Before you start writing, you need to make some preliminary decisions about your book. As you contemplate possible topics, you should also think about how you will structure your book and what its slant will be. Considering these aspects early in the process will help you avoid the common experience of getting lost in the weeds at about the halfway point of your manuscript.
Let’s say you want to write about your town’s history. What else has been written on your topic and when was it published? If nothing has been published recently, you could write a straightforward chronological description of the town’s founding, significant events, important people, etc.
Another approach – one that would be preferable if a general overview has already been published –would be to select a single time period or event and describe it in great detail. What was your town like in 1899? What happened during the great flood of 1936? You could also reveal the town’s past by telling the story of a historic house or an important commercial building such as a landmark hotel.
If you are a destination marketer or offer tours, you might want to structure your work as a travel guide. Your underlying foundation would be geographic. Chapters would describe various neighborhoods or parts of your region. You could add sections on shopping, art, cuisine, whatever makes your area special. Go to the library and borrow some classic travel guides such as Lonely Planet or Fodor’s. It doesn’t matter if they are out of date. Look carefully at how the material is organized and presented. Then adapt the framework to your project.
If you plan to write about folklore, legends, tall tales or ghosts, structure your material as if it were a collection of short stories or essays. Include an opening chapter that introduces readers to the overall theme of your book and describes where the stories came from. Then move directly into the legends and tales, which should follow the standard beginning, middle and end story structure. Use evocative, descriptive prose and work in a bit of dialogue if you can.
Still searching for the right topic? Grab a pen or open a new document and write whatever comes to mind as you go through the following questions. Not all of them will apply to your project. Don’t let that stop you. Just use them as prompts. Don’t censor yourself or edit your responses. When you finish, take a few days off then come back to what you wrote. You might be pleasantly surprised.
- Are there stories, events or people that have been forgotten, hidden or kept secret?
- If you are in destination marketing or tourism, what’s your most popular attraction, tour or program? What makes it so appealing?
- What are the most common questions people ask about your town or attraction?
- Could your town’s or region’s history be the backdrop for a single family’s saga?
- Could you chart the story and impact of an immigrant community?
- Any notorious crimes, espionage or spectacular trials?
- Who were the significant people of the past? How were they different from or similar to the people of today?
- Have there been any natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes or floods? What about recurring natural disasters?
- What about human caused disasters such as bridge collapses, building fires, riots and warfare?
- Does your area have a great sports story or tradition?
- What does the local architecture tell you about the past?
- Can you chart the evolution of a neighborhood?
Don’t rush through these early steps. Taking enough time to choose an appropriate topic and the right structure for your book before you start writing is like laying a strong foundation before building a house. You’ll see the payoff over and over as your project develops and moves toward completion.
In our next post we’ll talk about how long your book should be and how to course correct if you discover your topic is too broad or too narrow.