How I Wrote a Book in 92 Days

After She’s on First was published in 1987, I spent more than a year avoiding writing a nonfiction book on women who played baseball. Finally, toward the end of 1988, I decided I would write such a book. It would, I figured, take me a year to do all the research.


It took four years of daily research, travel, and interviews before I felt I had enough material to tell the story of 100 years of women playing baseball. In 1992 my agent sold my book proposal to Harcourt — and Harcourt gave me 92 days in which to write the manuscript.

After I wrote the manuscript, I wrote an article about the 92-day experience. “How I Wrote a Book in 92 Days” was published in the 1994 Writer’s Yearbook. I’m reprinting the article below.

Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it certainly is faster. I needed two full years to write my first book, a novel about a female baseball player. Writing the novel led to what eventually became my fourth book, the real story of women who played baseball. After I developed a proposal for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, my agent submitted it.

On Sunday, July 12, 1992, my agent, Jane Jordan Browne, called from her office to say that a 19-page sample contract had arrived from Harcourt Brace Company via fax, and that while she was negotiating and modifying the contract, I should know that I had only until October 15, 1992, to write the manuscript. According to editor John Radziewicz, this was a “drop-dead” deadline.

Elated at the contract, but stunned by the deadline, I counted the squares on my wall calendar. Exactly ninety-five of them from Monday, July 13 through Thursday, October 15. But three of them were filled with day-long events, leaving me ninety-two days to write a 50,000-word book and collect at least fifty photographs of female baseball players.

No time to panic or complain. That very Sunday I sat down and figured it out, day by day. The 27 chapters listed in my proposal (each chapter containing two, three, or four sidebars) were organized into four sections, each with an introduction. Counting each introduction as a chapter, I had 31 chapters. This gave me a smidgen less than three days to write each chapter and its accompanying sidebars. That night I went to sleep knowing the next morning was critical: I would start off right and keep on schedule.

Monday, July 13 , Day 1 — My schedule calls for me to write from 7:30 A.M. until 2:00 P.M., exercise from 2:00 until 3:30, answer correspondence, return phone calls, and run errands from 3:30 until 6:00, and then write again from 6:00 until … whenever.

At 7:42 A.M. I face the computer and begin Chapter 2. (Chapter 1, the sample chapter of my book proposal, is written, so I’m three days ahead of schedule already!) Chapter 2 is the shortest in the book and I finish it by 7:30 P.M. of Day 1. Hot damn!

Later, I type a long list of possible photos and their probable sources for Sharon Johnson, a friend who works as my research assistant five hours a week.

Monday, July 20 , Day 7— Chapter 4 completed, I place it in a green file folder that I nestle into a bright yellow pocket folder. Four of the yellow pockets sit on a shelf, each representing one section of Women at Play. On the two shelves above the yellow pockets sit eight linear feet of folders stuffed with photocopies of old newspaper articles, letters, diaries, and notes from baseball books — the history of women in baseball, 1872 to the present, and the product of my research so far.

Tuesday, July 28 , Day 15 — After reading comments on Section One from Jane and from my husband, Phil Passen, I rewrite the six chapters and introduction. By 9:15 P.M., I’m printing out the last of the rewritten chapters and am an amazing six days ahead of schedule.

Wednesday, August 12 , Day 30— Late in the evening I finish Chapter 10. The sidebars are fun: I write them first because they serve as a warmup to the chapter.

But Section Two is turning out longer than I thought. Worried about keeping the manuscript to a reasonable size, I consider deleting a chapter from Section Three and another from Section Four. I make no decision.

imagesTuesday, August 18 , Day 36 — At 7:00 A.M. I launch into the introduction for Section Two. Around 11:30, I break for lunch. As I’m eating a slice of pizza, I hear a loud Crack and feel something dreadfully wrong in my mouth.

I have broken my upper left bicuspid (tooth number twelve, I later learn). Some pain, but not much. Returning to the computer, I finish writing the introduction. I work until 2:00, as scheduled. At 2:01 I call the dentist, who tells me to come in at 4:30.

Thursday, August 20 , Day 38 — By the time I rewrite chapters 7-12, write the cover letter, make copies, and mail Section Two, I’m three days ahead of schedule.

