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Writing Specialised Non Fiction by Lissa Oliver

Writing.ie | Resources | Getting Started in Non-Fiction

Lissa Oliver

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If you are writing about a specialist subject it follows that you are a specialist in that subject. Your readers are certainly going to be aficionados and will quickly spot errors, so the important element here is: Know your Subject!

Do Your Homework

My specialist subject is horseracing. I began following the sport in my very early teens and in the obsessive way typical of teenagers I was soon an expert, as I devoured every racing history book available. It’s safe to say I am as familiar with 1800s and1990s racehorses, trainers and jockeys as I am with their modern counterparts. As many racing people have been involved for several generations, they appreciate this knowledge of their forebears. They’re not alone; in any sphere a lot of other hobbies and skills are passed down through generations, or antique equipment or past exponents venerated, so: Do your homework!

Enjoy What You Write

As a school-leaver I worked directly with racehorses, in stables, and then later took administration roles. I had always written as a hobby and very late in life the two worlds luckily gelled – horseracing and writing. Such a background could apply to any writer and their second hobby, be it woodwork, music or tropical fish. We usually envelop ourselves wholly in a new hobby and that interest will last with us for life. Which also means: Enjoy what you write!

Be Aware Of Your Audience

In non-fiction, I write for specialised racing magazines, some for the general public, some for the industry. I should say that betting (and t ipping) is a separate by-product of racing, with its own industry publications, and is not dealt with by any of the publications I work with; nor does it hold any interest for me. In any subject there will be ‘side-interests’ that you will – or should – be aware of. If you write for a music magazine, are you writing for the fans who pin up posters and want to know personal details of their idols, or are you writing for the dedicated record collector, or concert goer, or professional producer or musician? The angle of your story will affect how you interview a person or approach a topic, so: Be aware of your audience!

Listen And Learn

If you are writing a useful guide, or introducing an innovation, try to include quotes and experiences from industry experts. Where possible, include alternative methods or viewpoints, as advocated by field experts. If attending trade shows, listen to the audience around you as much as to the speakers – they could have a story to tell or experience to relate. Feedback on trade shows and events is often as interesting as the event itself. I’m passionate about horseracing and so I enjoy speaking with its personalities and devotees – and they enjoy speaking with me. No one suffers fools gladly, particularly if it concerns a consuming passion. So never chance your arm – Listen and learn!

Write What You Know

Because I write about a subject I enjoy, I know the type of stories, or personalities that will be of interest, and am aware of topical opportunities. Anniversaries, historical tie-ins or notable firsts will always make a story. Taking time to visit events and mingle will earn you valuable friends – you’ll know who to ask and where to look up facts and research! As with all journalism, producing the exact required number of words on or before the given deadline is essential. Editors will thank you for fresh ideas and punctual, accurate work.

Translating To Fiction

In fiction, the rules are a little different. When I write a novel I am aiming to reach as large an audience as possible, so while I draw on my specialised knowledge to hopefully add interest and an original plot, I take care not to deter potential readers who know nothing of that subject. My aim is to introduce readers to the horseracing world and so I avoid using jargon. But I also know racing fans will be reading, so I avoid unnecessary explanations, too. It’s a matter of striking a happy balance and keeping any technical elements as simple as possible; or preferably omitting them altogether. I like to think my racing thrillers are simply thrillers about people, whose job happens to involve racehorses. They could easily be postmen or bus drivers – but, as I use my specialised knowledge for plot, I am compelled to abide by that vital non-fiction rule, which is worth repeting in conclusion:

Write what you know!

(c) Lissa Oliver

Lissa Oliver is a leading member of the The Irish Writers Union (Comhar na Scribhneoiri) which offers a model contract for guidance to members, and assists in disputes if, or when, things go wrong.  The union acts as a watchdog, on both contracts, and royalty payments, for members, or for their estate.  It negotiates with the Arts Councils, both north and south, Bord na Leabhar, and Cle (the publishers association), amongst others, on behalf of writers. Thanks to the union there is now a disputes procedure for writers who feel they have been treated unprofessionally by publishers of their work.

The union welcomes applications for membership from established authors and beginners alike.  If you are a writer, then you are a writer; established, struggling, or forever hopeful, so join with other writers for the benefit of all.  Two categories of membership exist: full, for published authors, and associate, for as yet unpublished writers.  A programme of meetings and activities takes place throughout the year; and fraternal links are maintained with the European Writers Congress, and similar writers organisations throughout the world.

A newsletter is published ten times a year. There are both print and email versions of the newsletter available only to the current membership list.  Each member of the Irish Writers Union is entitled to an affinity scheme card which may be used with participating merchants who offer a discount on purchases to card holders.  The IWU membership year runs from January 1 to December 31.  The annual fee is €50 a year, for full, and €30 for associate members.

Click here for info on joining!

About the author

Lissa has been a full-time racing journalist for ten years, self-published her first two novels in 2002 and 2004 and signed with publishers Book Republic  in 2010. Her first novel with them, Chantilly Dawns, is a racing thriller.

Lissa’s first novel, Nero The Last Caesar, self-published, was nominated for the James Tait Award, Longman History Award and long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Chantilly Dawns has been nominated for the Golden Dagger Award for Crime Fiction.

Lissa teaches creative writing with the VEC and is an Executive Officer of the Irish Writers’ Union, as well as serving on the Board of Directors of the Irish Copyright Licensing association. Find out more about her at www.lissaoliver.ie

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