How to Select the Best Topic for Historical Nonfiction—and How to Pitch It

By Cory Taylor

We all know what Adolf Hitler did once he achieved power. We are less familiar with how he got there. My debut work of narrative nonfiction, How Hitler Was Made, explains Hitler’s rise from obscurity and how he used fake news to gain legitimacy in the political mainstream right after the First World War in the period 1918-1924. It debunks Nazi propaganda, which portrayed Hitler as a savior of the German Worker’s Party, and reveals how the Nazi leader was discovered and groomed by a sophisticated network of anti-Semitic nationalists. It also details the shift to the left in German politics, which precipitated the rise of Hitler and the Far Right.

People often tell me that my book is especially timely given our current political climate. Fears about the rise of nationalism in Europe and the United States, and Islamofascism elsewhere, has sparked curiosity about Hitler’s ascent to power. But I started working on How Hitler Was Made years before our political divisions were heightened by the election of President Donald Trump. Was my subject choice serendipitous? Had I tapped into the zeitgeist? Or is there a secret to choosing your best topic for historical nonfiction?

CHOOSING YOUR SUBJECT

People have different reasons for writing about different subjects. My choice of subject material was guided by a desire to expose the dark side of human nature in order to contribute to a more compassionate society. I felt compelled to examine Hitler and Nazism to guard against the rise of authoritarianism and xenophobia in contemporary society. Initially, however, I had some difficulty choosing what to research and write about. Numerous and well-known biographies have already been written about Hitler. The Second World War and the Holocaust have been covered from almost every angle. Why write about a subject that is already well documented? Is there anything new to portray? At one point I thought I would write about Hitler’s childhood. But I soon discovered that a lack of factual material on the subject was a liability. So I started polling a close group of friends about their interests. Again and again, people told me they wanted to know how Hitler got his start, how he achieved power, and why the German people supported him. This led me to focus on the causes and conditions that allowed Hitler to get his foothold in the political mainstream as the subject for my book.

[Online Course: Writing Nonfiction 101]

My selection process may not appeal to everyone, but it led to the discovery of a treasure trove of material. For instance, most everyone knows that Hitler’s rise was made possible by Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, hyperinflation and economic depression. But less people know about the postwar revolution of 1918-1919, and the appearance of a handful of Jewish intellectuals who rejected the war, entered politics, and tried to infuse German governance with democracy. These individuals and their communist successors were falsely portrayed in the German press, and later became Hitler’s scapegoats. Their political activities, which inspired Hitler’s sponsors to look for a spokesman for their anti-Semitic, nationalist movement, are essential to understanding the Nazi leader’s early popularity. If I hadn’t polled my friends, I might never have uncovered this critical aspect of Hitler’s story, and one that most people don’t know about.

RESEARCH AND PERSONAL ATTACHMENT

As mentioned above, I selected my subject to expose the dark side of human nature and contribute to a more compassionate society. While this sounds good, having an outcome in mind can sometimes lead an author to cherry-pick facts. Bias can influence a narrative without the author even knowing it. How does an author overcome these liabilities in narrative nonfiction? The most important factor is self-awareness. If we are aware of our personal attachments and prejudices, we stand a better chance to accurately interpret the choices of historical figures. It’s also helpful to have insightful readers to give us feedback. I had several.

Seasoned historians tell us in the research phase, whenever possible, to use multiple sources to verify each fact. We are encouraged to interview experts and eyewitnesses, spend hours in the archives pouring over original materials, and read as many books as possible on a given subject. Assessing different accounts of the same topic often helps separate fact from fiction. In the realm of politics, using sources such as newspapers from competing perspectives often allows for a deeper understanding of the period you are studying. Psychohistorians suggest we even go farther. Examining trauma-coping strategies, societal prejudices, diet, and life expectancy–to name a few subjects–provides a broader understanding of the research period.

One of my greatest challenges was overcoming sweeping interpretations of Hitler. Recognized as the greatest criminal of the twentieth century, Hitler has been portrayed in literature as a super villain, as if he were in a category all to himself. Often there has been little tolerance for any other interpretation. For instance, in the 1970s, when Eva Braun’s color movies, which depicted Hitler’s inner circle laughing and frolicking in the Bavarian mountains, were first screened in a Lutz Becker film at the Cannes Film Festival, the spectacle nearly caused a riot. The footage had deeply offended those who hadn’t recognized Hitler and his cohorts as ordinary people, just like us. Becker, a fierce critic of Hitler whose father had been imprisoned in a concentration camp, was even accused of being a Nazi sympathizer.

