liking. Be careful and only do this with sources you trust to be collaborative. But it can pay dividends — some of my sources on Mary and Lou ended up filling in sensory details and background from their childhoods that I never would have known to ask. The result is a really rich and personal portrait.

6. Get really geeky. Libraries can be so fun. Filling out bits of narrative can be like a treasure hunt. At which theater did Mary Tyler Moore make her Broadway debut? What else was happening in New York City at the time? What did she usually eat for lunch on the set? How did interviewers at the time describe her? What on earth happened at this feminist conference where producer James L. Brooks swears Gloria Steinem raked him over the coals for unfeminist leanings on the show? When and where was this thing, anyway? These are all questions I answered by skulking around libraries and, in one triumphant moment, tracking down documents in Gloria Steinem’s archive at Smith College. (Thank you again, Smith College librarians!) I even found an audio recording of this event. I could hear when photographers were snapping like crazy at Steinem, or when the crowd laughed or mumbled. And for the record, she wasn’t as mean as he thought; then again, he had stage fright, so he was probably feeling sensitive to begin with.

7. Put all that away, and make it into a story. This is the hardest part. I usually print everything out (I know, I know, killing trees, it’s true), then spend a lot of time on my sofa highlighting the best parts. Then I make a huge master list of the big chunks (“Steinem and Brooks at conference,” “Writer Treva Silverman falls in love with screwball comedy as a girl,” etc., with years next to them if I know them). Then I put that in rough chronological order. Then I try to make something resembling a story arc out of them. That’s all very tedious, and not nearly as easy as it sounds, but it’s possible. Once you have this, you can actually write.

8. Write the damn thing. (This takes much longer than this step implies.)

9. Edit the damn thing.

10. Have other people read it.

11. Probably redo most of it.

12. Voila, a book.

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5 comments

  1. “….a guy named Joe Rainone,” eh? Well, I’m glad I was able to help. And thanks for the many kind words. The initial letter from you was just what you described at the end of point 2: “…fun and old-fashioned and intriguing…” Actually, that’s not a bad description of the author herself.

  2. I was a major fan of the show too, and intrigued by your mention of Joe Rainone, searched for and found his whole experience online at a Mary Tyler Moore fan site. What a great story! How cool that Joe took the trouble to write and document so much about the show, and way cool that Mary and company welcomed him on set. I was a 13-year-old babysitter when the show debuted, and a 20-year-old baby feminist when it ended. Today my husband and I laugh at rebroadcasts on METV, and can’t get over how fresh and funny the writing still is after forty years. Your blog is great and I’m looking forward to your reading book!

  3. So THAT’S how you found me! It was so flattering and fun being interviewed for your book and looking back on my very first sitcom writing job and life in the ’70’s. Love your blog too!

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