My debut book, At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui, was released on April 8, 2014. Over the fourteen years it took from inspiration to publication, I had time to learn a few things along the way.
CHOOSE A TOPIC BIG ENOUGH TO SUSTAIN YOUR INTEREST
Writing a nonfiction book can take several years. If I’m not sure how long I can stay interested in a topic, I may write an article about it rather than aim for a book. But when I started doing research on the Mawangdui tombs, I discovered they had so many amazing artifacts and revealed so much about life in ancient China—there was more than enough for a book. As I got further in, I could see a large web of connections between the tombs and other topics (e.g., forensics, art, and mourning traditions). Fortunately, my vision kept on growing with each draft I wrote, so I never lost interest.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
My first proposal used 33 sources, the proposal that got accepted had 61 sources, and the final manuscript had over 400 sources. Collecting all that information was crucial for giving me facts, insights, and high impact details to enrich the book and to ensure accuracy. A friend once asked me, “Do you get tired of doing so much work?” My answer: there are two sides. I accept that I have to track down lots of sources, read them all, take notes, organize those notes, and let my mind wrestle with the chaos of so much information—that’s the time-consuming work part. But I do all that willingly because of the fun part—learning new things, seeing connections, and enjoying the writing because I have lots of wonderful stuff to work with.
KNOW WHY YOU’RE WRITING THE BOOK
Fourteen years is a long time to keep one’s motivation up. Periodically along the way, I journaled about why I was writing this book, what I wanted it to be, who I was writing for, and what I hoped readers would take with them from it. Keeping these in mind helped sustain my faith in the value of pursuing the book.
I had plenty of opportunities to practice tenaciousness in every stage of the process. A few examples:
- It took eight years and six proposals before the book was acquired.
- A few chapters worked well from the beginning, but others were a struggle. I had to keep trying different approaches, trusting I could figure out how to make the chapters or sections meaningful and compelling.
- I traveled to China to see the artifacts and the site of the Mawangdui tombs. My local guide took me to the museum, but three separate times he balked at taking me to the tomb site. “There’s nothing to see,” he insisted. Having come all the way from the other side of the world, I had to see where Lady Dai had lain hidden for two thousand years. After the third balk, I told him, “Even if it’s been built over and there’s only a sign marking the spot, I want to see the tomb site.” Finally, we went. Two of the tombs had been built over, but the third was open. I felt stunned staring down into the 33-foot deep, cavernous pit—an experience no photo or description could have given me.
Was it worth the marathon wait, the countless hours of work, the roller-coaster of ups and downs? I believe so. It’s a wondrous feeling to hold in my hands a book that I poured my heart, mind, and soul into. I appreciate the amazing journey it took to reach this point, and I’m grateful to the many people around the world who helped make the book come to life.
First posted April 14, 2014 on www.thewildwriters.com