Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Non Fiction – Some Techniques and Ethics

I am not going to pretend I know all about writing non fiction, although it is the genre in which I have had most success. Basically, I have written about what I know, or what I could find out, and since I have specialised in equestrian matters, this is where my work has been published. Carriage Driving and Native Pony magazines, and small specialist publishers, have taken and paid for my work over the years.

While non fiction is for me the easiest route to publication, it’s not without its drawbacks. For a start, you have to know what you are talking about, which makes it a long haul: I have been interested in horses since I was two and a half, got into riding and working with them (usually unpaid) from sixteen, but didn’t have a pony of my own till I was twenty-eight. Until then, I had just one non-fiction piece published for money – an account of an unusual riding lesson, which earned me ten guineas from Light Horse when I was seventeen.

Actually, putting that on paper is rather sobering. Perhaps if you write fiction for ten years before achieving any publication you are doing better than I did. So take heart!

“Hoofprints in Eden”, published by Hayloft in 2005, was two years in the making. By the time I got around to writing it I had 35 years of horse experience behind me (and happy to admit that in many areas I am still a novice) but I had one priceless asset: I lived, and still do, in the homeland of the Fell pony breed about which I wanted to write. I also had the experience of writing for the specialist magazines, which had taught me how long it took to gather material for an article, and therefore I was prepared for a long haul to get the information I wanted to put into the book.

“Hoofprints” is not just about ponies. I wanted to get the real voices of the people who breed them, the language and the background and “The Knowledge”. As it happens, the Fell pony breed is becoming known world-wide, but the export of stock does not carry with it the sort of information which you can hear at a Cumbrian horse sale or a pony show. I knew, from questions that were put to me in other capacities, there was a need for knowledge among those who had taken ponies to their home countries, Germany, France, Holland, Sweden and (the most difficult and opinionated of all) North America. Now, I am not a native Cumbrian but an import from Cheshire, so if I were to write just in my own voice, to advise on the keeping and the history of the breed, it would not go down well with my neighbours. They were not only born here but bred to the keeping of Fell ponies, as were their fathers and the generations before that. I might sell a few copies of the book, but I would never be welcome to write another. Therefore, I had to think of another approach.

As you will have gathered, I do have some experience of ponies. But those whose opinions I valued had the inherited knowledge of decades, even centuries, behind them. I decided I would interview those whose record in the Fell Pony Society Stud Book showed that they had been breeding the ponies for longer than my own knowledge: at the time, the cut off point was 30 years. That gave me some 20 people to visit. Being already employed (at the local University) I really only had weekends to do the interviewing, so immediately the timescale became a lengthy one, since I would have to spend one day doing the interview and a week of evenings transcribing the conversation into a typescript. Realistically, too, nobody was going to want to talk to me at busy times on their farms, such as lambing, calving, haytime, silage time, or autumn sales. It helped that I’d done all those things myself and knew the farming year from the inside, so could gauge when I would and would not be welcome. I wrote a letter to the 20 people I wanted to listen to.

One person phoned me back agreeing to be interviewed.

5% is a normal response for any mailshot, so I wasn’t disheartened. On a cold, windy Sunday afternoon, armed with the silly questions that I’d collected from overseas and from “outside Cumbria”, I went up into the hill country to interview my first Fell pony breeder.

It was a long and involved conversation, and I was glad of the small cassette recorder which I placed on the coffee table between me and my interviewee. I don’t do shorthand, and even if I did, the writing down of conversations that are largely in dialect would be both difficult and disrupting to the flow, so the recorder was a must.

I do not hide the fact that I’m recording what is said. I make a point of putting the equipment somewhere highly visible, and I encourage the person I’m interviewing to tell me if they want the machine stopped when they get to an area that they don’t want published. It does happen occasionally. I also reassure them that once I have transcribed the interview, I will send them the full transcript so they can strike out anything further that they don’t want printed. Their confidence is of the utmost importance. Tempting though it is to go ahead anyway and write about the odd facts they consider sensitive, I have to respect my interviewees’ wishes. If I revealed in print that Mr X has always had a grudge against Mr Y and will not place his ponies in the show ring, or that Miss A alleges that Mrs Z’s famous stallion was not really bred the way she said he was, not only would I be open to libel suits, but nobody in this tightly knit little world would ever tell me anything again. And even here I’m not saying that those are real allegations, they are just examples!

