Writing Historical Nonfiction with Kelly Mathews

 

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Today I’m interviewing Kelly Mathews, a nonfiction writer with The History Press.  Kelly is the manager of Community Recreation, a summer camp and outdoor education center at Seneca College, King Campus, home of Eaton Hall. Her writings have been published by New York Media Works, Readers’ Digest Canada via: Best Health Magazine and Our Canada magazine work.

Kelly has recently published her first book, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for nonfiction writers to get a feel for the process and how it differs from publishing fiction.

 

Interview Questions

Ryan: Welcome, Kelly. Thanks for being with us. Although I haven’t read much nonfiction, I’m overall a huge history buff. I love watching history documentaries.

Kelly: Thanks Ryan–I really appreciate the opportunity–having just recently completed my first book (submitted January 22, 2015) it has just now begun to sink in.

Ryan: What is it about writing historical nonfiction that appeals to you?

Kelly: I have always been interested in British and Commonwealth history–this started at the age of 12 when I bought a book called Legacy by Susan Kay for $0.25 cents at a local library book sale.  This book was about the life of Queen Elizabeth I, and I was hooked!  My family has many ties to Canadian history–of which my family is very proud, so I suppose you could say that history was just in my blood.

With respect to the book I just wrote, EATON HALL: Pride of King Township…I started working for Seneca College in April 2012–there is a large castle across the lake from my office–impossible not to fall in love with, and with every passing day, I just felt more and more compelled to understand the true history of not only the building itself, but the 20+ other buildings on the estate, as well as the farm. I have always wondered, “what happened here before”, and it just took hold…

Ryan: Impressive. The view from my day job is of a parking lot–a far cry from a castle. So, how did you find your publisher? Can you tell us a bit about that?

Kelly:  I would consider myself one of the very fortunate people in this regard–as the publisher, in fact, found me.  An American author from Michigan had found a Pinterest® board that I created called “Eaton Hall: Canada’s Downton Abbey”… he connected with me via email and asked if I would mind giving him and his wife a tour of Eaton Hall if they drove up from Michigan–of course I said yes.

We had a great day–I had already begun to do my own research on the venue and property out of personal interest and he said–“you need to write a book about this place”.  I laughed it off thinking it was nothing more than a nice compliment, but he pursued it…he connected with his commissioning editor at The History Press and they in turn contacted me.

They said that I had been recommended by another author that they have worked with and would like me to complete their proposal form.  I did.  A week later they called me and said that there board had approved my proposal (June 2013)…and that was that!  I was very shocked and honoured!

Ryan: What are the differences in the process to becoming published for fiction and nonfiction?

Kelly: As I have never attempted to publish a fiction piece I couldn’t say.  My assumption would be that you needed to come to the table with more content upfront that you would for non-fiction.  With non-fiction you need to explain what the history/story is, explain why it’s relevant/why the story needs to be told, you need to provide a chapter summary to show how the history is going to play out (how do you plan to segment the history in order to present it), and–you need to understand your target audience.

Ryan: Since writing nonfiction is bound by facts and history (as opposed to the free form of fiction), in what ways do you allow your creativity to shine through?

Kelly:  It’s funny because people ask me all the time–would I ever consider writing a fiction piece…to be honest–there is a HUGE difference in skill set.  In my case, I stare at the final scene, be it a moment in time or a building, and I trace my way backwards (almost like solving a crime) and try to put the historical pieces and references together in a logical sequence, and in a manner that is enjoyable to read.

History is history–I can’t change the ending–I start with an ending already created for me but have to help the reader get to the ending.  I think the biggest challenge for a non-fiction writer is determining how far you want to go back (i.e. where do you want to start telling the story).

Creativity is able to come through in non-fiction in two main ways: first, the writing style…second, the way in which the author makes unique ties to other moments in history–it’s the way in which you link main/original thoughts/facts–a simple example would be relating an event to what else happened that day, being able to create context for the reader.  You don’t know if a piece of string is long until you place it next to another piece of string and you can compare. I try to do this with history.  Here’s a line from my book that I feel creates this sort of context:

If it’s true that the sole aim of any president is to leave a company in a better position than how one found it, than Jack did that in spades; in 1907 at the time of Timothy Eaton’s death, Eaton’s total sales reached 22.4 million.  At the time of Jack’s death, just 15 years later, Eaton’s had generated five-times as much revenue with total sales at 125 million.  This accomplishment is even more remarkable when you consider not only the short timeline in which it was achieved, but also; that he fathered five children during this time; built two magnificent residences (Ardwold-Toronto & Kawandag-Muskoka); established a Farm in King City; developed dozens of new Eaton’s stores; and, that this was all achieved during the entire lifecycle of World War I.

