How I get to write a book

It depends as lot which book it is. With Bittersweet, an old mate called Ian Bowring rang me and suggested I do a book on either sugar or malaria or scurvy, and I picked sugar, because I had already had one of my temporary obsessions about it. This obsession began when I read about The Clown in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, who was going to buy three pounds of sugar, and I felt this was not the time for people to be buying sugar. My understanding was that sugar came from the West Indies (wrong) and that Britain did not have any colonies there when Shakespeare was writing (correct but irrelevant).

Well, as indicated, it turned out I was wrong, and that gave me the first part of my story. But if you want to be a writer, you probably wonder how come a publisher rang up and suggested something. I had done six books for Ian before that, and I did five for his wife Jane, so I am a bit of a known commodity. Now life is a lot easier than it was when I was young, when I had to follow all the advice to young writers that you can find elsewhere on this site.

As Bittersweet was developing, Ian passed my name on to some people who were looking for a science writer who could belt out a bit about the history of space travel. This is where a lifetime of curiosity pays off, because I can remember (or find in my notes) all these bits that can go together. Anyhow, when Jo Paul at Allen and Unwin said I should do a book on rockets next, I said "why not?" I had ideas of my own for the next three books after that, but I am always open to persuasion.

I couldn't do a book without it turning into a temporary obsession when I saw Kepler's tower in Prague in early May of 2002, I was thinking of him sitting up there and dreaming of travelling to the moon. In Poland, I was thinking of the V2 rocket that Polish patriots hid in the muddy waters until a New Zealand pilot could come in and carry key bits away, back to England, via Italy, and working out how to add that to the narrative. In Massachusetts , I read the papers of Robert Goddard, in California, I visited a rocket plant, thanks to help from a good Internet friend. Ireland and other places saw me gathering the stuff for the book after that, but that's all I'm saying for now about that one. After I got back, I even went to Woomera to see a scramjet trial run by the University of Queensland.

My book on poisons arose from a chat with Emma the Eminent Editor, as she deftly steered me away from one of my many ratty notions (more on that below). Basically, either somebody suggests a temporary obsession to me, or I develop it for myself.

The next step is to read around the topic, putting the information and quotes into a spreadsheet that I use as a flat file database. There are good reasons, mainly to do with sorting and editing that lead me to use a spreadsheet and not a proper database. I often copy records so they can appear in two places, and I have fields that let me group geographically, sort by people or topics, or by date. Much of the text is entered non my MacBook, bought for use when travelling. I love it! Before the MacBook I had a brilliant Apple e-mate, but for workaday stuff, I use Wintel mainly.

I also use notebooks (the paper variety) a lot, and I have just switched from the shorthand notebooks I have used since the 1970s to A5 note books -- I tried A4 while I was in the US, but it was a pest. I tend to be organised only to the extent that pages are numbered, and I have a sort of index at the front, and notes to me that tell me to jump from a page to page xx (and I try to put a back-reference at page xx. This is really helpful when I come back to a notebook three years later. Ideas get written down when I have them, and the best ideas, the ones that look like books, get moved into a computer file. This has been handy more than once when somebody asked me at short notice for ideas, and I was able to spill a pack of 50 or 60 prospective titles that we could then cut down on.

Sooner or later, every hard disc dies. I keep copies of my work on the other computers in our home network, and I transfer copies to my work computer (conversely, all the main files from work are also at home, just in case we have a fire or some other disaster). I also keep drafts, so at the very worst, I could scan stuff back in. In 2005, among other disasters, I had a comprehensive hard disc crash that cost me a lot of money and effort to recover the lost files: my backing-up was well behind, and I was about to start the catch-up work when the crash came. Always strike first with back-ups!

These days, books can happen in one of several ways. I am now well-enough known to get the occasional invitation out of the blue, though to be honest, most of those are not all that attractive. That doesn't apply to the National Library, though. The pay for a National Library book is quite poor, but it's worth doing for the sheer fun (and to be honest, the prestige). Then I have several publishers where I am known, but I do most of my work with Pier 9, because they're fun people to work with. Some of the books are suggested and commissioned by them, some are ideas that I had myself. When it's their idea, there is a straight fee payment, when it's my idea, I'm on royalties.

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I have changed my habits a bit over time, and you can read about some of my tricks of the trade in my page on the creative use of spreadsheets in planning. Aside from my notebooks and having everything on several hard discs, I am gloriously disorganised. I like it that way.
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It was last revised on September 6, 2009.
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