Coming this Fall…

So the other weekend and I took a plunge with movie maker to make this trailer for the upcoming book.  Get ready for The Sunken Golda Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.  

Click on the book cover to access the trailer.


My Writing Process: Step 2 – Research

Happily, I have delivered my manuscript concerning the Laurentic to my editor the other week.  So now I am preparing to work on a new topic.

I have about four topics that I will be pitching to my agent.  What I am hoping is that he loves all of them, so I can just line up future writing projects.  My apologies, but I am not going to divulge any of my potential future projects, but needless to say that if my agent goes for one then I’ll be preparing to slog through the book proposal, a curious marketing piece but invaluable when writing a non-fiction work since the proposal creates the skeleton upon which the narrative rests.  This of course means research — tons of it.

The most valuable source for narrative building is to obtain primary source documents that relate the story from the perspective of one of the main characters.  This may include diaries, narrative accounts, or even newspaper clippings.  It is a grab bag and locating it is more of an art than a google search.  My day job is managing a library and after being in that vocation for a number of years I can avow unequivocally that there is only a tithe of the research out there on the open internet to write an original historical narrative.  There are often research items out there which are unindexed which means that the only way to learn about their existence is to know somebody or simply to discover it.

For example, when I was starting my Laurentic project, I had no idea what documents were out there and if what existed could tell a story.  I knew that there were items at the British National Archives, but I could not tell its size and scope.  Now the British Archives had a digitization service so I put in for an estimate — they wrote back a few days later quoting several thousand British pounds!  The good news was that this tidy sum indicated thousands of pages of documents.  The bad news was that I was in the U.S.  What to do…

I started estimating the costs of flying to London for a few days so I could work in the archive.  But I needed to know if it would be worth it.  So I contacted the archival staff asking what the exact scope of the papers in question were.  My surmises were correct and there were a number of documents there.  But after I explained to them my situation they recommended hiring a researcher to photograph the documents for me.  This proved to be the most cost effective way to do it and I engaged the services of Ruth Bloom (I am sure she won’t mind the plug), who sent me gigs and gigs of images which I promptly converted to PDF and studied for months.

The Admiralty records in this case were indexed and known.  It was only through repeated probing that I began to locate persons who were related to descendants of figures in the Laurentic story or were still involved in its ongoing tale today.  This level of research is the most serendipitous where I had to rely on snail mail correspondence and in-person meetings to gain the trust of these persons of my qualifications to write the Laurentic story.  As a result, I obtained documents that had not been used before.  There was, in particular, one memoir of my primary character that his family gave me that ended up expanding my story by about 20%, adding richness of detail that wasn’t there before.  This, mind you, came after I got my book deal on Laurentic.  In fact, the same happened for both Four Years Before the Mast and Seventeen Fathoms Deep.

Now that I’m working on new topics, my research is the most cursory kind, since I am trying to probe if there is enough material out that warrants a book treatment.  This normally includes looking at secondary books about the topic and then checking their sources.  Based on these results, you can usually surmise just how much material is out there.  Typically, there is almost always more than you think, but as in the case of my Laurentic project, much of it is hidden and requires digging.


My writing process: Step 1 – finding a topic

I have been asked on multiple occasions about my writing process.  Every writer is different, but let me take some time to describe how I bring a long writing project (i.e. a  narrative non-fiction book) to completion.

The best non-fiction writers  such as Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand possess a preternatural skill that any non-fiction author would give his right foot for:  the ability to choose a great story.

Great stories are built on some combination, but ideally contain all of the following elements:

  • strong characters
  • great narrative arcs that build tension
  • conclusions and resolutions that close a loop or transform the characters and
  • strong thematic elements.

Hillenbrand, who has written only two books, chose her topics brilliantly in the career of the thoroughbred Seabiscuit and the struggles of Louis Zamperini in Unbroken.

Without going too much into the plot of Unbroken since I do not wish to spoil it, I will say it is one of my favorite books, and I think that is because not only due to Hillenbrand’s writing talent, but because Unbroken contains all the elements of a great story:

  • Strong characters such as Louis Zamperini, a former Olympian who becomes a POW in a Japan during World War II, and his antagonist,  a Japanese sergeant who served as Zamperini’s primary antagonist.
  • A story that keeps on increasing tension first by having Zamperini crash in the Pacific in a bomber, then his escape in a life raft, then his travails as a POW.
  • A satisfactory conclusion in that Zamperini escapes, but is scarred by his experiences which take him years of soul searching to recover from.
  • Themes of resilience, hope, and survival are all prevalent through the book.

So when I write, I seek stories that have all these elements.  In essence, I have my characters, they have a goal, but they are prevented from achieving that goal.  The book then becomes a story about the characters struggling to reach that goal which they may or may not achieve.  For example, in Seventeen Fathoms Deep, my protagonists (the rescue force) are meeting all sorts of obstacles in reaching their goal (rescuing the men trapped in the S-4).

