How to Write a Historical Book

Historians like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have written successful books in recent years. These writers found topics of great interest to the public and wrote compelling narratives that were easy to read. The world of academia can shield historians and graduate students from issues that interest nonfiction readers. Before you write a historical book, you need to pursue all research avenues and view your work from the perspective of a non-historian.

Create a Compelling Historical Book

Determine the ideal reading level for your historical book before starting your research. Writers who want to focus on students and newcomers to history will need to cover broad topics without assuming prior knowledge. Historians writing for graduate students and fellow academics can delve into specific areas of research without worrying about reader comprehension.

Locate letters, diaries, newspapers, and other primary documents for your historical book. You should devote months to exhausting these resources as you try to find people, events and interpretations of history unavailable in other books.

Examine the thesis of your historical book early to determine if it is original and sound. For example, a Civil War historian may want to narrow his focus on a specific battle and its influence on the Union or Confederacy war efforts. That's wiser than speaking about the Emancipation Proclamation.

Seek grant funding for your research to ease the financial burden of writing an historical book. Michigan State University has a list of grant organizations that fund graduate students and historians interested in original research. Many grants require historians to research at specific institutions, teach or demonstrate the importance of their projects.

Submit individual chapters from your historical book as journal articles before completing your manuscript. If your book focuses on a specific region or time period in history, you should find a journal that covers these areas exclusively. Look in future editions of the journal for letters and commentary on your chapters if they are published.

Keep your research methodology transparent by using impeccable foot notes, end notes and bibliographies. Your citation style may be limited by the publisher's in-house style guide so focus your attention on providing as much detail as possible for every note. Include a concluding chapter on the bibliography of your topic including books contemporary to your time period and publications that conflict with your thesis.

Secure publication rights for maps, artwork and photos borrowed from libraries and collections. Historical books often use photos on dust jackets, title pages and inserts within the book to break up long chapters of text. If you are unable to find the original owner of the photo, contact the library where the photo was stored for more information.

Approach university presses and small publishing houses after your manuscript is completed. Major publishers limit their historical nonfiction to hot topics. Your chances of getting published increase greatly if you are writing about regional topics and submit to small publishers within that region.


Test elements of your historical book in lectures, seminars and discussion groups if you are a teacher. Use your book's thesis and supporting documents at appropriate times during the semester to determine if further research is needed. Ask your students for feedback on lectures and assignments related to these chapters to inform the rest of your writing.

Prevent obvious criticisms of your work by reading major works on the topic before putting pen to paper. Search for journal articles, thesis papers and published books that cover your topic to give appropriate credit to past ideas. Dig deeper by looking for book reviews on these publications to determine if your research builds on scholarship in your specialty.

Things You'll Need

  • Photos with reprint rights
  • Notebooks
  • Pencils
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