Thursday, May 21, 2009

Craft post: writing nonfiction, part 1

Current work: Modern Heat
Listening to: Julian Lloyd Webber, Unexpected Songs (mainly for Hushabye Mountain – love the chord sequence but I couldn’t work it out. Genius guitar teacher helped me out. Except now I have to deliver and it’s in position three – and I h-a-t-e barre chords)
Reading: next on TBA

Diane asked me to do this ages back: apologies for the loooong delay. Deadlines and stuff.

Anyway. How do I go about writing one of my nonfics?

First of all, I need to decide on my topic and its scope (and then do the proper outline/synopsis for the publisher... take that bit as read).

My current one for Halsgrove is the third in my ‘Scandals, Sieges and Spooks’ series; last year my Norfolk one was published, this year the Suffolk one comes out, and the one I’m working on now (to be published in 2010) is Essex. The book tells the stories behind the ruined castles and abbeys/priories in the county: when each was built, who lived there, any scandals (which could be anything from embezzlement through to murder), sieges (obviously this mainly involves castles), and spooks (ghost stories, but I’ve stretched this to include fairies, alleged witchcraft and supernatural elements).

So I know the topic and the scope. Next step is finding the locations of the castles, abbeys and priories. The obvious thing here is to look on a reasonably detailed map of the county and list them. I’ll check this list against

  • the English Heritage website;
  • a list in the Victoria County History (which lists all the religious foundations and castles, as they were in about 1902-10); and
  • Pevsner.

As well as checking the location, I’ll also check what’s still physically there (Pevsner and the EH website will give me the best idea there). I know that some will be just earthworks (for example, Haughley castle in Suffolk); others will have remains that are in the structure of churches or private homes (which may or may not be visible from the road; and the private homes or may not have open days); and other will be ruins or tourist attractions that are open to the public. Some might have no visible remains but the village sign will have a carving of what the building once looked like (as in Lidgate castle – course, if the sign’s been taken down for restoration, as it was when I visited Lidgate, you’re a bit stuck *g*). Others might be connected to something interesting in the church (e.g. the stained glass window at Wormingford telling the story of the dragon, or pew carvings of St Edmund’s head guarded by a wolf).

Next, I plot them on a map. This means photocopying a map and marking the sites on the photocopy with a highlighter pen so I can see what’s where. The idea is to maximise the use of my time by visiting several places that are close together – for example, when I did the Norfolk book, it would have been insane to visit Castle Rising in the far west of the county on the same day as visiting Burgh Castle in the far east of the county. But to take photographs at Castle Acre and West Acre on the same trip (when they’re about 4 miles apart) was much more sensible, and I stopped off at Dereham on the way because it was convenient.

How do I know what to photograph? Quick check on the English Heritage website (they sometimes have pics), and also search Google Pictures (often people take photographs for Geograph; and it also flags up if there’s a website which will give me more detail for background information). I’ll also check websites of the nearest church and the villages themselves (which tells me about stained glass and village signs).

So far, so good. But if you rush in to taking the pics without checking you have all the info, you could miss something. For example, I know I want a photograph of Colchester Castle. But I also know that there was a siege which means I also need a pic of Siege House in East Street, and a pic of the obelisk for Lucas and Lisle. If I’d just gone off to Colchester the day after I did my location list, I’d have had to revisit Colchester to take the other two pictures. Given that it takes me two hours to get to Essex and the trip has to be made at weekends (and/or school hols if DH has time off) so I can share the driving, it makes sense to do as much research as possible before we go, so I can make the most of photographic opportunities.

So how do I find out my information?

I could be mean here and just say go and buy my book How to Research Local History (which, btw, has had stellar reviews – there’s lots of info in bite-size chunks and it’s sensibly organised. If you want to get started quickly, that’s your kind of book. If you want something more ponderous, then it isn’t).

But I’ll be nice and tell you more tomorrow...


Nell Dixon said...

Great post, Kate. I love Essex - and Colchester is one of my fave places. I love the quirky little medieval side streets

Diane said...

Thank you - I'll print that one out ASAP. :o)

I've looked at the local history research books (yours and at least one other), and I probably will pick it up (yours, naturally). But because I have the attention span of a gnat. it's the applying the academic stuff to the practical book planning/writing that goes right over my head, and it's why I've never properly done the degree - I prefer the practical side. It's the juggling of 2 disciplines that freak me out.