“Non-fiction and Historical Research”

This is a guest post by author S. L. Kotar

S. L. Kotar (with J. E. Gessler) sold their first teleplay to the iconic TV series GUNSMOKE. Their episode, "Kitty’s Love Affair," became the top-rated episode in the series’ 20-year history. They also published, edited and wrote for the iconoclastic magazine, "The Kepi," which specialized in integrating the life and times of the 1800s into the personalities of the men and women intricately associated with the Civil War, as well as presenting bold new interpretations of classic battles and leaders. As professional writers, their interests cover everything from 19th Century fiction to science fiction, while they have been prolific in the field of non-fiction, authoring texts on subjects as far-reaching and diverse as, "The History of the Circus," to their latest work (2017), "Yellow Fever: A Worldwide History." S. L. Kotar is also publisher of Ahead of the Press, an e-book and paperback book company.

 

Non-fiction and Historical Research

 

While most e-books are novels, there is a place for non-fiction in the field. The primary consideration for publishing such a work is audience. Is what you write interesting to the general public, or is it a niche book? In other words, if your topic appeals to a wide spectrum, then it has a chance for success (wide sales); but if your topic is narrow in scope (“Memories of Growing Up Beside a Cow Pasture”) you should ask yourself one pertinent question:

How many copies of the book is your mother likely to buy?

In other words, if anticipated sales are exclusively within your immediate family, then you may be better off printing a small newsletter and distributing it by e-mail or U.S. postage. However, if you have a unique perspective on a subject (“Lorenzo’s Oil”) or firsthand knowledge (“Coping with Diabetes in a Cat”), there is a good chance you may find your audience.

The critical element in writing non-fiction is to get your facts straight. If a reader finds a flaw in your information, one bad review can ruin all chance of success. Don’t take anything for granted. You can’t afford to go by the old standard, “everyone knows” such-and-such is true. Look it up: make sure it is true before you use it in your writing. A lot of times you may be surprised what “everyone knows” isn’t quite right after all. If that means rewriting a paragraph or even an entire chapter, it’s your obligation to get it correct. “Old wives’ tales” are fine for fiction but not when you’re purporting to tell the truth.

There are many ways to conduct research. Visiting the scene of a Civil War battlefield may be useful but only when taken into context. Much of the terrain that encompassed the Seven Days Battles around Richmond in 1862 are open for viewing, but using the way the land looks in 2017 would be a critical mistake for the landscape has drastically changed: hills have flattened, roads have disappeared and trees have grown up where Blue and Gray soldiers once faced each other across open fields.

Another common mistake in doing historical research is the reliability of erstwhile first-hand accounts. Just because you read in a book published in 1865 that the author was at Fredericksburg and saw “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee have a private conference doesn’t mean it actually happened. On face value, it means someone who said he was there wrote about a scene he may have or have not witnessed. There are many reasons why someone might tell the tale: to make himself important; to confirm events that were actually no more than campfire speculation; to pursue an agenda promoting one man’s reputation over the other’s. If such a meeting was never documented anywhere else, be very careful to describe it as coming from one source that hasn’t been, or can’t be collaborated. When writing non-fiction, always keep in mind you have an obligation to the truth because one day someone may cite your work and perpetuate your mistake.

One of the best sources of historical data are old newspapers. Always keeping in mind that even newspaper editors of two hundred years ago had an agenda to pursue (supporting one political candidate over another), you get an overall perspective of life the way it was viewed by those who lived it. Tracing the history of small pox through the newspapers not only offers an insight into the chronological order of events, it offers a glimpse into the real (and imagined) fears of people who dealt with the ravages of the disease on a day-to-day basis.

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make in writing non-fiction is language. People don’t talk the same way today as they did in Elizabethan England. If taking direct quotations it may be necessary to offer a modern-day translation beside the original text. The same holds true of vocabulary. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, it’s more than likely your reader won’t either. No one wants to feel dumb. By adding a definition you make it clear you don’t expect anyone to be familiar with the usage or perhaps the outdated meaning of the term.

The same concept holds true for the text in general. Don’t try and write as though you were a professor from Oxford, even if you are. Write in simple, easy-to-comprehend language. If you use nothing but ten-dollar words, even the most erudite reader will be turned off by the tedious style. On the other hand, be careful not to wax too poetically. Although dry facts may be required, that doesn’t mean they should be enlivened with flowery or overly effusive words or punctuation. Aside from quoting an original source, the exclamation point should never be used in a general work of non-fiction! The same holds true for humor. Even if you’re writing on a subject as dire as the yellow fever, there can be room for an amusing interlude. (One man in the 1800s declared that the best way to protect the occupants in a house from yellow fever was to build a fence around the property. While that seems absurd now, his suggestion was probably effectual but for the wrong reason. Disease-carrying mosquitoes can’t reason out how to fly over a fence so they simply turned around and went the other way, therefore saving those on the other side from exposure.) Just don’t overdo it or let your asides become too numerous because then you lose continuity and emphasis.

Publishing non-fiction also demands a more targeted promotional effort. There’s little sense advertising your book to fiction readers unless you have a specific tie-in to the genre. “True Facts about King Arthur” may appeal to readers of the Knights in Shining Armor genre but not to those who favor science fiction. Investigate blogs and societies that are a match to your work and promote your book on their sites.

By all means there is a place for non-fiction in the e-book field. Keep your expectations realistic and remember that your mother can only buy one copy per Kindle.