I keep running into writers who want to write nonfiction and have more questions than I can answer, so here’s an interview with Nancy I. Sanders who is well-established in this area:
What led you to write nonfiction?
In my book, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career, I explain a strategy I call the “Triple Crown of Success.” For this I always recommend writers be working on three separate manuscripts to meet three separate goals:
1) the goal to get published,
2) the goal to earn income, and
3) the goal of writing for personal fulfillment.
As I started to build my writing career, I discovered I could earn nice income writing nonfiction so I always try to be working on at least one nonfiction project while I’m working on manuscripts to meet my other two goals.
How do you usually get to write nonfiction books? Do you come up with the idea first or does the publisher? Or does it vary?
Sometimes a publisher sends an idea my way. The way I got the idea to write Frederick Douglass for Kids, however, was very typical of the way I come up with ideas for nonfiction books. I was browsing through a current catalog of this publisher and exploring the titles of their “For Kids” series. I noticed they had various famous Americans in their series such as George Washington for Kids and Benjamin Franklin for Kids. I realized they had a hole in their series and didn’t yet have a title on Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest leaders in America. So I queried the publisher and asked if they’d like to see a proposal on a potential new title called Frederick Douglass for Kids. They said “Yes!” and the rest is history.
What chances does a nonfiction children’s writer have of writing another book about a topic that already has numerous books written about it?
Actually, the chances are quite good, if you do your homework.
First, check the product line of the publisher you’d like to target. If they already have a book on this topic, perhaps they’d like one written with a fresh, unique angle.
And if your publisher doesn’t yet have a book on the topic you want to write about…chances are that if it’s a common topic, your publisher would like to have a book in their product line written on that topic, too! That was the case with this book.
In the books you write, do you use both primary and secondary sources?
It depends on each project. For this book, I used numerous primary sources that included Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies as well as many little-known books written by African American solders who fought during the Civil War as well as African American women who supported the troops as nurses or spies. I found amazing facts and stories I’d never read in any other history book about the Civil War! Plus I had lots of secondary sources of more current books that helped give an overview about the history of this era.
Do you have any favorite “go to” sources when you start a new project?
I like to gather other children’s nonfiction books on my new topic. This helps me develop my outline by referring to the table of contents in these books. Children’s books capture the top ten essential ingredients about a topic, so they’re great resources for developing an outline and a proposal in a short amount of time.
Then, if the proposal is accepted, I gather encyclopedias and primary sources on my topics to really dig in depth. Since I specialize in writing African American history for kids, I own over 200 research books in my own personal library that I’ve built over the years. It’s so helpful when I start a new project because I already have these resources at hand. My favorite resource is numerous books by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. including his encyclopedia set I own, African American National Biography.
How do you organize your research notes? On 3×5 cards, a notebook, on your computer?
The system that works best for me is that I first sit in a comfortable chair to read research books and jot down notes by hand on paper for about an hour to start my day.
Then I move over to my computer and type these notes into an ever-growing working outline. Then I print out these notes and other important notes such as information I’ve found and printed out from the Internet that day. I store these notes each day in a file folder, one file folder per chapter (or section within a chapter for a really long book). I store all these file folders in a pocket folder for handy reference when I need something from a specific chapter that I’ve printed out. This usually takes me another hour.
Then I sit at my computer and type new material for my book project for another hour or so, based on the research I just did.
This gives me at least 3 solid hours of writing each day.
Do you have any advice you’d give to someone who is just starting out and wants to write nonfiction?
Don’t be a “Lone Ranger” writer. Learn how to be a “piggyback” writer. I explain all about how this works in my book for children’s writers, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books… In a nutshell, if you want to experience breakthrough as a nonfiction writer, study publishers’ catalogs and look for series that are written by multiple authors and the copyright to each book is in the author’s name. Brainstorm 3-5 ideas for topics that can fit within that series. Then send a query to that publisher asking if they’d like to see a proposal on any of those topics to fit into their current series.
Not only does this help you land a contract to write a nonfiction book, but when your book comes out, everyone who is already buying the other books in the series will buy yours too, and you’ll see great sales! This is what I call being a “piggyback” writer. It’s in stark contrast to what I refer to as a “Lone Ranger” writer who just tries to find a publisher for her own idea and if it does get published has to try to market it on her name or that title alone with slow sales as a result.
What are you doing to celebrate the release of your book, Frederick Douglass for Kids?
I’m hosting a two-week virtual Book Launch Party! There are prizes to win, fun facts to learn, and lots of inside peeks and helpful tips about how a book is born. Stop by my site today to join in the party.
Few Americans have had as much impact on this nation as Frederick Douglass. Born on a plantation, he later escaped slavery and helped others to freedom via the Underground Railroad. In time he became a bestselling author, an outspoken newspaper editor, a brilliant orator, a tireless abolitionist, and a brave civil rights leader. He was famous on both sides of the Atlantic in the years leading up to the Civil War, and when war broke out, Abraham Lincoln invited him to the White House for counsel and advice.
Frederick Douglass for Kids follows the footsteps of this American hero, from his birth into slavery to his becoming a friend and confidant of presidents and the leading African American of his day. And to better appreciate Frederick Douglass and his times, readers will form a debating club, cook a meal similar to the one Douglass shared with John Brown, make a civil war haversack, participate in a microlending program, and more. This valuable resource also includes a time line of significant events, a list of historic sites to visit or explore online, and web resources for further study.
More About Nancy
Nancy I. Sanders is the bestselling and award-winning author of over 80 books including America’s Black Founders, A Kid’s Guide to African American History, and D Is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet. She teaches other writers how to launch their career to the next level based on material found in her book for writers mentioned above. Nancy’s writing buddies, Sandman and Pitterpat (who just happen to be cats–see picture above) help bring laughter to her days. You can visit their site for practical tips, writing worksheets, and a light-hearted look at the writer’s life.
See what’s happening at Nancy’s launch party.