Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Writing Non-fiction with Author John C. McManus

John C. McManus is a native St. Louis author who has written several books about American combat history. He has a PhD in American and military history from the University of Tennessee. He currently works as an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla where he teaches courses on the Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, Military History, and the American Combat Experience in the 20th Century.

His first book, The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II, was originally published in 1998 and drew from first hand interviews of World War II veterans he’d collected while working in Tennessee as the assistant director of the Center for the Study of War and Society. Since then he’s gone on to publish eight non-fiction books, with a ninth scheduled for a June release, and he is a frequent contributor to World War II magazine.

During the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference, John will share his experience in a breakout session, titled “Writing Non Fiction History: How to Start with an Idea and End with a Book.” The session will provide an inside look into dreaming up an original concept, doing the research, conducting interviews, surmounting the challenge of actually writing the book and finding a publisher.

Sarah: John, thank you for taking the time to give us some more information about your upcoming appearance at the Missouri Writers’ Guild. We’re looking forward to having you.

John:  It is my pleasure, Sarah. I am very much looking forward to the event.

Sarah: First, to get us started, where are you right now as you type this?

John:  I am sitting in my office at my home in St. Louis.

Sarah: You’re an avid St. Louis sports fan and you even play amateur hockey. So, tell me how did you go from working in sports journalism and marketing to having a history-focused academic career. Both of those involving writing, but I’d imagine its two very different types.

John:  When I was an undergraduate, my great dream was to become a sports broadcaster. This was the main reason I attended the journalism school at Mizzou. Once I actually got into the J school and began taking classes, I found that I enjoyed my history electives much more. Nearly every time I had open hours, I took history. Eventually it dawned on me that I was much more interested in a career as an historian than as a broadcaster. I finished the journalism degree but went to grad school in history. The interesting thing is that the writing skills I learned in journalism school gave me a big advantage in the historical profession. I learned so much about eliminating the passive voice, moving a story forward, and staying on message. In grad school I was amazed to see how little effort most academic historians put into their writing. In my opinion, they failed to understand that good writing is the essential foundation of all good history. As a result, academic histories tend to be dry as dust. My goal always was to write not just for a scholarly audience but a popular audience too. My journalism training helped me to do exactly that. I also learned useful interviewing skills.

Sarah: From a writing/research perspective, of all the books you’ve written, which are you most proud of? Why?

John: That’s a tough question to answer. It is almost like asking a parent which child is his favorite!  All kidding aside, I would have to say I am especially proud of a book I wrote called Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq. The research process for the book was exhausting and mentally challenging but I think the end product made it all worthwhile. The book was recently named to the US Army Chief of Staff’s professional reading list and I think it contains many important—and fascinating—lessons that can help today’s soldiers. I am also very proud of another book I wrote called Alamo in the Ardennes: The Untold Story of the American Soldiers who Made the Defense of Bastogne Possible mainly because it revised the way in which historians view the Battle of the Bulge. I was able to access so many incredible primary sources and new perspectives. Plus, the story is so fast paced and pressure packed that I like to think it reads like a military thriller.

Sarah: In addition to your books, you also write pieces for  World War II magazine. Has that been advantageous to your career? In what way? Doesn’t it take time away from writing your books?

John: The articles for World War II magazine have definitely been advantageous for me as a writer and a professor. For one thing, I established a strong relationship with the magazine’s editor. For another, the various pieces enhanced my visibility in the profession, even though they do not count as academic articles for a tenure dossier. For that, I have published academically refereed articles in non-profit journals. Most of the World War II magazine articles have dealt with topics derived from my books, so it has enhanced, rather than taken away from the process of writing books. For instance, I wrote an article for the magazine about the capture by the 7th Infantry Regiment of Hitler’s mountain redoubt at Berchtesgaden at the end of World War II. The piece debunked the myth, mistakenly propagated by Stephen Ambrose in Band of Brothers, that paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division had taken Berchtesgaden. In writing my article, I drew directly from a book I had just published on the history of the 7th Infantry.

Sarah: You’ve obviously established yourself as an American history expert. In your opinion, do you have to be an expert on a topic in order to write about it?

John: I think it depends on the particular book you have in mind. If, for instance, you are writing a book that delves into an ancestor’s experiences in the Civil War or World War II, you do not necessarily have to be a so called “expert” on those wars. History, after all, is for everyone. That’s what makes it fun. James Nelson, though he had no particular reputation or training as a World War I historian, recently wrote a fine book called The Remains of Company D   about his grandfather’s experiences in the war. If, by contrast, you envision writing an authoritative new book on the US experience in Vietnam, or the Battle of Stalingrad or the role of women in the Revolutionary War, it does help to have some acknowledged expertise. Publishers will take your proposal a bit more seriously and, once your book is published, reviewers will probably treat it with more kindness. I do want to underscore, though, that you do NOT have to be an academic expert to write history. After all, even if you don’t have the academic training, you can always train yourself to master nearly any historical topic. Again, that’s the beauty of the field.

