Keep Those Questions Coming

I’ve made more than 630 appearances as an author, and by far the most enjoyable part of those events for me are the questions I receive from attendees.  It’s a chance for me to hear from the audience (most of whom are my wonderful and loyal readers!), to interact with them, to broaden the discussion into other areas beyond the book topic we’re discussing, and – in general – to keep me connected to readers and what they care about most.

There are many common questions, of course, those that come up at almost every presentation.  Most of these relate to the research / writing process (which I love talking about!).  For those of you who can’t make it to an appearance, I thought I’d share some of them here.  I’d still encourage you to attend an event when you can – the energy in the room is impossible to replicate, either on Zoom or in writing – and you can always ask me more specific questions (as many readers do) by emailing me at

Meanwhile, here are a few of the most frequent questions I receive:

  • Do you do all of your own research? (or, alternatively, Do you have a “team” of researchers?) – My “team” is small, but mighty.  I do about 90-95 percent of my own research.  For my last several books, I have been blessed to have a very able research assistant help me on each one, which has been a real bonus for me.  I direct all the research, and for the small percentage of it that I ask an assistant to handle, I am very closely involved with it.  I’m also responsible for all of it – if there’s a research mistake in any of my books, it is mine alone.  As you might expect, I love history, so perhaps by extension, I love research.  I never view it as a chore, and always feel that it helps me immerse myself in the era about which I’m writing.  It’s a very different process than writing, and it’s one I truly enjoy.
  • Do you have a particular time of day that you prefer to write? – My reflexive answer to this question is the early morning.  I believe I do my best writing in the quietest part of the day (no surprise).  However, I write at all times of day, including sometimes when I get a second wind late at night.  I also (literally) keep a notepad on my nightstand; I can’t count the number of times I’ve awakened from a deep sleep, and scrawled a quick note about a chapter or scene I’m working on.  It’s usually all I need to jumpstart me the next morning.
  • Do you do the research and writing simultaneously?  Separately?  Do you do some writing and some research?  In general what process do you use to mesh the two? – Different nonfiction authors handle this in different ways.  For me, I’ve found the most productive to be 1.) complete my research first; and 2.) write.  I always find it helpful to “know what I have” in terms of documents, records, diaries, letters, etc., before I begin to write.  It helps me think “several chapters ahead’ since I know what supporting documentation I’ll have to work with.  Also, I almost never have writer’s block (frantically looking for some wood to “knock on” here), but even if I’m a little stuck on how to start a scene or a chapter, sometimes I’ll recall a letter or diary entry that lights a fire, or produces an “aha!” moment.  There is a danger to waiting for the “end of research” to begin writing, and that’s the temptation to “never end the research.”  Indeed, there is always another letter to find, or another court transcript to pore over.  What saves me then is the sheer contractual-obligation terror on when my manuscript is due (OK, not literal “terror,” but certainly pressure!).  I need to estimate how long it will take me to write the book, and work backwards from the due date.  So, in a sense, this deadline almost forces me to say, “I have enough,” and stop the research.  One caveat: of course, if I come across a “Eureka” document after writing begins, I’ll most definitely add it to my research cache!
  • How do you decide on your book topics? – I’ll start with the blindingly obvious: the topic has to interest me.  If you’re going to spend 2-3 years researching and writing a book, my advice to any author or would-be author is to make sure you like your topic!  If you get bored as you’re working on a book, it will show (negatively) either with sloppy research or less-than-inspiring writing.  Assuming that I’m excited about a topic, I use a few criteria to determine whether it’s a candidate for a full-fledged book: 
    • 1.) How often the topic has been “done” – Not every topic has to fall into the “never-before-written-about” category, but for me it certainly helps if the surface has barely been scratched.  The less written about an event, the more fertile the ground.  Put the opposite way, if you’re planning to write a biography about Abraham Lincoln, you had better have a truly unique perspective or “first time ever” material to take to a publisher.
    • 2.) The event has to fit into a “big historical picture” – A particular event can’t stand by itself – if that’s all there is, better to write a magazine article or a blog.  The event needs to fit into context – not only into the timeframe in which it occurs, but have ramifications far into the future, maybe even to the present day.  For this category, I always start with: Why is this event important beyond the event itself?
    • 3.) Compelling real-life characters are a must – History and nonfiction have “characters” in the same way fiction does.  The difference is – I can’t make them up.  I have to build my real-life characters according to the historical record that is available.  Characters – real people – drive nonfiction in the same way they drive fiction.  Readers need to care about characters, regardless of the genre.
    • 4.)  Primary sources are essential – You can’t write great history without great primary sources.  As I mentioned above, good sources place you back in the time period, and provide you with the foundation you need upon which to rest your story.  A strong foundation allows me to construct a book almost any way I choose, and that freedom almost always improves creativity, pacing, and the story arc in general.

So those are a few questions readers ask me at virtually every presentation.  It’s always gratifying for me to see such interest.  People who care so much about good writing make the best readers, and I’m thrilled so many of them read my books!

 Many thanks – and keep those questions coming.