Certain categories of factual writing tend to have natural narrative arcs that lead to a sense of an ending. Memoirs, biographies and travelogues, for example, all recount true stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Other forms of factual writing have no obvious beginning or end, and could in theory go on indefinitely. After completing his encyclopaedic Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey didn’t feel compelled to stop writing about flowers. Once Delia Smith had written her hugely successful Cookery Course, it didn’t mean she’d run out of recipes to publish.
My own writing falls squarely into this second category. I write open-ended factual prose about stuff that happens to interest me. Although I appreciate it wouldn’t be good commercial practice to pitch my work as such, I write essay collections: individual pieces loosely strung together via a uniting theme. My first book was ‘about’ my walks on the local Moor, but it was really an excuse to write a series of mostly standalone essays about science, history and nature. The book I’m working on at the moment is ‘about’ Charles Darwin, but it’s really an eclectic collection of chapter-length essays about Darwin-related topics—once again, science, history and nature. Charles Darwin was a major historical figure, and I’m a major Darwin nerd: I could, in theory (and quite happily) spend the rest of my life researching and writing more and more Darwin-inspired chapter-essays, never exhausting the subject matter. But going on indefinitely would mean never finishing my book. As with my Moor book, I appreciate I’ll have to draw a line somewhere. But there’s always the next book.
Despite the absence of a planned narrative arc for my Darwin book, I am finding certain unplanned themes have started to recur in different chapters. I knew they would. The same thing happened with my Moor book. As with the Moor book, I’ve been keeping a detailed note of which themes raise their heads in which chapters, and how these unintentionally theme-linked chapters might most logically be arranged. Which means there will need to be a major re-ordering of chapters when I get to the second draft. Then I can start to build stronger links between these and other chapters, based on the themes that have emerged. With any luck, I might even give the impression such a structure was my intention all along. It’s the second draft that makes a book, as far as I’m concerned.
Even though there’s no obvious natural narrative arc to my Darwin book, emerging themes have started to provide an arc of sorts.
In other words, it turns out I’m writing exactly the sort of book I was hoping to write.
But there’s still a long way to go.