Tips on Offline Research and Nonfiction Writing from John Ferling

John Ferling is a leading authority on late 18th and early 19th century American history. In addition to serving as a professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, John Ferling has published several books on his area of specialization, such as A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic.

Advice on Offline Research

John FerlingUnlike the vast majority of us, John Ferling does not conduct research online. Information in his books has been teased from countless books, manuscripts, journals, letters, and rolls of microfilm. All of his books have required at least some travel to special libraries and collections.

That much of the information John harvests over the course of his offline research cannot be found online makes his books uniquely valuable.

Should you be interested in bolstering your books with original offline research, consider heeding the following lessons John has learned over the years:

  • Do all of your own research: One time about 20 years ago, John used a graduate student to do one small segment of research, then ended up spending more time re-doing that student’s work than researching any other aspect of the book he was working on (he now does 100% of his research)
  • Specialize: John has focused on the American Revolution and early America since the late 1960s when he was in grad school; he is now intimately familiar with who to reach out to and what collections to visit when research must be done (the more you know an area, the more time you can spend doing actual research rather than hunting for materials to research)
  • Don't take everything at face value: When going over historical documents, one cannot accept everything as a hard fact; many people writing letters and reports had their own personal biases (for example, John feels pretty confident about the accuracy of John Adams' journal entries made during his political life, but is far more dubious about many personal reflections written after his retirement, once he had come to hate George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton and had a memory that played tricks on him)
  • Carefully consider access: Because John is writing about people and events that lived and took place hundreds of years ago, he has not had trouble accessing most of the documents he needs, however he acknowledges that colleagues writing histories of more contemporary figures have encountered trouble with some materials being sealed for up to 50 years (the takeaway being that one should not commit to a subject unless one knows one can gain sufficient material)
  • Be mindful of the location of your research materials: For some of his books, John has had to travel to other cities (Boston, especially) four to five times a year for several weeks at a time so that he could access rare but crucial materials for his books; he has since become more mindful about his chosen subjects so that he can write books while traveling less

It should be noted that John has colleagues who have not been able to finish books because the collections of historical documents on which they depend reside on entirely different continents. Researching something so far away is not feasible unless one is willing to leave home for months at a time. Never underestimate the power of proximity to a good library and a robust inter-library loan system!

On Keeping Informative Nonfiction Engaging

It isn't easy keeping nonfiction- especially that which is stuffed to the brim with carefully-researched information- engaging, and yet only captivating books interest audiences and drive sales. John's advice with regard to keeping histories engaging is to:

  • Read other historical nonfiction (perhaps focusing on areas of history outside your personal realm)
  • While reading these books, ask yourself what makes them good, what could make them better, and what about them has disappointed you
  • Incorporate the best elements of other history books into your work and avoid their pitfalls
  • Develop the character and personality of the figures about which you write; take time to explain why you think they became who they became and why they made the choices they made (readers appreciate this type of analysis)
  • Provide stories with a narrative (if you’re writing about a major historical battle, don’t say “The regiment was moved from the right flank to the left flank,” but give a story- explain what drove decisions, elucidate how the common participants reacted, and sprinkle comments left by multiple people present within your retelling)

How to Write Successful Historical Nonfiction

John's advice to other writers interested in publishing books on historical events and figures is to focus on wars and biographies: readers seem to love them! While you may be content to write histories that spark less interest amongst mainstream audiences, keep in mind that advances from publishers get higher and higher should one have a track record of robust book sales. Thanks to their engaging nature and broad appeal, John has seen the amount of his advances go up about six fold since his first book.

If you choose to leave the safe zone of famous figures and wars, John acknowledges you can still find amazing success- you just have to be a great writer. He points to Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson as an example. Though about a hurricane, the book was incredibly successful as Erik Larson is captivating author and told the story well.

You do not necessarily have to be from academia to write excellent and successful nonfiction on historical events and figures. Though John expects most historical nonfiction writers to be from the academic realm, he knows of many great history writers from other realms, Walter Isaacson,  Erik Larson, and David McCollugh among them.