What I have learned, and am still learning, as the author of non-fiction history books
By Dr Linda Parker
Dr. Linda Parker is an independent scholar and author. Her writing primarily focuses on army chaplaincy in both world wars. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and the Western Front Association, the American Commission for Military History and the Society for Military History. She is also a trustee of the Toc H movement and convenor of Toc H Wessex.
In an exclusive blog for Palamedes, Dr Parker looks back on her writing career to date, and provides an overview of what she has learned along the way.
My journey as an author began one morning in 2009 when I received an email from Helion and Co., saying that they would be interested in publishing my book and enclosing a contract. I was very surprised and delighted, and the memory of that morning is a treasured one. I had been ‘writing’ from a very early age, but had discovered that I was not very good at writing fiction and dreams of being a bestselling novelist had long faded.
As a history teacher I was often conducting bits of amateur research for the benefit of my students and had become very interested in the way that Great War Anglican Army Chaplains had been portrayed in a negative light. Many visits to The National Archives, Lambeth Palace and the archives of the Museum of Army Chaplaincy later, I had boxfuls of research and was persuaded to write a book, The Whole Armour of God, which to my amazement was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to.
Back to the present and I have just published my sixth book, Nearer my God to Thee: Airborne Chaplains in the Second World War. At this point in my writing career I feel able to share some of the ups and downs of being an author, as well as the lessons I have learned (and have yet to learn) in the writing and publishing of non-fiction history books.
One. Firstly, and most importantly, always write about something you are passionate about. I get up most mornings eager to carry on writing and researching, and I become frustrated when other things get in the way (which they often do). The only time I wrote about a topic that I was not passionate about, the book took longer and the writing of it was less enjoyable.
Two. Be clear about your audience and realistic about your writing style. I have written mainly academic books with footnotes, one being an enlargement of my PhD thesis. Although I hope I have made them accessible and readable, I have to realise that the audience is going to be more limited than for some of the very enjoyable nonfiction historical bestsellers. I have tried to alter my writing style with very limited success. You have to go with what you have!
Three. I have tried to be disciplined in my writing hours but have failed dismally. Generally, I work better in the morning but, when I was still working full time and then studying full time, work on books took place at many and various times and places. Working at home also leaves you liable to all kinds of interruptions, such as being the delivery distributor for online packages for the whole road.
Four. I am very slowly, over a period of 10 years, learning about publicising my books. I have to accept the fact that specialist military history publishers do not have the budget for vast publicity, so it is very much up to the author. I was fortunate to have the help of Palamedes for my last book, A Seeker After Truths, and I learned much about the ways in which local radio, local press and national press operate, and the need to come up with an intriguing angle. However, I still have a lot to learn. Book launches and book signings are good fun an even if they sometimes do not result in large sales, a launch, even a small local affair, gives the author, publisher and those who have helped with the book a chance to celebrate its publication.
Five. It seems essential now to have some kind of presence on social media. I personally stick to Twitter. I can see that many authors are really good at publicising their books on Twitter, but there is a danger of irritating one’s followers by over doing the direct approach. I prefer to build up a Twitter following of like-minded people by posting interesting information which may or may not be related to my books, and hope that this bears fruit when my books are published in the sense that people may think I have got something interesting to say. An aspect of using Twitter is to remember that there will always be better and more successful authors than oneself, and not to get downhearted.
I have had many enjoyable experiences while researching my books which have more than made up for the hours slaving over a difficult chapter or checking proofs. My books have taken me all over Europe to battlefields on ‘field trips’ to research my army chaplains, including the Western Front, Arnhem and, this year, to deepest France to research an airborne chaplain with the SAS. I feel a book about chaplains in the Falklands conflict coming on!
I enjoy nearly all aspects of writing, publishing and promoting my books. One day a book I write may be on the bestseller list, but until then I shall just carry on finding topics I am interested in and trying to make them interesting to other people.