Experts typically advise fledgling writers to "Write about what you know" -- your work, hobbies, or interests. Many writers pen their memoirs and others write about harrowing experiences, overcoming a challenge, or their views on a particular issue. Family history is another popular topic for the novice writer. Rather than simply logging genealogical data, write the story of your ancestors. Or go a step further and write the history of your community.
My most profitable writing project to date is a comprehensive history of my hometown. The first edition of The Ojai Valley, An Illustrated History (Matilija Press, 1983) took five years to complete. After another intense year of research, I published the revised edition in 1999. This 358-page volume has sold steadily for nearly twenty years and will probably continue selling for as long as it's available. Not only is it popular with newcomers to our valley and descendants of early pioneers, but tourists also buy it and carry it back to their own hometowns.
If you're a history buff or if you'd like to document the story of your community, here's my step-by-step guide to writing your local history:
Determine the need. Does your community have an interesting history? Has anyone ever captured it on paper? In my preliminary research, I discovered that there had been a lot written about the Ojai Valley over the years, but the material had never been collected and presented under one cover. There were small pamphlets that touched on local history, numerous magazine and newspaper articles archived, and a multitude of individual stories as yet untold.
Figure out who will read the history of your town. Talk to the librarian, the director of the chamber of commerce, the city manager, teachers, docents at the museum, and merchants, about whether they see a need for a written history of your area. Ask how they see a book like this being used. This will help determine your slant and focus. Will it be a small book with just the basic history, a profile of the people who settled and developed the community, a chronicle of historic events, an account of historic places, or all of the above?
Determine a publisher. Before I started this monumental project, I went in search of a publisher. The local newspaper publisher said he would produce it. He backed out, however, when I held fast to my convictions to create this book for the community. He was looking to market to tourists.
I wrote the book not knowing how I would get it published. Ultimately, I decided to self-publish. This was in 1983, before self-publishing was fashionable, convenient, and relatively inexpensive. Today you can design and prepare a book yourself and have copies printed as you need them through a print-on-demand company. Consider selling ads to display in your book to help with publishing expenses.
If you prefer that someone else publish your book, submit a proposal to the daily newspaper publisher, the area or state historical society, a local philanthropist, or a regional publisher.
Research the history. During those five years researching the history of the Ojai Valley I spent months at the library poring over early newspapers. I also researched library and museum records and collections throughout the county and beyond. I interviewed historians, old-timers, descendents of pioneers, and people involved with annual events and historic places. I interviewed the woman who started the Biblical Gardens at the Presbyterian Church, the son of an early forest ranger, the original curator for the local museum, the family of the first stable owner, and the woman who started the community orchestra.
Through diligent exploration, I also located people and organizations with old letters, scrapbooks, record books, and other memorabilia. A local water company had a scrapbook depicting the building of our most significant dam. A famous theosophical organization in the community shared their 60-year old photo album with me. One pioneer descendant had a box full of old letters.
Talk about your project everywhere you go and you will be given more leads than you can follow. While some of them will be dead ends, many will provide you with incredible information. During the research phase, ask for an interview with your local newspaper and publicly invite people to contact you with their stories.
Organize your information. The accumulation of material for a project like this can become overwhelming. It's crucial to your sanity that you figure out a way to organize it. Here's my method: In the research phase, I carried a steno pad everywhere I went. While researching newspapers I'd note a variety of information, dates, names and events. At home I'd cut up the pages, organize the material according to subject, and file each topic appropriately. I had file folders labeled churches, cemeteries, early pioneers, the business district, schools, and events.
Collect old photographs. If you want to illustrate your book, gather photos and conduct interviews. Ask about old photos everywhere you go. Gathering pictures is often as easy as scanning the photo and saving it on a disk.
Define your chapters. When you've come to the end of the research process, it's time to start building your book. Establish a logical chapter sequence. Will you organize your book chronologically or by popular attractions, events, and sites? Maybe you'll want to introduce early settlers and tell the history through their stories. Next, organize the file folders according to your chapter sequence.
Start writing. Take the material from the file folder representing Chapter One, organize it in appropriate order, and write an outline. Repeat this process for each chapter. Most likely, you'll find information and data suited to Chapter Two in the Chapter Eight file. That's okay. This is your opportunity to make adjustments and corrections. Your book may take on many forms before it's organized the way you want it.
Write the book from your outline. I prefer to start at the beginning, but if your chapters are pretty cut and dried, you could start with the most important chapter and work from there. Some people feel more confident writing the easiest chapters first.
Verify your facts. You'll find that some facts are practically etched in stone, while others seem to change before your very eyes. Follow the trail of elusive facts as closely as possible. If you still can't substantiate something, forget it, or include it with qualifiers such as, "according to folklore," or "I'm told by several old timers that ..." or "Old Jake remembers it this way ..."
Market your book. Plan your marketing strategy before you write the book. Fill your book with the names of early pioneers, the folks you interviewed, those who loaned you photographs, and the locals you quoted. By all means note the agencies and organizations that worked with you on this project. Everyone involved will buy at least one book and many of them will buy several.
Create and maintain a mailing list of these folks and everyone else you meet who expresses even a remote interest in your book project. Add your Christmas card list, class reunion list, and member list for your organizations. Once the book is published, send flyers or a personal letter to everyone on your list.
Notify bookstore owners, the buyer for the museum gift shop, and others when your book will be available so they can alert their customers.
Suggest your book as a premium item for local businesses. A bank might give away a book to each new customer. Realtors might want to use your book as a gift for their clients. If you're the publisher, consider offering quantity discounts.
As soon as your book is published, send press releases to local newspapers, radio, and TV stations. Follow up with a call suggesting an interview.
Send a flyer to the school district, library system, and city hall. My Ojai history book is in every local school library and there are numerous copies in the county library system. Each Ojai City Council member has a copy of my book in his drawer in council chambers.
You don't have to be a historian in order to write a book on history. All it takes is diligence and persistence, good research and interview skills, an interest in your community, and a love of writing.
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