When family, friends and colleagues find out that I’ve published my first book, the aspiring writers among them are eager to learn about the process of writing and publishing. How did the book develop from an idea to a finished product? What’s the writing and researching process like? Was it hard? That last question is the simplest to answer. Yes. After five years of researching, writing, revising, and then researching, writing, and revising even more, I can say that it was a mountain climb. But the view at the summit was worth it.
The project didn’t even start out as a book. Going Ape: Florida’s Battles over Evolution in the Classroom arose from a moment of pure curiosity. I had been personally and deeply involved in a public conflict in 2008 over how evolution would be taught in Florida’s science classrooms. The controversy had attracted national media attention, sweeping up the state board of education and the state legislature in the whirlwind. Once the battle finally ended, I reflected on what had happened over the previous year and wondered: Had there ever been a headline-making controversy over the teaching of evolution in Florida before? That question launched an informal research project that turned up fascinating glimpses into this largely forgotten aspect of Florida history.
I wrote a series of blog posts to share my discoveries, digging deeper with every successful expedition. My blog series kept growing until I finally realized I had enough material to fill an entire book. I abandoned the blog and set out on a new adventure. I had done a lot of writing before, but never on the scale of a nonfiction book. Enthusiasm initially made up for my inexperience and naiveté, but it soon faded in light of the workload I had taken on.
The blog series had been fun, but writing a serious history book was real work. I understood my research had to be impeccable, and the relaxed tone of my blog posts needed to mature into something more academic without losing readability and personality. And I needed to do much more detailed and difficult research than I had done before to bridge the information gaps.
Whereas the blog posts were churned out in only a couple of months, the book chapters were slow, exhausting slogs. It took several years to stitch the historical information together into a flowing narrative. Keep in mind I’m not a full-time writer. I have a regular day job unrelated to writing, and I have a family. At times it seemed like the project would never end. But my genuine interest in the subject sustained me through the tough times. There finally came a day when I joyfully completed the last chapter, but the celebration was short lived as I worked to document my source material. My inexperience and disorganization almost killed the project as I worked to organize stacks of materials, including newspaper articles, school board meeting minutes, interview notes, audio recordings, video clips, books, etc. into a detailed notes section for the book. I realized I was missing some vital source information from the initial research for my blog posts, forcing me to retrace my steps from a few years prior. It was discouraging and exhausting to have to do all that work over again. This part-time hobby project was no longer fun. Now it was non-paying work that was eating up my free time. What kept me going despite the dark cloud hanging over me was pure determination to see this project through to the end, and the support and encouragement from loved ones.
Fortunately, the next step was surprisingly easy. I sent a query letter to the University Press of Florida and quickly heard back from them that they were interested in my book. I know many authors have faced letdown after letdown at this stage. My advantage was that I had written a unique book completely focused on Florida, making it an easy sell to UPF. However, the publisher’s editing process was a slow one, demanding lots of patience. From the time my initial manuscript was accepted until I had a copy of the printed book in my hands was a full year. During that time there were several rounds of editing. Then came the tedious indexing, which I did myself because I couldn’t afford to hire a professional. Finally, there was the last proofreading. By then, I had read my work so many times already that I actually was tired of looking at it.
Now that all of that hard work and waiting is over, I’m back to truly enjoying the subject like I did when I was writing the blog series. It’s fun to share this fascinating aspect of Florida history with readers and show them how this history flows seamlessly into the present day. We’re seeing in 2014 a repeat of events from decades past. Only the cast of characters has changed.
I now have an itch to take on a new book project, but this time I’ll carefully document source materials as I go. I learned that lesson the hard way.
Brandon Haught is a former Marine Corps combat correspondent, a former newspaper columnist and a current public information officer with a central Florida sheriff’s office. He is a founding board member and volunteer communications director for the statewide science education advocacy organization Florida Citizens for Science. Haught was deeply involved in the 2008 fight over evolution’s prominence in the revised state science standards that made news headlines across the state and the country. That controversy inspired Haught to research other evolution battles in Florida’s history, resulting in Going Ape.