I write a lot of books about history because history’s cup runneth over with the best stories of all time. So with an ocean of great tales to choose from, picking something fabulous and delicious and unusual should be as easy as pie, right? Well, guess what. It ain’t. Why not? Some Restrictions Apply.
Restriction # 1:
Since publishers want to make a buck, they strongly encourage children’s nonfiction authors to write about famous heroes and events from American history, especially when these topics are covered in the school curriculum. That’s because the vast majority of nonfiction books for kids are sold to schools. The heroes and events in history books have already been covered a gazillion times, but (in my experience, at least) whenever we authors suggest new topics that are off the beaten path, our publishers Just Say No and we have to file for unemployment.
Possible solution that keeps us in business and (we hope) keeps us from selling our souls at the same time:
Uncover something entirely new about the same old same old. Do we have to focus only upon heroes and heroines? Who says that all stories from history have to be uplifting? They are not. So sometimes I cover a period in history by sidetracking the good guys and writing about the bad guys instead. (Surprise—kids actually love that.) Sometimes I focus on just one small part of a famous person’s story, especially if it has been overlooked. Sometimes--lots of times, actually--I use humor. Sometimes I tell both sides of a story. And sometimes I tell the entire story via my artwork or use the art to set a mood in ways that words alone can never do.
Restriction # 2:
In nonfiction, you can never EVER embellish the truth or make anything up, so every single detail in every single book has to be accurate and every single word your protagonists utter has to come straight from the horse’s mouth. Them’s the rules, period. The problem is that this is a hard row to hoe. It can take months or even years to ferret out the accurate material.
Possible Solution that speeds up all that research and helps us retain our sanity:
Guess what. There is no solution. I have written books of fiction in two weeks or less, and they have sold as many or more copies than my nonfiction books. You just have to love being the detective who ferrets out the juicy details nobody else has found. You just have to get a kick out of traveling around the world to find new material. You just have to be the spy who gets a kick out of reading dead people’s private letters and diaries. You just have to be a glutton for punishment. I highly recommend it.