Saturday, August 22 — Today doesn’t count: it’s the third of the Chicago White Sox 1992 seminars on women in baseball and I’m one of the speakers. Phil’s birthday is August 24, but we go out to celebrate tonight. It feels wonderful to have a whole day off.

Monday, August 24 , Day 41 — At approximately 9:30 P.M., as we’re lying in bed, we hear a strange sound — thousands of gallons of water rushing down the heating-cooling duct that runs behind my desk and in front of my fax machine.

Water flows down the walls: in the office, the bedroom, the baths, and the foyer. Working frantically, we move machines and boxes off the floor and out of my office. We sling old towels on the sodden carpeting and stomp on them: they turn yellowish-green from the coolant-filled water. A condo maintenance person with a wet vac arrives around 11:30 and begins extracting water. He informs us that a coupling in the air conditioning pipes broke in the unit above us.

At 12:15 we fall into bed, utterly exhausted. Phil moans, “Why did this have to happen on my birthday?” I moan, “Why did this have to happen during my book?”

large-paper-stack1Wednesday, August 26 — This is not a writing day. Sharon and I meet for breakfast and she shows me photos of female ballplayers. We then drive to Rockford, Illinois, where we read 1943-54 microfilmed newspaper articles on the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball League. Exhausted, we drive home.

The carpet cleaners have come and gone, leaving disinfected carpet and three huge blower fans in their wake. Unfortunately, they have also stacked bookcases, chairs, and boxes of computer paper in the kitchen. Phil is out of town. I spend 45 minutes hauling boxes and bookcases out of the kitchen.

It will be a miracle if I finish writing Section Three on time.

Monday, August 31, Day 47 — I now see that two of the final six chapters won’t work. Rewriting my outline, I end up with 25 chapters instead of 27, the two former chapters becoming sidebars. I feel confident that the final outline works. In addition, it makes up for some of my lost time. In the evening I begin to write Chapter 13.

Tuesday, September 8, Day 55— Tackling Chapter 16, I recognize that in order to finish the manuscript on time, I must spend more hours of the day writing. Reluctantly I jettison exercising and cooking dinner.

Civility is the next to go. When telephone solicitors call and ask how I am, I growl, “Call me after October 15” into the phone and hang up.

Wednesday, September 16, Day 63— Chapter 18 is looking good, but lack of exercise is making me tired. I’m sick of home-delivery food. Sharon started medical-technician school full-time yesterday and tells me that she can’t even make phone calls while at school. It appears that I’ll have to finish the remaining photo research by myself.

Despite everything, I wake up eager to write. The good feeling usually vanishes by 4:30 P.M. — then resolve alone keeps me going.

Tuesday, September 29, Day 76— Another long, late day. I begin at 7:45 A.M. and finish at 9:15 P.M. But I complete the rewrite of the third and longest section. I’m now two days behind schedule.

Wednesday, September 30, Day 77— The home stretch. I confront Chapter 22. Every day I spend two hours making calls to procure photos. Instead of filing each piece of paper as it crosses my desk, I toss everything into a huge cardboard box. Come October 16, I’ll regret the mess I’ve created, but right now I’m probably gaining 20 or 30 minutes of writing time a day.

Sunday, October 11, Day 88— The knowledge that this is the last weekend of my ordeal enables me to start writing at 9:00 A.M. and continue all day until 10:30 P.M., wrapping up Chapter 24. Victory is in sight.

Wednesday, October 14, Day 91— Adrenalin kicks in. I write the introduction to Section Four and then rewrite it. In the evening I curl up on the couch with Chapters 22-25 and go through them with a red pen, making changes.

Thursday, October 15, Day 92— I start work at 6:30 A.M. Five hours later, the last rewritten chapter curls out from the printer. I’m euphoric. I call Jane to tell her I finished. I’m on a roll. I call John to tell him I finished and the final section is on its way via Federal Express.

It would be comforting to think that my 92-day writing marathon, replete with minor and major catastrophes, is an abnormality, something that won’t happen again. And frankly, if I stick to writing fiction, it may not. The truth is, however, that the writing of truth is changing.

Thanks to new computer technology allowing for use of the author’s “captured keystrokes” and for design of the book and production of page proofs in a matter of days, and thanks to the competitiveness of the market place on hot topics, more and more nonfiction books will be produced in a shorter time. Under such circumstances, publishers want the author to write the book in less than a year — in three months, even.

