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.


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