Production: Where the Writing is Done

Part of what I want to be able to blog about while Tin-Can Canucks is being developed, is the process behind writing, publishing and promoting a small-press book here in Canada.  Today’s Production note is about the physical writing process for the first draft.

While I was working away on the writing over the Easter break, my daughter was asking about the process I go through in writing a history of one of the destroyers in the book–I think she was surprised at how slow a process it can be at times.

Writing Desk
Ye olde writing location…

Like many authors I need to separate myself from the world when I’m working on my first draft (funny side note: this is the first writing project where I’ve not written the first draft straight through in a  single sitting) so my work space is away from the hullabaloo of other people, the television etc.  Additionally, as I’m working on a non-fiction book I like having all my research materials handy.  As you can see, the desk I’m sitting at while writing isn’t particularly well organized–as I’ve often joked in my professional life I use an archaeological method of filing; I know where to find something in the stack of other somethings based on when I last used it (meaning it’s close to the bottom if it’s not been used recently).

I’d add the comment that “this is where the magic happens” except that’s not really true.  When I sit down to write I’m synthesizing a story from out of the information I’ve already read prior to tackling the chapter.  Tin-Can Canucks is broken up into chapters based on era and/or destroyer “generations”–so while there’s a chapter on the pre-war River-class and there’s also separate chapters on the Tribal-class and Town-class destroyers; all three classes served together during World War 2.  Breaking them into these sorts of divisions makes it easier (I believe) for the reader to consume and it allows a more direct comparison of one ship’s history to that of it’s peers–especially when you have destroyers with building dates ranging from 1919 to 1942.

Writing reference books
…full of references from which to inform the author writing stories…

So, any particular chapter starts with (or started with) my getting the appropriate books covering the history of the type (so, for the Town-class I got my hands on Arnold Hague’s seminal Destroyers for Great Britain, as well as a variety of other books on the USN Flush Deck Destroyers) and start off reading through them while in bed in the evenings after my daughter’s gone to sleep.  Having read through a particular book, I set aside for a while and go onto something else, but it’s not uncommon for me to come back to a book like Hague’s and cross reference it with other more general books like Darlington and McKee’s The Canadian Naval Chronicle, to get a good sense of what other ships were part of the story, or what context might be helpful for the reader to understand any particular portion of the history.

Sometimes I have the book already (like Hague), sometimes I borrow it (like Darlington and McKee) and sometimes I have to purchase it like John English’s Afridi to Nizam (shown above).  As can be expected there’s a lot of reading and note taking happening before I ever site down to write on a ship or ships.  The writing itself is really all the hard work after I’ve had all the fun of staying up late pouring over dusty tombs (well, not really dusty…).

But the really special moments–those where magic really does seem to happen–is when I make a connection between a destroyer’s history an something completely separate and unexpected.

What writing is powered by
..where the writing is powered by coffee, Coke, Scotch and unexpected connections to other books.

A perfect example happened just the other day.  Having finished Afridi to Nizam I was writing up the history of HMCS Cayuga when I made note of her taking part in a search for downed aircrew of a USAF B-36 bomber.  It wasn’t anything that piqued my interest in my previous reading(s), but this time I had that “A-ha!” moment that sent me off to rummage through my library.  Most of the reading and research done for this book is based on naval history, so I’ve not often made reference to non-Navy books, but something told me this B-36 was one I’d heard about before.

Some years back a colleague of mine asked me to build him a model of a B-36–he was writing a book about one that went down in the BC interior Valentine’s Day 1950.  This bomber had been carrying a Mark IV nuclear weapon, and was thus the first “Broken Arrow” (the USAF term for a missing nuclear weapon).  I pulled my copy of the book from my bookshelf and flipped through to the chapter on the search and rescue op–and lo and behold, there was a photo of HMCS Cayuga.

So a shout out to Norman Leach and his book Broken Arrow: America’s First Lost Nuclear Weapon.  Thanks to his diligent research (and need for a model bomber for his lectures) I was now able to expand on a part of Cayuga’s history that not many would know about.

Maybe the magic does happen at the writing desk. (and now you know why it’s taken so long to write this book).