I was able to meet my “drop-dead” deadline and live to tell about it, but only because I developed a schedule that put me on track to complete specific chapters by specific dates. Writing to schedule made me write faster and produce more. When really pressed, I was able to write a chapter in two days and, on two occasions, one day. As a result, I was able to complete a book I had spent years researching. Sort of like a utility player who, when called in to play shortstop during a crucial game, comes through because she knows the fundamentals — and applies them.


In August 2016 Barbara Gregorich donated her thousands of pages of research materials to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But many of the notes are available in book form, in Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball — Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3.

The Index: A Nonfiction Tool

I’m not sure when I first learned what an index was, but I suspect it was when my tenth grade English teacher required each member of the class to write a small research paper. My subject was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. Once I realized there were no books on Dr. Mudd in the local library, I felt great dismay, thinking I would have to read many, many books on the Civil War and Lincoln in the hope of finding a mention of Mudd in some of them.

But then, sitting in the library, thumbing through one of the Lincoln books, I noticed something called an Index at the back of the book. In a single glance I inferred what the index provided: an alphabetical list of names, places, and subject matter within the book, with a page number detailing where each mention occurred.

Eureka! I wouldn’t have to read countless books after all, tediously combing through each for a crumb of information. All I really had to do was check the indexes of countless books and read only the chapters (I never read only the pages) in which Dr. Mudd appeared.

Future experiences, especially once I was in college, elevated my appreciation of the index as a nonfiction tool — one that allowed a peruser or a researcher to understand the topics (and the depth of the topics) within each book. Yes, a table of contents should give the reader a general idea of the topics covered, but only an index shows the details of those topics.

sc004dc527Take my best-known nonfiction title, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The table of contents tells the reader that in the section titled “The League Years” I have a chapter titled “Rose Gacioch,” which starts on page 114 and ends on page 120.

But the index references Rose Gacioch in the following manner (with italicized numbers refering to photos):

Gacioch, Rose, 114-20
    All Star Ranger Girls and, 35, 73, 74-75, 115
    retirement, 120
    Rockford Peaches and, 115, 116, 118-19, 135, 138
    South Bend Blue Sox and, 116

Simply by skimming this index information, the reader might infer that Rose Gacioch played for the All Star Ranger Girls, the Rockford Peaches and (perhaps) the South Bend Blue Sox. She did in fact play for all three teams. If somebody researching Rose Gacioch used only the table of contents, they would read pages 114-120 — and would miss the fact that significant information on Gacioch appears in two other chapters, neither of them in “The League Years” and neither of them titled “Rose Gacioch.” Not consulting an index can lead researchers to false assumptions and less information than if they had used the index.

When I teach nonfiction writing, I find that some people in the class don’t know what an index is. They think it’s a table of contents. When shown an index, they appear perplexed, as if they’ve never seen one in their lives. I don’t know how or why this happens: perhaps they have never searched a nonfiction book for information of any kind. This ignorance of indexes extends to search engines such as Google Images: type in “book index” and you’ll see photos of both indexes and tables of content, as if they were one and the same.

In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, a reader can look at the table of contents and see that I divide the topic into 25 chapters. Dialogue is one of those chapters, and the table of contents shows that Dialogue begins on page 163 and ends on page 172.

But wait. Look at the index. Under “Dialogue” the indexer provided the following information:

    avoiding exposition in, 150-151
    character development and, 163-168
    oblique revelations through, 168-171
    plot advancement through, 171-172
    without conflict, 90-92

This breakdown of the dialogue topics I wrote about gives a reader so much more information than does a chapter title. For one thing, the five subheads tell the reader some of the suggestions I make in regard to writing dialogue. They also indicate that I discuss dialogue outside the chapter entitled “Dialogue.” Specifically, I write about it on pages 150-151 and also on pages 90-92.

An index that works the way it’s supposed to work is somewhat forgettable. That is, the reader uses the index, is pleased with it, and continues with his or her research, giving the index not a second thought . . . until she needs to find something again and can’t remember where it was in the book. But when an index doesn’t work well — when it’s too shallow (not enough subheads), too ludicrously machine-made (words, not concepts) — the reader definitely notices. I have refused to buy books whose indexes look shallow and lack levels of indexing. In this, I’m not alone: many nonfiction readers refuse to buy books that have no indexes or poor indexes.