Sarah: Of the various steps in the book writing process – idea, research, interviews, writing, etc – which one is the hardest for you? What do you do to keep motivated when you’re in that stage of the process?

John: I would say the writing process is the hardest part. Ideas are seldom a problem for me. I always have more ideas for books than I can actually write. And I absolutely love the research/interviewing process. That is definitely the most enjoyable part for me. The actual writing can sometimes be a hard slog. It takes a lot of time and mental energy. For me as a professor, it means devoting most all of my non-campus time to writing the book. The biggest challenge is how to shape the vision I have for the book into actual reality. I also sometimes get frustrated that I simply cannot utilize all of the vast amounts of research material I gather. This means prioritizing and tightening the scope of my book. This is one hundred percent necessary but it also means making tough editorial choices.

Sarah: In your breakout session, you’ll talk about the interview process for non-fiction books. How do you know if you need to conduct an interview? Could you include an example or two of how an interview could add to a book?

John: I think interviews are important for anyone doing modern history or journalism. Ask yourself if the documentary sources truly tell the whole story or if the perspective of someone who participated in the event would add to your book. The answer is usually yes. It never hurts to pick the brain of a participant. It doesn’t mean that they should dominate your narrative or that you take everything the interviewee says as one hundred percent truth. The interview is just one source among many available to you. It might loom as your most crucial source—as in investigative journalism—or as a complementary source as in some administrative histories. I believe that interviews have added much to my books. One good example is the Guam chapter of Grunts. The focus of the chapter is on a massive Japanese banzai attack against U.S. Marine lines a few days after the Americans invaded Guam in July 1944. Through a veteran’s association I was able to locate and interview a large number of veterans who had fought the Japanese on that hellish night. Their memories were incredibly vivid, honest and accurate. The chapter was based on a rich blend of sources such as after action reports, unit journals, personal memoirs, letters and the like. But I think the first hand immediacy of the interviews brought the event to life like nothing else could. This is the advantage of the modern historian—to actually interact with your subjects. I recommend making use of that.

Sarah: You’ve targeted your breakout session toward historical writers. Will all writers of non-fiction benefit from attending? Or only if they write historical non-fiction?

John: I think the session can offer something useful for all non-fiction writers. Obviously self help is different from military history or true crime. But I think all non-fiction authors can relate to the process of conceiving a book and tracking down a good publisher.

Sarah:  How long does it take to write & research a non-fiction book? From the original idea to submitting it to the publisher?

John: For me, on average, it takes about two or three years, from the proposal stage to publication. I spend the bulk of that time doing the research.

Sarah: For non-fiction writers, how is the process of getting a publisher different from the process that fiction writers go through?

John: Fiction is tougher because most every writer thinks he or she can do it. Thus, there is a huge amount of competition for good agents and/or good self publishing deals. Non-fiction topics tend to narrow themselves down by who is interested and qualified to write about them. Fiction writers have to worry so much about story structure, character development and the like. For non-fiction writers hoping to sell a proposal, the main challenge is to demonstrate a clear market for your book and sell the publisher on the notion that you are the ideal person to write a good book to meet this demand.

Sarah: If someone is interested in writing non-fiction, would you recommend that they get an agent? Why or why not?

John: I think for eighty percent of authors, an agent is the way to go. If you are very business savvy; if you enjoy negotiations; if you understand something of how publishing contracts work; if you don’t mind the idea of canvassing a large number of publishers and dealing with direct rejection, then you don’t really need an agent. If you are like most writers, who are better at creativity than business acumen, an agent can really be a godsend. Your agent can save you a lot of time and trouble, not just in tracking down a publisher, but in refining a marketable book concept. It is important to have a good agent who can tell you frankly “That concept won’t sell” or “That idea is a good one; let’s develop it.”  The agent can focus exclusively on the business side while you work on the production side—writing the books. Moreover, once it is time to work out the details of the contract, you will almost always get a better deal with an agent at your side, especially if you are a new author. On a personal level, the first person I pitch any new idea to is my agent. He tells me which ones are worth pursuing and which ones are not. In twelve years, he has seldom been wrong.

Sarah: What are some of the tips you’ve developed over the years for writing a non-fiction query letter?

John: I think a good query letter should be short and to the point, maybe a couple paragraphs at most. Explain to the editor the market for your book, why your particular book will benefit their bottom line and why you are the person to write this particular offering. Perfect a courteous, confident and professional tone.

Sarah:  John, thank for taking the time to answer my questions.

Don’t forget to register. If you’ve learned something from author John McManus, please consider attending the 2012 Missouri Writers Guild Annual writing conference. We would love to see you there. 

Click here to learn more about the Missouri Writers Guild 2012 Conference or to register!


  1. Interesting interview. I especially appreciate John's advice about writing a query letter.

  2. Nice interview - thank you both.