How to Write a History Book

Barry Fox & Nadine Taylor tell you how to write a history book

You’d like to write a history book that will enthrall millions of people, introduce your new interpretation of a historical event or figure, and/or establish you as the “go-to” expert in your area.

But how, exactly, do you do that?

To help you get started, we’ve prepared the How To Write a History Book presentation below.

If, after reading our How-To, you feel you need assistance from a professional ghostwriter, give us a call at (818) 917-5362.

Time Needed : 6:00 minutes

How to Write a History Book

  1. Ask yourself why you want to write your book

    There are many reasons to write a history book, ranging from sharing your knowledge to setting yourself up for university tenure, from making some money to rallying people to your cause.

    Your reason for writing isn’t just your “why,” it’s also your “how.” In other words, knowing why you are writing your book helps you narrow your topic, select your theme, and work through all the other items on this list.

    So before picking up your pen, ask yourself why you are writing a book, and let your answer inform all that follows. For more, see “Know Where You’re Going Before Writing.”

  2. Narrow your topic

    You already know which historical era, person, or theme you’d like to write about. The trick is to narrow your focus and decide what, specifically, to write about. Even 800-page biographies must narrow the topic to some extent, to prevent the book from becoming an impenetrable morass of names, dates, places, ideas, and arguments.

    Developing your theme, which is the subject of Step #5, will help you narrow your topic.

  3. Research, research, research!

    Delve deeply into your topic, learning everything you can. My book-writing clients are often surprised to discover how much they don’t know about their chosen topics.

    Even if you’ve already mastered the material you need to write, research some more. It may seem paradoxical, but the broader and deeper your research, the better able you are to narrow your topic and select your theme. That’s because as you read, watch, and listen to the various research materials you’ll learn what’s already been exhaustively covered, and what remains to be revealed to the world.

    For tips on researching the American Civil War, see our “Writing About the Civil War: Research.”

  4. Select your readers

    We normally think that readers select the book, not the other way around. But writers must think carefully about their potential readers; about who they are writing for and why.

    Are you writing for adults interested in your topic, college students, children, governmental policymakers, or someone else? For men or women, or both? For people who are not yet familiar with your topic, or those already deeply immersed in the subject?

    Knowing who you are writing for is key, for it sets the terms for your writing. Knowing the “who” helps you develop your theme, decide what to include and what to leave out, select your style, and more.

    Be wary of thinking that everyone will love your history book. Even the most popular New York Times bestsellers are read by a tiny fraction of the population. No book is for everyone; the key is to narrow your audience and figure out exactly who you are writing for.

  5. Develop your theme

    A book’s theme is its central argument. It tells everyone, in just a few words, what the book is about.

    The theme is also the organizing principle for the writing, telling you, the author, what should and should not be included. If your theme is “finding your courage on World War II battlefields,” lengthy discussions of disputes between Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery should be excluded. If your theme is “the role of healers in Renaissance Italy,” you don’t need a chapter on relations between the Medici and the papacy.

    For more on themes, see “Book Themes and Chocolate Cake Recipes” and “Themes in Books Are Like…”

  6. Set your structure

    Creating your book’s structure is like drawing the blueprints for your house: it tells you what goes where and how things flow from one “room” to another.

    You can lay out your structure, in simple form, in a Table of Contents. Then create a Chapter Outline, which you do by adding up to two paragraphs’ worth of description under each item in the Table of Contents.

    But don’t just write your Table of Contents and Chapter Outline. Scrutinize and interrogate them closely to make sure your structure flows from your theme, and that everything you’ve included in your theme fits with your structure.

    If something doesn’t flow from or fit with, go back and rethink your theme and structure. It’s worth spending extra time on this step, as it is akin to pouring the foundation for your new home. You want to get it right before building the rest!

  7. Consider your sources

    It’s easy to find information about almost any person, epoch, war, movement, or what-have-you. But how reliable is that information? Even if it’s quoted in a reputable source, can you be sure the passage is correct, presented in context, and properly attributed?

    We are, today, awash in information, but a fair amount of it is misinformation. That’s why it’s important to, whenever possible, track down the original source of the information, statistic, map, or another item, and draw from that source.

