Writing Non Fiction - a Hard Row to Hoe

My book on the history of the people of the island of Gigha is finished. I travelled through to Edinburgh with the manuscript and a bundle of old photographs last friday. I decided to take the whole lot to the publisher myself, mainly because I daren't trust the photographs, precious old pictures, to the post office, and I didn't have the wherewithall to do the necessary high resolution scanning here at home. Besides the pictures had been lent to me by one Angus Allan, whom I have never met, but who sounds delightful, and the redoubtable Willie McSporran, Gigha's answer to Alan Breck, and a man who, like that most wonderful of literary characters, one would 'rather have as a friend than as an enemy.' Hence my panic over the pics.
Actually, I write that the book is finished, but there will be rewrites. I feel it in my bones. Once some editor gets his or her hands on it, there will most certainly be rewrites. The problem will arise (I know already) because although most of it is carefully researched and backed up with the necessary references, I have allowed myself (as a writer of fiction, after all!) the occasional flight of fancy. I know that this will not appeal to a certain cross section of historians, possibly including the man who commissioned the book, although I am prepared to fight my (feminist) corner. We'll see. My Master's degree was in Folk Life Studies and although it does its best to be a sound academic discipline, it is one that has to take serious account of oral history, and the transmission of information without reference to written texts. I find that quite exhilarating - the fact that even the most wild flight of storytelling may actually have some germ of truth at the heart of it. But most academics of my acquaintance feel vaguely threatened by it.
When I began to research this book some years ago, the publisher said that it was 'not a work to make you rich.' What he didn't say, in so many words, was that it would be a work to make me very very poor. So far they have paid me £750 for something that I feel as though I have been researching and writing for ever. I can't complain, because I volunteered for this. But the last year has involved almost nothing else apart from one short play. Only a very helpful bursary from the Scottish Arts Council allowed me to continue, but even so (and with our last oil bill, for a very small tank, coming in at £350) it has highlighted for me the fact that something has to change, for me at least. No wonder such non-fiction books are so often written by academics with tenure, who - although not well paid by most standards except those of freelance writers - do it in their spare time as a kind of adjunct to their researches .
It has been a steep learning curve for me because there were all kinds of things I hadn't really thought through. When you write fiction, you do a certain amount of research - usually a real pleasure, because you are so embroiled with your subject - but then you 'give yourself permission' to fictionalise. The story itself, with all its implications and resonances, takes precedence, and once you begin, the characters carry you forwards.
With non fiction, the research is non stop, and whenever you finish a chapter or a section, you feel as though you have finished the whole thing, and have to wind yourself up to start all over again, with the next part. It is exhausting, or I certainly found it so.
You have to paraphrase and reference and compare accounts and make sure your footnotes make sense . You have to write a bibliography, and an index. Even then you know that somebody is going to quibble about any original conclusions you may have decided to reach. There are as many interpetations of fact as there are academics to make a career out of them. Mind you, that's exactly what they are doing to Dan Brown as well, and he was writing fiction, although I can't feel too sorry for him. Would that Gigha was going to earn only a tiny fraction of his income.
The book is with the editorial manager at the moment, but his concern is mainly with the book's production rather than the content so I still await a verdict on the text. I'll let you know what happens next!

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