What I like about this as an example is that you’re not just providing a fact–yes he made a ton of money from point A to point B–but look at what else was going on…you create context–you set the scene that the history took place in, and I think that is where creativity comes into play in non-fiction.

Ryan: When anticipating a career in nonfiction writing, is your planning for royalties, sustainability, longevity, etc. different than if you were looking at a fiction writing career?

Kelly: Quite simply, I could not have done this if I did not have a full time job.  This won’t make me rich.  But I’m not writing for that reason.  I truly believe that unless someone tells these stories the history will be lost. I work for a publisher that feels the same way.  I’m writing because I am genuinely interested in finding out why things today are as they are, and I enjoy the historical investigation process–I love validating stories, myths and clues…it’s very much like solving a crime–I say that often.

Non-fiction writing is a wonderful compliment to a full time or part time job. It is very difficult to do both, however, because researching non-fiction requires hundreds of hours of research and interviews…most days I would work 40 hours per week at my “job” then another 30 hours per week (every free moment on evenings and weekends) researching–to be honest–I also used almost all of my vacation days on research as well…this is why it is so crucial that you are interested in your topic.

Ryan: In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of writing nonfiction?

Kelly: I suppose a weakness would be access to history–in my case I wrote a landmark history piece so I needed to go to local, provincial and national archives offices, I had to go to land registry offices, interview primary sources–the cost can and did add up. I would say I spent $3,000 in personal investment–an expensive hobby…but when you consider the cost of travel, parking, the cost to scan ONE archival picture at a resolution good enough for printing in a book ($26 each) and then consider that I was contracted for 100 images…it adds up.

Depending on your fiction piece, you likely wouldn’t have these costs.  I was also lucky that I had friends in the industry to create for me heritage maps, family trees, layouts of all floors of the building, etc–as these costs can add up as well.  I think sourcing information as in writing the bibliography is also intimidating for history–determining what’s the difference between common knowledge, etc…

Of course there are many strengths. The first would be: you are preserving history–whether it be about a person, place or thing. Everything has history, and to document is to be a preserver of history.  I believe this is a really precious gift to give to the world.  Also, in essence you get to become a subject matter expert on whatever you write about.  The strength that I appreciate the most–you don’t have to ‘make up the ending’.

Ryan: How do you decide what subjects or points in history you want to write about?

Kelly: First and foremost–it has to be something that I am personally interested in…when you’re spending 20+ hours a week at a local, provincial or national archives offices, by yourself for months on end, you have to be interested in the topic.  So without a doubt–personal interest is number one.

Second, you have to believe (or determine) that there is enough content in the history of whatever you’re talking about…you don’t want a “dry chapter”, and you don’t want to have to fill space.  In my case, I was commissioned for 30-33,000 words and I submitted 43,000 words and could have kept going because the history of my topic had so much great content with lots of linkages to other content.

Ryan: How much research do you usually do for the average nonfiction book?

Kelly:  I would suggest that you will spend a far greater time researching than you do actually writing.  You can’t write until you have the facts and in order to have the facts, you have to research.  In the 6 months leading up to the manuscript due date I would say I spent 20-30 hours per week conducting research and 2-6 hours per week writing and then in the last month it switched to 2-6 hours researching a week (for final facts) and 20-30 hours writing.

There is nothing more frustrating than sitting down at your computer to write and feeling like there really is one more piece of information you need to build credibility for your topic, hypothesis or statement, etc.  I am lucky though–I never seem to have trouble writing or connecting chapters or thoughts. Once I have the facts, the content flows.

Ryan: What’s the typical strategy when it comes to Canadian writers and US publishers? Do Canadian writers apply to Canadian publishers first, then explore British and US publishers after that?

Kelly: Again, my situation was so unique–I didn’t have to pitch a book–the publisher found me and asked me to write the book.  Having said that, given that I am interested in unlocking local Canadian history, I would say that it would make more sense for me to look at Canadian publishers for my work…the more global the topic, the more broad I would go in my search for a publisher.