That interview told me a lot of things. First, there was a huge amount of information to be recorded. Therefore the book was going to be worthwhile. Second, every pony breeder was going to tell me about similar things – how he got started, how long his family had been breeding Fells, what stock he used and where it came from, and accounts of show ring successes and of ponies sold for high prices to foreign millionaires. Up to that first interview I had vaguely thought of writing the book as a series of chapters about the various pony studs, but it became clear that it would be very repetitive and boring to do it that way. Also, as I listened and re-listened to the rich Cumbrian dialect, I realised my book had to retain the speakers’ original words. Who was I, an over-educated offcomer, to rewrite the experience of the people who really knew what they were talking about? “I was there and saw what happened.” I stopped thinking in terms of being a writer, and began to think instead as a producer of a radio programme, where the voices of those who are involved are the ones that tell the tale.

Perhaps a third of the book as it now stands is actual speech from the pony breeders themselves. My task was to select, prune, and present the information they so pithily expressed.

But so far, I have only told you about the first interview. That’s the easy one – where the person you’ve contacted is up for the job and realises that it will be good publicity for his ponies which will translate into sales. The next step was to persuade all the others to take part!

Cumbrian farmers regard every letter as a demand on their time, and those I know don’t use the telephone much except for business. Of my 20 interviewees in 2004/5 only two were connected to the internet – and neither of them used e mail by choice. Knowing all this, fortunately, I also knew that lack of response did not mean lack of interest. I solved the communication problem by telephoning, reminding them of the letter I’d sent, and arranging to meet when it was convenient to them. Two of my interviewees turned out to be really shy, but only one of those, the widow of a famous breeder, refused completely to be interviewed. She said that I should have come to interview her husband while he was alive (in fact I had done so, and produced an article as a result) and, correctly, she did not want her words to be quoted now as if her husband had said them. However, she did let me use a photograph she’d taken of her husband, and as every other person had extensive anecdotes to give me about him, his influence on the Fell pony is threaded through almost every chapter of the book and I feel we’ve done him justice nonetheless.

There were hiccups. One or two people were a touch worried about how I was going to present what they’d said. One elderly gentleman read the transcript I sent him and wrote back courteously that his words were a load of old rubbish and he didn’t want me to use them. I responded by expressing my sincere regret that people would not be able to read what he had said. In my letter I sent him part of a chapter, to show how I would weave in quotations from various breeders, including himself, to make points in the flow of the text. After that he replied that he “should have realised that you knew what you were doing” and he was happy for me to continue!

By that time I had settled on the shape of the book. I began by introducing Cumbria and the background of hill farming. I collected a glossary of dialect terms, which my overseas correspondents could not otherwise have understood; created maps to show where the breeders lived; and introduced the various studs in order of seniority – all based on fact, and calculated not to give any excuse for jealousy or accusations of bias. I used the Fell Pony Society’s own descriptions of the breed to open the chapter on what Fell ponies are like, and discuss its background. The easiest way to continue was to follow the stages of a Fell pony’s early life – from conception, foaling, and growing up, to its sale, education and the uses to which it might be put. Feeding, veterinary considerations, the breeders’ ideal ponies, and the future of the breed, completed a sequence that felt logical and avoided the repetition that had threatened to kill the idea in the initial stages.

The actual writing went on over several months. The business of publication isn’t my main point here, but perhaps I should say that I approached a publisher with an outline and some draft chapters as soon as I had a few interviews to quote. After a meeting, which went successfully, I got on with the writing.

During all this, I was also collecting photographs to illustrate the book. I had many of my own that I could use, I was lent old family photographs by breeders, and the FPS gave me permission to access its archive. Although copyright was not forgotten, it only impinged on the book once when I contacted a photographer in the South of England for permission to use an image he had created. He was touchingly pleased that I had bothered to ask what his fee was – a telling sidelight on the realities of copyright law.

Of course, I did some things wrong. I got two pony names wrong on images and the book made it to press before they were spotted. Unlike publication in an electronic medium, once the print run is done, amendments are no longer possible. Every time I sell a book from my personal stock I have to bung a label on one of the front pages pointing out the errors. Although I only made four small errors in a manuscript of over 60,000 words, believe me, I wish I had not made even those.

Well, that’s the tale. “Hoofprints” has been read in Europe and America as well as Britain, and I know from the feedback I get that it is doing the job it set out to do: new owners of Fell ponies have told me they refer to it as their “Bible”.  I am prouder of that – on behalf of my interviewees – than I am of the award the book won in 2006.

I hope you can see from this that non-fiction writing is both hard work and very rewarding. Maybe it’s something you’d be interested to try.