If you aren’t already a fan of indexes, learn to be one — you’ll soon find that the index is an indispensable tool for nonfiction books.


Sharon Sliter Johnson created the index for two of Barbara Gregorich’s books: Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball and Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Cooperstown Bound: Third Time’s a Trip

Last month Phil and I made our third trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The first two trips were mainly pleasure trips in which we saw and enjoyed baseball history as preserved and presented by the Hall. The third trip was part pleasure, but mostly business — its main purpose was to turn over to the Library of the BHOF all of my thousands of pages of research notes on women in baseball, and also on Jack Graney and his bull terrier Larry, mascot of the Cleveland major league team 1912-17. (You can read about Jack Graney here.)

By donating these research notes to the NBHOF I will be making them accessible to researchers all over the world. Some of them, such as old newspaper clippings, can be found elsewhere by diligent research (though in separate places around the world, not all filed together as they are in my notes). But others, such as my interviews with Joe Dellacqua, Mary Gilroy Hockenberry, Wilma Briggs, Dottie Collins, and dozens of others, are unique: they can’t be found anywhere else except, now, the Library of the NBHOF.

Truth be told, I’m delighted that the NBHOF Library wants these research notes and will make them accessible to all. Donating them allows me to help others. After 28 years, it also relieves me of the responsibility of answering researchers’ questions about women in baseball between 1883 and 1993. Being relieved allows me to go forward with other projects and interests.

I started my research at the beginning of 1988 and finished in July of 1992, the same month I signed a contract with Harcourt Brace to publish Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The contract gave me a mere 92 days to write the book, and another three weeks after that to write the credits, captions, and permissions. The book was published in March, 1993.

During my four years of research, I created categories for what I was discovering. I kept my files in order, each sheet of paper within the proper file folder, each folder within the proper pocket, each pocket in the correct chronological order. But when I was confronted with a 92-day deadline in which to write a 50,000 word book that contained 99 photos, order rapidly disintegrated. Each day I worked from 5:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.— writing, rewriting, then rewriting once again. Under these circumstances, I had neither the time, the energy, or the interest to correctly refile all the notes I was frantically pulling out of various files each time I needed to check my facts.

By the time Women at Play was published in 1993, my files were . . . let’s just say they were no longer in order. And the very day the book was reviewed in The New York Times (March 4, 1993), I started receiving more information to supplement what I already knew. And the piles of new information I received were molehills compared to the mountains of questions I received via email, all of them inquiries about particular players, dates, games, etc. Each day for a couple of years I dug deep into my notes in order to answer questions . . . what had been a jumble grew into a sprawling mess.

IMG_3137As I accumulated even more information and more notes, I stored file boxes in the storage locker . . . under the bed . . . in the exercise room . . . and of course in my office.

After the NBHOF Library asked if I would be willing to donate my research notes, and I agreed to do so, I chose a year in which I would turn my files over: Summer, 2016. At that time I didn’t know how many file boxes I would end up with. At least three, I was certain, and maybe seven. That’s why I scheduled my file-collecting work to start in November 2015, so that I would have from seven to nine months to get the files in order.

I finished the first file box toward the end of November. I finished the second toward the end of December. I was on a roll! I would finish by the end of March or April and take the rest of the spring and summer off!

But then life, as usual, intervened. In late December of 2015 I was asked by the Private Eye Writers of America if I was willing to be a judge for the Best First Private Eye Novel Award, to be presented at the Bouchercon in September 2016 — judges’ votes due May 31, 2016. I said yes, thinking that the reading of first private eye novels would not take too much of my time.

IMG_3350Such was not the case. Even though there were only 20-some books to read and evaluate, the fact is that reading and evaluating takes more than twice as long as merely reading. So I didn’t finish the third file box until the end of February, 2016. But as I finished that particular box, I could see light at the end of the tunnel. First, I could see that my remaining research notes would occupy two more file boxes: no more. From the vantage point of February, I thought I could finish the last two boxes by mid-June.

Confession time. As I organized my files for the NBHOF, if I encountered any difficulties, I immediately shoved the difficulties aside, telling myself I would deal with them at the end of the project. Gotta keep things moving forward, you know. Which means that putting Box #4 together was a lot more difficult than putting Boxes 1 and 2 together: many of the things I shoved aside had to be decided upon by the fourth box. So I didn’t finish the fourth file box until mid-June.