I recommend this for all writers regardless of the genre…don’t go for the big-guns with your first book, find a niche that would appreciate what you’re writing–do your research on the demographics of your audience.

For example, if your book is targeted to teens, do some population research on states/provinces/cities with high teen populations, high number of high school and colleges, disposable income–look at teen-spending trends, movies teens are into, books they read, relevant issues of the day, there are many sources online that can help provide this data.  In your proposal to the publisher you will need to prove that you have considered your audience and demographics.

Ryan: What advice would you give to a writer who is considering writing nonfiction?

Kelly: Advice if you’re thinking about writing non-fiction:

What do you think about when you let your mind wander…write about that!  Find out what you are truly interested about (person, place, thing)…do you have a burning question…some examples…

PERSON: why did that famous person commit suicide–what was their life really like–could this have been prevented–should we have seen this coming–etc…

PLACE: who built that remarkable piece of architecture–is there anything else like it in this country–what role has that facility played in history–etc…

THING: I can’t believe that the personal computer looks like this today–I wonder how it evolved and what it looked like–who was involved in the evolution–etc…

If the answer to any of your wandering questions is…“I don’t care”… don’t write about that!  Find out what YOU are passionate about–it will come through in the writing, in your research and in your interviews. Passion is contagious.

When you are tired and want to quit and have one of those days when you say to yourself “why am I doing this”, you will be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel IF the answer is “because I need to know”!

Advice if you’re starting to write non-fiction:

Schedule time for research.  I would recommend mapping out a half-year to a year in advance of your manuscript due date (whether that’s a self-imposed date or received by your publisher) and schedule in the time to research.  It sounds silly, but if you don’t put the days into your calendar, it becomes difficult to make it a priority–it’s just like sticking to work-out regimen at the gym.

My friends knew this past Fall from September-December that I would be unavailable all day Saturday & Sunday from 8am-6pm (when the archives were open) to conduct my research.  I had to do this because it would be so easy to say yes to every social thing that came up–I just said–don’t invite me, don’t ask me because I will say yes and I need to be doing this.  They respected that.

BEST ADVICE–as you find the content for a chapter–stop and write that chapter…it’s so easy to forget little details if you just collect all the information and then wait till the end and to start writing everything–even though the research comes first, always leave 2-6 hours a week for actual writing…even if you just have enough content for a paragraph or two. You will be glad you did at the end.

When you finally sit down in the last month-2 months to write, you will feel less overwhelmed if you have a few paragraphs already done in each chapter.  Lastly, think about how you’re going to connect your chapters. You should have an idea of how they will flow together before you start. No one wants to feel like they are reading 10 individual books with each chapter–the chapters have to weave together to present history as a story.

Ryan: What book/project are you working on now? And where can we find your books?

Kelly: I’m taking a break for at least a few months. I am considering starting research on another non-fiction piece in September–of course it will be something that I’m very interested in, so I will likely start to slowly conduct some research in the summer. My publisher in the US is The History Press.  In Canada, they are publishing through Dundurn.  My book will be available through all regular retail stores as well as by contacting me through twitter @eatonhallestate.

Ryan: Again, thank you for your time. We’re glad to have you on.

Kelly: Thank you including me. I really do wish everyone the best of luck in their journey. If anyone wants to ask me ANY questions about the writing process, please feel free to connect via Twitter.  I truly believe that EVERYONE has a story to tell, and everyone CAN write a book…the key is to find out what you are passionate about first!

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Writing Historical Nonfiction with Kelly Mathews”

  1. A lot of that advice does carry over into historical fiction too. A story I’m working on is set in an era that I find interesting but as I plan scenes and interactions I realise I need to do more and more research!
    Places, people, politics, culture, hobbies, food, personal hygiene – the list goes on! They all form a backdrop to make your story credible.

    Like

  2. Interesting, I had a similar situation with Arcadia Publishing which contacted me because of an article an editor read on one of my blogs. Kelly had some great advice. She spent a lot of money on scanning pictures. I had to go into the community to find pictures because there had been no formal collecting in a museum or library. I bought a good scanner and took it with me into the homes of people who had the pictures. I wasn’t as polished a researcher. Sometimes recorded our conversations as I scanned. Sometimes the folks offered me written articles or out of print books. The researching process was a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing this. I love your blog.

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