There’s no better way to learn than to listen to a master. Last night Nancy and I had the opportunity to hear two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough talk about his new book The Wright Brothers.
Today we’re in St. Charles, Missouri for the National Genealogical Society Conference which opens tomorrow. We’ll spend four days talking with people who are working on family history books about how to tell their stories. The best advice I might offer is three insights contained in McCullough’s talk last night in Washington D. C..
Begin by recreating the world your subject lived in. McCullough began his talk, and his book, with Wilbur Wright’s advice that the best way for a young man to get ahead was to get himself a good set of parents and “be born in Ohio.” As McCullough explored what the Wright’s home in Dayton was like in the late 19th century, you could see that Ohio was at the cutting edge of the industrial revolution both in terms of manufacturing and the technological innovation that fueled it. It was that environment which helped to ignite and nourish the Wrights’ dream of flight which seemed only natural in the age of people like Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.
Identify the theme of your subject’s experiences. What makes the people you are writing about unique and important? McCullough described the Wrights’ story as a “distinctively American story.” As he put it Europeans built cathedrals , but America’s artistry has been technological.
Don’t wait to finish your research before you begin to write your book. McCullough said he researches while he is writing. He discovers what he needs to know, then goes to find it and incorporate it in the emerging draft. When the draft is done, he goes back to revise, particularly the early part of the book to reflect the vastly increased knowledge he has acquired since he began writing.
That’s a method that’s much more likely to get a book written (The Wright Brothers is McCullough’s tenth.) than continuing to research for a project that you’ll “get to someday.”