Writing my nonfiction book The Empress and the English Doctor was, for me, as much a process of unlearning as of acquiring new writing techniques. By trade, I’m a journalist: After studying English at university, I trained on a local newspaper in the no-nonsense county of Yorkshire, where any fancy ideas about style and voice were swiftly drummed out of me in favor of speed and accuracy. Counting the number of fire engines at a warehouse blaze or correctly spelling the names of local councillors were the skills I needed; elegantly turned paragraphs (and indeed any writing over 500 words) could wait.
I moved on to national papers, and the sentences got a little longer, but the basic rule remained the same: News reporting is no place for personal views or idiosyncratic style. It’s actually rather formulaic: You tell the story economically and with the most important details at the top (in print days, this was partly to ensure that, if space was short, the article could be cut from the bottom).
When I came to write Empress, which explores Catherine the Great’s decision to defy superstition and have herself and her son inoculated against smallpox by an English Quaker doctor, I knew I needed to rid myself of these hardwired habits. Apart from anything else, “Royals survive smallpox shot” would make rather a short book. Just as I had as a journalist, I would be marshalling facts and recounting a true story, but now there was no style guide or firm conventions to hide behind. The challenge of finding a form and “voice” to maintain interest over more than 100,000 words was down to me.
Initially, the prospect was daunting: I had file after file of hard-won research to somehow craft into a single narrative. But my apprehension gave way to a feeling of liberation. There are multiple ways to tell even a true story. Where there are no real rules, your way of writing is the right way for your book. The key, I think, is to try and identify your individual strengths and interests as a writer and work out how they intersect with your material to present your story your way. So, it’s less about inserting your style and voice into your writing than recognizing what your voice is and letting it sing.
My files of notes are now a book. If you’re beginning your own writing journey, you may find a few of these tips helpful.
1. Work out your relationship with the facts. This sounds obvious, but it’s fundamental to the way you’ll tell your story. My own book draws entirely on researched information, and I am deeply wary of speculating or inventing (a legacy of my journalism training). Even where I describe my protagonists’ state of mind—for example, the anxiety experienced by the English doctor Thomas Dimsdale when his trial inoculations went wrong in St Petersburg—I base this on letters or other accounts. Where you want atmospheric detail that is lacking in your sources, it may be possible to discover it: I looked up tables of phases of the moon to check whether Thomas’s evening journey to the Winter Palace would have been illuminated. Other writers are willing to take a more creative approach, even under a nonfiction banner. I feel it’s possible to bring life to a story through narrative technique (see #5) without making anything up.
2. Decide on your own presence—or lack of it—in the narrative. Again, this is a key building block in defining your voice. You might choose to include yourself literally in the book, perhaps in explaining and tracing your research quest, or to describe a location as it looks today. More likely, though, your voice will emerge through judgements and conclusions. Do you want to tell your readers explicitly what to think, or let your perspective emerge through the writing? This, for me, is one of the trickiest authorial challenges. I found my confidence increased as the book progressed, and I felt less wary of making my personal interpretations clear.
3. Use what you’re good at. Your particular strengths should shape your writing. In my case, my professional experience means I place a premium on accuracy, cross-checking, and on doing my best to ensure sources are reliable. But it has also given me a passion for authentic voices: I’ve always loved to bring stories to life through quotes. Writing my own book, I was lucky to have multiple witnesses and descriptions of events, from personal letters to ambassadorial correspondence to medical treatises. I used them to add texture, authenticity, and drama to the story, almost echoing the soundscape of the period. This can go too far, though: My editor gently told me several times that I was beginning to adopt baroque 18th century sentence structures. One of my edits was dedicated to taking them all out!
4. Work with the strengths of your research material. Your voice as a writer needs to adapt to the sources and facts you’ve uncovered: Bluntly, you want to showcase your best findings. The story of Thomas Dimsdale and Catherine the Great was not new—it appears briefly in several biographies—but I had access to family papers that included Thomas’s medical notes for the Empress’s inoculation and even a health questionnaire he gave her, together with contemporaneous letters to a friend revealing his private impressions and emotions. This meant I had personal accounts and often multiple perspectives on the same event, allowing me to build a richer, almost filmic narrative that had not been told in detail before. This formed the core of the book.
5. Borrow techniques from fiction. As we saw in #1, facts are precious, and we blur them at our peril. But that doesn’t mean the narrative can’t incorporate the arts of storytelling, including character, pace, and tension. When researching, it’s vital to keep an eye out for colourful references to place, weather, seasons, clothing, and more to help locate events in time and space and bring them to life through sensory description. The smallest details can be the most resonant: I was able to describe Thomas Dimsdale, feverish with pleurisy, lying in a horse-drawn sleigh with a lantern blowing out and a bottle of wine next to him frozen in the winter cold. Imagining scenes through the eyes of your protagonists is helpful too: I described both St Petersburg and Catherine from Thomas’s point of view.
6. Don’t include everything you know. Research is hard and time-consuming, and it can be heart-breaking to leave out hard-won material. But just because you sat for days in an archive and photographed dozens of pages doesn’t mean the result is interesting! Writing is a process of selection: You’re producing a book, not a catalogue or a chronicle, and you need to put the reader first. Excessive detail interrupts the narrative drive. I found research was rather like an iceberg, with only a modest proportion of my findings making it into the book, but the rest still invaluable as foundational knowledge. And now I’m promoting Empress, I find I draw on much of the background information I didn’t have room for in the text.
7. Your readers are interested but not expert. After a long period of research, it’s easy to forget how much knowledge you now take for granted. Remember to keep the lay reader in mind, explaining complex concepts simply and early. In my own book, this meant clarifying the confusing terminology of inoculation and vaccination (terms that are generic now but had specific meanings in the 18th century) .
8. Listen carefully to what is grabbing your own attention. Before you write, try to step away from the detail of your research and become almost new to the story again. What drew you most powerfully to this subject in the first place? Have faith that your enthusiasm will carry the reader too, and use that instinct to help structure your book. You may well need to start, as I did, at the key action point to intrigue your audience, and then pull back to set the scene before working forwards again.
9. Road test your storytelling on others. When people know you’re writing a book, most will ask what it’s about. Give them your summary, and you’ll soon see what gets their attention and what makes them glaze over. It can be a little bruising, but don’t worry: This is a free focus group! Refine your description to make it punchier, and take it into account when you plan your book.
These are just a few pointers, drawn from my own experience. No one but you can define your voice, but thinking about these ideas should set you on the road to finding it for yourself. Good luck!