Yesterday I submitted the final chapter and sidebar pieces on Frontiers of Healing: A History of Medicine in Oklahoma County. I have a great sense of accomplishment, mixed with relief. I started the project more than 15 months ago and in that time my life has changed dramatically.
I’ve moved twice. First to an apartment, one-third the size of the house we sold after four years of renovation. Last month’s move involved driving a U-Haul 385 miles to another state (sometimes referred to as a whole other country.)
The last move prompted me to quit my 15-year job with the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. My work there wasn’t particularly challenging, but I loved the people and it was hard to leave.
Moving and taking the plunge to write full time were both significant, but those were decisions I controlled.
The change I didn’t have a choice about was my Dad’s death on April 30.
Burying myself in a book project may not have been the right way to deal with my grief, but it got me through the summer.
I also learned so many things along the way. A lot of them are obscure facts about medical milestones that will only be useful if I’m a Jeopardy contestant. More relevant are the writing lessons I learned.
Persistence is the key to success. The manuscript, along with the profile pieces I wrote ended up totaling 80,000 words. I spent about 450 days on the project. If I had written every day, it would have averaged 178 words a day. About four months into the process, I set a goal of writing 600 words a day, five days a week. I didn’t make it every week – and the weeks just before and just after my Dad’s death, I didn’t write at all. In the last week or two, when I was writing full time, I had one stellar day when I logged more than 2,000 words. Overall, I did end up averaging about 600 words on my writing days. I believe setting this goal gave me a tangible number to aim for each day and reaching provided a sense of satisfaction. This increased my word count more than the first days of the project when I was writing without a concrete goal.
I’m a morning person. Working on this project and writing nearly every day reinforced the things I learned from Romney Nesbitt in her Secrets of a Creativity Coach. For me, I wake up early, eager to get to the page and get my writing done. My brain works best just as the sun is coming up. Since my family tends more to the night owl side, this frequently has the added benefit of giving me extra writing time while they’re still sleeping. This doesn’t mean that I don’t write at other times during the day, it just means that if I have a choice, I do my writing first and put off things like cleaning house or going to the store until later in the day.
Stick to the Narrative. This is just as important in nonfiction as it is in fiction. What the story is about and who the audience will be should always be kept in mind. Early on, I became intrigued by the story of Dr. Delos Walker. An early Territorial doctor who made the 1889 Land Run, he opened the first school in Oklahoma City and Walker Avenue is named after him. One source said there were rumors he was a Sooner – one of those who jumped the gun and staked their claim early. This story fascinated me. I ended up spending several days trying to track down more information that might prove or disprove this claim. Then I realized, that wasn’t part of this story. I was looking for medical practices, not the legality of land claims.
But Keep Notes. That doesn’t mean I didn’t discover some colorful characters who are bound to turn up in other projects one way or another.
I’m eager to learn more about the 7,387 women who were practicing physicians in 1900. That number includes Dr. Isabel Cobb, the first female physician in Indian Territory. She’s bound to turn up in a future project.
Meanwhile, I’m continuing to work as if I was still on deadline. Getting up early, writing first, and aiming for at least 600 words a day on the multiple projects that were set aside while I focused on medical history. So many stories waiting to be written….