Our hotel reservations for Cooperstown were set for late August, and I had already set a date of delivering the files to the Library on August 22. After I finished Box #4, I had nine weeks left in which to start and finish the fifth (final!) box.

Box #5 was the most time-consuming of all, because it contained my interview notes. For most of the interviews I had conducted between 1988 and 1992, I immediately typed the notes after I finished the interviews. While I spoke to the person, I took handwritten notes. When we finished talking, I swiveled my chair from my desk to my computer, opened a new word processing file on my Mac, and typed everything into a document. I would say that I did this for almost 90% of my interviews. But there were a few interviews, conducted late in the game, perhaps while I was writing the manuscript, that I never typed up at all.

IMG_4483Back when I was typing the interview notes, spellcheck did not exist. So any typos I made stayed in the document and  in  its subsequent upgrades to new word processing programs. I didn’t want to present notes full of typos to the NBHOF: so my main job in putting together the interview notes was to run each document through spellcheck. And then to standardize the documents’ margins, pagination, and typefaces, so that they would look like they were part of a set.

Of course I had to type up the handwritten interview notes that had somehow escaped my standard procedure twenty-eight years ago. Box #5 took longer than I thought it would — but I finished it before the end of July, 2016.

And on August 22, 2016, I delivered the five boxes to the BHOF Library.

I don’t know yet what my next book will be.

I do know that whatever it is, I will not accumulate thousands of pages of notes on it!


Some of Barbara Gregorich’s research notes (those covering the years from 1875 to 1934) can be found in Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball.

Presenting to the Public: The Golden Rule

Like many writers I supplement my income and increase the sale of my books by presenting programs to the public. Usually, but not not always, my programs are related to one or more of my books. Experience has taught me that an audience loves to see photos of what I’m talking about, so ever since Apple introduced Keynote (Powerpoint’s superior cousin), I’ve taken the time to build Keynote presentations.

Today most speakers/presenters take advantage of modern technology and use graphics, movement, and sound to enhance the content of their programs. Yet despite the age we live in, many presenters fail to meet the grade. As one who goes to talks given by others, I find myself more often disappointed than not, and the reason I’m most often disappointed is that the presenter reads his or her talk.

I find this totally boring and incredibly annoying. If you’re an author (or a teacher, historian, musician, scientist, whatnot) and you intend to present to the public, think thrice about reading out loud.

Did the person who hired you ask, “Would you be willing to read a speech to our patrons?” Or: “Can you come to our event and read out loud the notes you’ve typed into your Powerpoint/Keynote program?”

I’ll bet not one Outreach Director or Program Coordinator in history has ever made this request.

So: Don’t. Read. Speeches. to. the. Audience!

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fast reader and a good comprehender of what I read. If you intend to take 60 minutes to read a talk to me, I much prefer you give me a copy of the talk so that I can go sit in a corner, read it in 15 minutes, and then use the other 45 minutes to do something exciting.

At the Bloomingdale Public Library, Illinois, with my favorite roadie, Phil Passen

At the Bloomingdale Public Library, Illinois, with my favorite roadie, Phil Passen

In giving presentations, I feel it’s my obligation to give the kind of talk I myself would love to see and hear. See. And hear. Thus I put together visuals, I add transitions and movement, and I use the logic of events or the logic of story to carry my visuals forward, so that I can simply glance at the screen and see what’s coming next.

I speak directly to the audience. I move around. I make eye contact. I use humor.

Do people actually want this?

You know what the answer is.

I recently gave one of my most popular presentations, When Women Played Baseball: The Story of Margaret, Nellie, and Rose, at the Warren-Newport Public Library in Gurnee, Illinois. Several weeks later, the Adult Programming Specialist kindly shared with me the remarks that patrons made on their evaluation sheets. Here are some of their comments.

