Writing is never easy, and the long-haul process of writing a book — especially if it’s your first — can feel overwhelming at times. When I started thinking about a book on Eliza Scidmore, I decided to do what I’ve always done when there’s something I’m not sure I can easily figure out on my own: take a class. I feel fortunate to live in Washington with access to so many great literary resources.
Here’s my shout-out to a few people I’m especially grateful to for their help as I try my wings in a new genre.
Kyoko Mori‘s grad course at George Mason University on “Research Techniques for Narrative Writing” was a great jump-start for my project. When I saw the listing for the class it struck me as a good chance to test the viability of my subject. I knew from preliminary research that information about Eliza Scidmore was sketchy. Could I find enough to fill a book? Over the semester I uncovered lots of material that’s been essential to the project. A session with reference librarian extraordinaire Thomas Mann on more efficient ways of using the vast databases at the Library of Congress felt like someone threw a switch and the lights came on in a deep, dark tunnel, revealing hidden nuggets of information. The paper I ended up writing for Dr.Mori’s class helped me find the bones of the story.
One of the best literary resources in this area, hands down, is The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s been around for 35 years, about as long as I’ve lived in Washington. I’ve taken many workshops there over the years. Two recent ones were of great help as I began to think about how to shape a book and begin the writing process.
When I saw that Ken Ackerman was giving a class on “Narrative Nonfiction: History and Biography,” I rushed to sign up. I knew Ken’s work because I’d read and admired his biography of Boss Tweed. Ken is one of those infuriatingly talented and productive people who somehow manage to have careers as lawyers while writing books on the side. He’s now done four, and his biography of J. Edgar Hoover is getting a new lease on life thanks to the movie that’s just out with Leonard DiCaprio in the lead role. An annotated chapter outline I developed in Ken’s workshop has been my working blueprint. (Thanks, Ken!)
David Stewart led an equally helpful workshop on narrative flow and story arc. I valued his feedback on a draft of my first chapter since I found the prose style in his book Impeached, on the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, strong and vivid. David too is a lawyer who writes (don’t you just hate ’em?). His latest, American Emperor, is due out in a few days. It’s about Aaron Burr and the political intrigue that led to his trial for treason. The story holds particular interest for me because one of Burr’s co-conspirators built a fancy mansion on an island in the Ohio River just a few miles from where I grew up in Marietta, Ohio. Locally, the story of “Blennerhassett Island” was always romantic and darkly mysterious.
An unexpected bonus I got from David’s workshop was a group of outstanding writing colleagues. Some of us found the level of critique so strong and helpful ——that we started a small manuscript group. We’re all working on long-form nonfiction projects, and have been meeting now for a year. Everyone is so dedicated that during last winter’s “Snowmageddon,” when the city was essentially shut down, attendance at our regular monthly session was 100 percent!