I often have lunch with other nonfiction book authors. These meetings seem to be of great interest to my non-writer friends, who imagine that my colleagues and I sit around discussing wordsmithing or story construction while sipping espressos (and maybe wearing berets).
Nothing could be further from the truth. We drink Diet Cokes (only at places that offer free refills). We wear Cubs hats. And we talk about one thing, and one thing only.
How to find a great book idea.
Great book ideas are the currency of an author’s profession. Without one, little matters. You can be Shakespeare and Melville and Philip Roth and rolled into one and it won’t mean a thing if you don’t have a great book idea. To every author I know, finding a great idea is the single hardest challenge of the job.
So, how does one do it?
When my colleagues and I first started these discussions, we all had pretty much the same approach to finding a great nonfiction book idea. Basically, it amounted to this:
-read newspapers for stories that could be expanded
-look in museums, archives, and old publications for stories that hadn’t been told in a while, or hadn’t been told well
-select an anniversary of an important event and revisit it
-pick a topic you know and love and go from there
I recommend each of these approaches. They have produced countless excellent books over the years. But when I looked at some of the book ideas that had worked best for me and the writers I know, they didn’t always originate in those ways. Worse, it seemed that many of the best book ideas I knew about came from a place an author least likes to depend on.
I undertook my first book project after a friend told me the story of two ordinary blue collar workers who dove deep for shipwrecks on weekends, and how they’d discovered a World War II German U-boat sunk in New Jersey waters with 56 dead German sailors aboard. Shadow Divers, the story of the divers’ quest to solve the mystery of that lost U-boat, became a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into dozens of languages. I credit myself for recognizing a once-in-a-lifetime story and jumping all over it. But what if my friend hadn’t known of that story? What if I hadn’t gotten that lucky phone call?
I suppose I could have found the story that became Shadow Divers by combing through old newspapers – the New York Times had reported on the divers’ discovery in 1991. But how would I have gone about that? I knew nothing of the story, so I would have had to read every issue of the newspaper going back decades in order to find it. That doesn’t seem a realistic or efficient use of one’s time.
Daniel James Brown, who wrote the massive-selling nonfiction book The Boys in the Boat, got his idea after a neighbor introduced him to her father, who’d been a champion rower as a young man. A great book. And a stroke of luck.
It can be disconcerting to recognize that luck might play so large a part in so important an aspect of the business of writing, because as wonderful as luck is, by definition it’s impossible to count on it. But that doesn’t mean one can’t woo luck. And that brings me to one of my favorite books of all.
The Black Swan, published by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in 2007, is one of two books that has changed how I view life and the world (the other is The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker). There’s not enough space here to summarize The Black Swan, but one might get a taste for its treasures just by noting its subtitle: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. To my mind, The Black Swan is a masterpiece. Often, it discusses the role of luck in life and events.
Taleb is too deep and nuanced a thinker to dismiss luck simply because it can’t be predicted. Instead, he believes there’s action a person can take, if not to conjure luck, then to fling oneself in its path. There’s a beautiful little grace note toward the end of The Black Swan that I think is useful for anyone trying to come up with a great book idea, or maybe any idea at all. Taleb expresses it in all of three words, plus an exclamation point:
Go to parties!
By attending parties, Taleb thinks, “you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity.” He notes that diplomats understand instinctively that “casual chance discussions at cocktail parties usually lead to big breakthroughs.” Scientists attending parties, he believes, will “chance upon a remark that might spark new research.”
The same, I think, can be said for writers. At parties, a writer is likely to run into interesting people who already know of great stories and great characters. By interacting with them, the odds increase that one of these partygoers will share a story tailor-made for a book.
So, I’m taking my advice from Taleb. I’m attending parties, lots of them, and I’m asking questions. Maybe you’ll be there, too. If so, come up and introduce yourself. I’ll be the guy sipping Diet Cokes and not wearing a beret, but listening very, very closely.