  8. Figure out your writing style

    My ghostwriting clients sometimes tell me they want to “preserve my voice,” that is, they want the book to sound exactly as they do when speaking. But I remind them that there are five kinds of voices to consider. They are the:

    * In-person voice – what someone actually sounds like.
    * Imagined voice – what they think they sound like.
    * Desired voice – how they would like to sound.
    * Acquired voice – the affectations they put on when writing, knowingly or not.
    * Writer’s voice – the voice that’s best for this particular book. This may be the in-person voice, imagined voice, desired voice, acquired voice, or something entirely different.

    The key is to find the writer’s voice, the voice that best carries the book. If that happens to sound like the author speaking, fine. If not, equally fine.

    You’ll find an expanded discussion of voice in “How to Find Your Memoir Writer’s Voice.”

  9. Consider your visuals

    Some history books need nothing more than pictures of the subject on the front and back covers, while others demand a great number of images alongside the text.

    Images can be expensive, but there’s nothing more frustrating than, for example, trying to follow an extended discussion of a battle without at least one map, or having to imagine what a peplos or apoptygma looked like in a book about Roman and Greek clothing.

    The fact that you, the author, can follow a battle in your head doesn’t mean your readers can do the same. So consider your visuals carefully and either have enough so that readers less learned than you can follow the text, or adapt the text so that it is understandable without visuals.

  10. Get feedback

    It’s nearly impossible for authors to critically evaluate their own manuscripts. They’re too close to the material and have too much of an emotional investment in it to be impartial. That’s why it’s important to have others read and critique your work.

    But make sure the people you turn to for critiques are truly qualified. Your spouse and friends are probably not, and will likely say nice things because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Instead, try turning to a writers’ group consisting of actual, experienced book writers rather than beginners who lack experience, or consider hiring a professor or graduate student in the field to give you a critique.

    You can also hire a professional editor or book coach to evaluate your book. For more on these professionals, see Step #12.

  11. Revise, revise, revise!

    Every student writer learns that the art of writing is rewriting, and it’s true.

    Look upon the completion of your first draft as just the first step in a long journey. Having written and ghostwritten scores of books, including New York Times bestsellers, I know that the first draft is just the beginning and that many of the best ideas emerge in the revisions.

    So when you finish that first draft, pat yourself on the back, take a break, then get back to work!

  12. Consider getting writing or editing assistance

    Many writers start off with great energy and enthusiasm but falter as the days, weeks, and months go by.

    Writing a book can be a long and difficult process, which is why many people turn to ghostwriters, rewriters, developmental editors, and book coaches for help.

    Briefly, the ghostwriter writes your book for you; the rewriter re-does what you have already written; the developmental editor reorganizes your manuscript; and the book coach guides you through the writing process from beginning to end.

    For more on these writing experts, see “Book-Writing Helpers, From “360 Degree” to “Pinpoint.”

    There’s one professional writing helper that you cannot do without, and that is the proofreader. It’s impossible for authors to proofread their own manuscripts, for they “know” what should be there and don’t catch all the typos that hide away in every manuscript. And your friends are probably not qualified to find all those typos. Work with a professional proofreader to make sure your manuscript is clean and ready to impress.

Ready to Begin?

Writing a history book is a long, involved process.

Most of us are not famous professors who can turn much of the research and some of the early drafting over to grad students. We have to research and write the book ourselves – but that can be fun and rewarding.

Think of writing your history book as a journey into the past, with you as the keen-eyed observer who will return to the present to present your fellows with great information and insights. It’s worth the effort!

For more on writing history, see “12 Ways to Write a History Book.” You might also enjoy “14 Ways to Write a Political Book.”


Contact us! We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, professional ghostwriters and authors with a long list of satisfied clients and editors at major publishing houses.

For more information, call us at 818-917-5362 or use the contact form below to send us a message.

We’d love to talk to you about your exciting idea for writing a history book!

Please Note: Although we’re based in Los Angeles, California, we travel around the U.S. and abroad to meet with our authors. We do not ghostwrite screenplays, books for children, poetry, or school papers.