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How to write a book…with thousands of characters

June 26, 2014

That was our discussion today. Andrew Kimball was our guest in class. He’s a fifth-generation descendent of Heber C. Kimball, one of the founding and most influential early members of the LDS church. Andrew’s working on a project he estimates will require ten years of work, to write a book on Heber’s children and grandchildren. Here’s the catch: Heber had 65 children.

Lots of Kids

With 43 wives, Heber is one of the best known polygamists in the frontier period of the LDS church. Besides being one of the original twelve apostles in the LDS church, Heber was also a counselor to Brigham Young when Brigham Young served as the Mormon prophet.

Heber C. Kimball

Heber C. Kimball

 

Out of Heber’s 43 wives, seven were widows of Joseph Smith whom Heber agreed to take care of, one was a widow of Hyrum Smith (Joseph’s brother, also killed with him at Carthage Jail in Illinois), and there were five sister pairs, one aunt/niece pair, and one mother/daughter pair. If I understood Andrew correctly, these last family pairs were not conjugal wives. Some of Heber’s wives were born after some of his children had been born. How would that be? “When I was in grade school, Dad’s 37th wife was learning to walk…” Most of the children of plural wives were born in Utah.

Many of the later wives didn’t have any children by Heber. Actually, only 18 of the 43 wives had children from him at all, and of those, only 12 have progeny that have survived to now. Two thirds of the children turned out to be boys, and of the 65 children, 41 survive Heber’s relatively early death at age 67. At that time in 1868, 19 wives remained who hadn’t left him for one reason or another. Some of the children went on to have polygamous marriages themselves. Isn’t that an amazing family?? The subject matter has appeal without even doing anything to it, nevermind stories like Heber’s oldest son, William Henry, being disfellowshipped from the church in 1859 for public drunkenness.

The result of this incredible family structure, however, is that, as Andrew put it, there are more characters here than in a Russian novel. And the question dogging Andrew now is just how to organize such a book. We got a preview read of a few pages he had drafted about one of Heber’s daughters, Helen Parr, and it’s the kind of vivid prose that makes you want to read late into the night. I told Andrew that if he writes the book like that, I’ll be excited to read it regardless of how he decides to put it together. Andrew received his PhD in literature from Harvard and went on to actually have a lucrative career in finance. In 1977 he coauthored the biography of Spencer W. Kimball, the twelfth president of the LDS church (and third-generation descendent of Heber), with President Kimball’s son, Ed (you can read a review of the book by Charles Tate and Eugene England here).

We spent a lot of the class discussing processes and methodology for writing and major projects. Thus far, Andrew has compiled 31,000 documents on the Kimball family. Just how do you write such a thorough book and manage such overwhelming amounts of information? Andrew asked us, would we like to write a history of our family? And why are there so many biographies but not many histories of families? Probably because such a history is so much harder, for all the reasons we were seeing in this project.

 

The how-to-write-a-book part

The opportunity to sit and listen to these highly accomplished and seasoned authors, Richard, Claudia, and Andrew, discuss their ideas and experiences with major projects was an absolute treat. Articulated wisdom firing from all sides. Below is a smattering of what they said. I realize I’ve included far more than is probably interesting to a general audience, but as an aspiring scholar and writer, this was putting sweet-toothed me into the proverbial academic candy shop. So here’s a healthy smattering of it:

  • Richard suggested, “You do better if you start with a source instead of an argument… It’s an energizer, and then you have to keep revising…. I write something and think, ‘oh, this is interesting,’ and then I look at it and think, ‘this is stupid!’ and then I work on it, and it starts to take shape.”
  • Richard told of Claudia’s work with oral histories and how one project applied social science techniques to several of the histories, analyzing and systematizing what was in them. But, he said, in that process we lost their vividness, their life. To this Claudia recommended to not split up material, such as into the personal and public life or devotional and professional.
  • Re: another book collecting oral histories, Claudia asked, “What do you say about the people if you can’t categorize them?” And she replied to her own question, “That’s what we have to deal with is nuance! I mean, facts are all very well, but…”
  • Regarding how much to write meaning into the work, Andrew downplayed the stability and authority of such meanings, arguing, “Meanings are imposed on a fundamental chaotic reality.”
  • On being subtle about meaning in general Andrew said, “… stylistically I think that is a smart strategy.” And a bit later, “It’s all kind of an art form. That’s why I think literature is the best background you can have.” (Hear, hear, I say).
  • Claudia told Andrew that he can focus on the second generation and then write the next generation in another book. Andrew responded, “What, in my 80s?” Richard retorted, “What’s wrong with the 80s?” Richard turned 83 last week. 🙂
  • Because of his Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone RollingRichard is often approached by screenwriters wanting to make films about Joseph Smith. He described, “Movie writers don’t talk in terms of arguments but in terms of questions. And you don’t have to have an answer. The questions can just hover there.”
  • Speaking of writing about difficult issues in a real person’s life Richard said, “I think you bring alert, compassionate attention on each one of the children and each of the surviving wives so that people can identify with it, the kind of attention I’d like brought on me. There aren’t very many people who if you do that to them, readers aren’t sympathetic.”
  • Continuing that idea, Richard assured, “You can talk about all sorts of things if you basically respect and honor that person.”
  • Re: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard elaborated on what he says in the introduction, “Claudia encouraged me to go chapter by chapter.” He would find everything he could on that chapter, and try to write that.
  • Even so, Richard admitted, “There is still one error in the printed edition which I will tell no one because it’s so embarrassing.”
  • Richard also went into more detail about writing across his career: “My first book was maybe the most effective book I’ve written, the one that got the Bancroft prize. So I thought, ‘I know how to write a book!'” Then he described how difficult it was after that. Speaking of one of his projects, “I’d write 70 pages, and then, just like rivers in Nevada, it would just disappear into the sand. It wouldn’t go anywhere! I’d do this over and over, and I just felt like I couldn’t do it. I almost gave up my profession as historian.” Then he was asked, along with several other historians, to give a lecture for a United States bicentennial celebration. “And I was forced to boil it all down and figure out what points I really wanted to make.” That’s when it came together. When you’re lecturing you have to brush aside everything else and give them the most important thing. “Lecturing is very — you’re a much better writer when you’re teaching.” Richard gave me this advice when I was preparing for my comprehensive exams. He encouraged me to think of the material in terms of lectures. I was glad to get the backstory on how he came to that himself.
  • It sounded like after the above experience, Richard figured out more and more how to work. He said, “I’ve always written two books at the same time. Usually one in the morning and one in the afternoon, but now it’s one in the winter and one in the summer.” I asked him if it was somehow easier to write two at a time, and said, “Oh, no. I don’t think so.”
  • Claudia chimed in, “Another thing I’d say about Richard’s stuff is he can get ideas. He can get new ones, and anyone can do it if they work on it. … You just lay your mind on your material, like laying your hand on a table.”
  • Richard said another piece of advice he’s tried to live by is, “As Joseph Smith said, when you find a glimmer of light, always write it down, and your mind will be filled with light continually.”
  • Wrapping up the class, Claudia said that this discussion was not only so useful for how people work with ideas but also for showing “the sturm and drang involved. You can see why people write their dissertation and that’s the last thing they do. Or they don’t even finish that.” She talked about life pulling her in so many directions and feeling so discouraged in her own writing that she had decided she was quitting the whole thing. “And so I did,” she said, “but the next day I came back and started working on it again. You can tell yourself that you quit, but don’t tell anyone else. Just be sure to come back to it the next day.”

 

 

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