In my current project, G.C.C. Damant is a blue-blooded naval officer and amateur physiologist  who is more interested in studying gnats and studying recompression theory than becoming a war hero.  However, his skills as a diver are needed, and he is thrown into one of the most epic treasure salvages in history.  As an added bonus, in the midst of the salvage he is called upon to do covert diving work for the Royal Navy. In this topic we have a narrative arc that builds tension, interesting characters, and the themes of heroism and later obsession in finding the gold.

Any non-fiction writer who can identify these elements in their topic goes a long way in producing a story that not only educates but informs.

My next entry for this series will concern the research process.


The “Laurentic’s” Lost Gold

About my upcoming book….

In January 1917, the British armed merchant liner, Laurentic was transporting 43 tons of gold bullion from Great Britain to North America when it struck two German mines and sunk off the coast of Lough Swilly.  The gold, which was earmarked to help finance the Allied war effort is desperately needed by the British government.

To salvage the treasure, they ask the Royal Navy’s preeminent diving expert, Lieutenant Commander G.C.C. Damant, to lead a secret mission to recover the gold and help the Allied war effort.

More than a tale of underwater adventure, my latest book focuses on the achievements and life of G.C.C. Damant whose contributions to diving history allowed man to dive deeper than ever before.  We not only become fully immersed in the hazardous history of early modern diving, but we also explore the confines of sunken German U-boats to steal codes and ciphers, and watch how what should have been a simple salvage of gold, turned into a multi-year epic of frustration, obsession, and ultimate triumph.

Courtesy of Cambridge University Press, Journal of Hygiene, Vol. VIII, No. 3.

005: Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai

In this episode, Joe interviews Romulus Hillsborough about his recent book, Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai (Tuttle Publishing, ISBN 978-4805312353). Hillsborough writes a lively account of the painful transformation of Japan during the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century. Well-documented, Hillsborough had done extensive research in Japan, translating his own sources which had never been published in English. The “Last Samurai” as seen in the subtitle refers to Katsu Kaishu whose accounts form a critical part of the research. The work is divided into two books, the first covers the fall of the Shogunate. The second book covers the rise of Imperial Japan up to the famous Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, a revolt of disgruntled samurai against the new order.

004: A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch

In this episode, Joe interviews New York Times bestselling author, Stacy Perman about her latest book, A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch (Atria Books). She discusses the rivalry between gilded age tycoons, Henry Graves, Jr. and James Ward Packard, who commissioned some of the world’s most complicated watches. The informal but intense rivalry between these two collectors resulted in the manufacture by Patek Philippe of the “Supercomplication.” Delivered to Graves in 1933, it sealed his victory. The “Supercomplication” itself was sold for auction at Sotheby’s for $11 million!

Walking for Profit

Last weekend I was at Barnes and Noble when I found the book, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport by Matthew Algeo. I came running over to my wife, who was in the children’s section with our one year old and showed her a book with five Victorian-era athletes in ridiculous garb.

I said, “I found my next interview.”

Mr. Algeo, who is in Mongolia, was very gracious and we set up a Skype interview. Because it was Skype, I set up two separate recorders, one for Skype and one for myself — I found that Skype recorder programs provide too much of an echo. While the author comes in clear, I am a bit on the fuzzy side — but I think it sounds ok anyway.

The book, which is about competitive walking races in the 19th century is really a fun book to read. This is because of the topic — who can imagine people sitting around and watching multi-day continuous matches with the competitors circling around a small track — and because of Mr. Algeo’s writing style, which is energetic and playful. He knows his topic is irreverent if not comical, and that makes for a great book.

I am right now perusing through some books for the fourth episode.

One thing I must note, that since starting this podcast it has really forced me to read and consider books in a way I had never done before.

The way I used to read a book was just to read it. I never seriously considered the sources being used or how well the book was structured. I suppose that since I’m doing these Podcasts that I am becoming a defacto critic, which isn’t necessarily a good thing — although it is fun.

On the personal project front, I have completed about 98% of the research and have received the fully executed book contract for my submarine tale. The main problem is finding the time to write. I have between 50,000 to 60,000 words of manuscript completed, which isn’t bad since the publisher wants “approximately 75,000 words.” But I do have a one-year old at home so it is difficult to write there -and writing at work is just bad form. Fortunately, I negotiated with my wife some release time to do some work at the public library. She’s my pre-editor editor and has a very good eye for narrative and description (she has a degree in creative writing). So she is getting the chapters before anybody else.

003: Pedestrianism

An interview with Matthew Algeo, author of Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport (Chicago Review Press). In this interview, Mr. Algeo recounts the origins of epic multi-day, nonstop footraces that captured the public imagination in 19th century Great Britain and the United States.

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