• interesting, good presenter, good graphics
• excellent research, brought Nellie, Rose and Margaret to life, fun facts
• very interesting, fun
• informative, told stories, knowledgeable, loved her topic
• speaker was super, kept my attention
• entertaining, informative
• the historical slides and the humor
• very impressive, Barbara’s knowledge and facts; the flow she talks with, not just ‘notes;
• enthusiasm; knowledgeable
• excellent; very knowledgeable in the subject, enthusiastic; great slides
• informed, enthused; engaged with audience; humorous; lively; much expression
• very prepared and great pace
• entertaining; funny
• knows her stuff and enjoys sharing it
• loved her knowledge and enthusiasm; but also her physical presentation; very cute “slides” and use of quotations; excellent
• enthusiastic about her subject

This is a long list. I print it not to brag about my presentation, but to help you, if you intend to speak or present in public. Look over the list and notice what stands out:


These are what I want to see and hear when I attend somebody’s talk. And so they are what I give to others when I’m the speaker. Give unto others as you would have them give unto you.

If you’re going to present to the public, work on your presentation until it’s rich and full. Until it shimmers like a gem. Until it wows the audience. You will please people, and you will be invited to give more presentations — at which, being a writer, you can sell more of your books.


Barbara Gregorich enjoys sharing what she knows about writing mysteries in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. And, she gives a related 60-minute presentation titled Thinking Like a Mystery Writer.

Nonfiction Titles: Dead Bodies at the End

Last month I blogged about fiction titles in Wherever She Is, There’s a Title. Because I was dealing with fiction, most of the titles were short, and none contained subtitles.

When it comes to nonfiction, subtitles abound. Take Dava Sobel’s small but wonderful book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. That’s a 17-word title. In comparison, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, comes in at a mere 11 words.

In both cases, the factor that increases title length is the subtitle: everything that follows the colon. Subtitles are a critical part of nonfiction books — they give the reader more information than a punchy title can. And with more information, readers are apt to learn more about and perhaps buy the book.

When I was writing my nonfiction book about women in baseball, my working title was Women in Baseball. I had no thoughts whatsoever of a subtitle. This working title was vetoed by my editor, who said he wouldn’t even present the manuscript to Acquisitions until the manuscript had a better title. “New title,” he said. “Your job.”

So I brainstormed. Luckily I happened to be reading a best-sellers list while brainstorming and saw there George Wills’ Men at Work, a baseball book. In a nanosecond I turned that title around and came up with Women at Play. But I sensed, and my editor agreed, that this title needed a subtitle (just in case the public might think women were playing at shuffleboard or such). So I came up with Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The title is a mere 9 words long, but it tells readers all they need to know.

In Stein on Writing author Sol Stein warned: “What many nonfiction writers neglect is the appeal more imaginative titles hold for readers.” I pondered this advice when trying to title the collection of research notes from which I wrote Women at Play. I kind of wanted an imaginative title . . . but I also wanted truth in advertising. Because the reader would be getting a collection of research notes — well-organized research notes, important-information research notes, research notes with explanations, but, still: Research. Notes. — I wanted that clear from the beginning. So, despite my pondering and despite Stein’s advice, I went for a title that represented what was within: Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. That’s a 12-word title without even adding a subtitle.

RN3Oh, yes. I had a subtitle in mind, mainly because I knew the work would comprise three volumes. So at least the words “Volume 1” would be part of the subtitle of the first book. But that was not enough. I went hog wild. With each of the three volumes, almost the entire front cover was required to hold the title and subtitle. Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 3, Maud Nelson, The Philadelphia Bobbies, Leona Kearns, Margaret Gisolo, Nellie Kearns. That’s a 25-word title.

I want a prize.

Notice that both Malcolm Gladwell and Dava Sobell put the catchy part of their titles first, and followed the catchy part with an explanation of what the book was about. Much of the information today on titling nonfiction suggests doing this very thing: catch first, explain second.

In general, I agree with this approach. But I deviated from it and did the opposite when I titled my book on how to write a mystery novel. There, I wanted the topic up front, so I went with Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel. That’s the topic, and that title will come up on many a search engine when people query “writing mystery novel.” But I certainly understood that this title, by itself, was bland. If I could come up with a catchy subtitle, perhaps I could interest more people in the book.

I asked myself what the selling points of my book were, and I immediately came up with “lots of examples. Lots and lots and lots of examples.” So I wrote out, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples.


But no sooner did I tell myself it sounded lame than, Wham! I came up with something that struck me as humorous, exciting, and getting to the heart of what mystery novels feature. That phrase was, Plus Dead Bodies. And so I had my title and subtitle: Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. The title states the subject matter, the subtitle promises examples and humor.

It’s hard for me to say which of my nonfiction titles I like best . . . but I kind of favor the unexpected ending of the dead bodies.