Over the years, all kinds of perversity–from sexual deviancy to excessive drug use–has been ascribed to Hitler and emphasized to explain his evil. Due to the scale of his crimes, perhaps these speculations are understandable, but they fail to hit the mark. Hitler was a human being with recognizable passions and insecurities. Unlike the many satires, which portray him as a buffoon, he also was incredibly smart. Understanding his influences, his prejudices, his motivations, and the patterns that developed out of his megalomania in the period 1918-1924, are a key to understanding his evil. Articulating these aspects and the circumstances in which they were born, was the challenge I faced.

WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?

One of the most important lessons I learned while writing How Hitler Was Made was identifying my audience. I have a predisposition to want to impress experts and academics with the breadth of my understanding of a particular subject. The problem is if you write that way, it often takes too long to get to your point, and the reader gets bored. Early on in my writing, without even knowing it, I was including lengthy descriptions and minute details that weren’t essential to moving the narrative forward. While these details may have been interesting to some, they didn’t serve the story, or the reader. Fortunately, my literary agent and good friend–who also teaches writing workshops–read an early draft and told me the truth: “Your book is reading like an academic thesis.” Ouch! It was true.

This got me thinking: who was my audience? When I began to ask myself that question, I was able to course correct. I began writing for general readers who wanted to know how Hitler got his start and why the Germans accepted him. Instead of writing in the style of a historian, I employed a character-driven, narrative nonfiction style. We’ve all had the experience of reading books and skipping over parts that didn’t appeal to us. I wanted to minimize that aspect and portray the story of Hitler’s rise in a compelling and cinematic style. This reorientation helped streamline my writing. Later, when it came time to edit the text and cut episodes that weren’t absolutely necessary, I was able to be decisive because I understood whom I was writing for.

READ TO SOMEBODY

My wife is not the kind of person who would necessarily pick up a book about Hitler. She’s just not that interested in the subject. That’s why she was a perfect candidate to give me feedback. I didn’t just ask her to be one of my readers. When she was willing, I read chapters aloud to her. This gave me the opportunity to assess her reaction to each page. I could tell when she was drifting off. I didn’t take offense. Something in my writing wasn’t working, and her response gave me the chance to work on it. When I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, I asked her to alert me when I lost her attention. This exercise was useful because it helped me address specific problems in my writing. Not everyone is going to employ this method. That’s okay: receiving notes from readers is just as good. But in my case, this extra bit of feedback from someone who was otherwise disinterested in the subject, helped me tell a better story. Later on, my wife became the book’s biggest fan. Now she likes to tell people that it reads like fiction, which is a high compliment coming from her. 

HOW TO PITCH YOUR HISTORICAL NONFICTION

How Hitler Was Made will be released this June because a publisher understood its value. This is important to remember. Finding a publisher is a bit like finding a core audience: you have to keep trying until the right connection is found. Several publishers passed on my book for various reasons. But we didn’t give up. How do you increase your chances of being published? While there are no guarantees, it helps to have a literary agent. I am very fortunate to have one of the best in the business. But what if you don’t have an agent? In my experience, the best way to move your project forward is to have an excellent proposal.

My proposal focused on what made my book unique. I explained that no other published work had examined in detail the competing aspirations of the German Left and Right as a cause for Hitler’s rise, while tracking the critical development of Hitler’s sponsors as anti-Semitic nationalists before he arrived on the scene. I emphasized that my book covered the period 1918 to 1924–unlike the many books that focus on Hitler after he took power in 1933. This introduction, along with a market study of comparable titles, helped publishers identify precisely what I was proposing to accomplish, and what set my book apart from others. I also provided sample chapters so they could evaluate how I write.

Formats for pitching always vary according to the audience. What does an agent or a publisher expect to see in a submission? It’s important to find out in advance as much information as possible. Streamline your proposal and get straight to your point. Find out what is required to sell your book and do what it takes to get it out to the public. Explore every avenue and be willing to learn from each experience. In some cases, self-publishing may be the best route. Some authors, including my aunt, are able to write full time and make a living through self-publishing.

Considering the number of readers on the planet, it’s illogical to assume that an audience doesn’t exist for your book. The challenge is to find it. We will never run out of people to pitch to, only the energy to keep trying. Early success doesn’t necessarily mean a person is an excellent writer. More often than not, like everything else in life, the greater the struggle, the more substance a writer accumulates. Never give up.


Cory Taylor is a Prime Time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and the author of HOW HITLER WAS MADE (June 5, 2018; Random House/Prometheus Books). He is also a partner and executive producer at Storylight Media and president of Agora Productions. You can visit him at corytaylor.com


Don’t miss the Pitch Slam at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Slots are filling up quickly, so save yours today:

 

You might also like:

COMMENT

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.