Another exciting new project!

I am very excited to share the title and cover for my next book with British Library Publishing.

Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic will be published in spring 2016. PenguinsPineapples

Can you remember seeing a giraffe for the first time? Tasting a pineapple? Touching a cactus? Probably not, because in these modern times everyone is very knowing – knowledge is at our fingertips and it can sometimes feel as if there is nothing new to discover. The awe and excitement from that moment has been lost because these objects and experiences have become ordinary to us.

But if we travel back in time just a few hundred years, before the age of globalisation, people were encountering new foods, animals, plants, peoples and cultures for the first time as overseas trade routes opened up. This new book reflects the wonderment and curiosity of these new experiences. Based on the historical collections of the British Library, it uses extracts from a wide variety of sources to reveal the reactions and thoughts of Europeans as they visited new places, tasted new foods and encountered strange animals, peoples and plants for the first time.

If you follow my Twitter account @nonfictioness you may have noticed much of last year was spent tweeting excerpts from the fascinating books I was using for my research for this project. It has been the most fun book to research and the pictures that the British Library have unearthed to complement the text are just stunning. I look forward to sharing more details and blog posts inspired by my research in the future!

The making of How to Skin a Lion: part 1

In the run up to the 14 May publication of my book How to Skin a Lion, I thought I might blog here about how the book went from a one line idea to a finished book.

Back in November 2013 my book The Georgian Art of Gambling was published by British Library Publishing to Cover of The Georgian Art of Gambling - by Claire Cock-Starkeycomplement their exhibition on the Georgians. It had been a really fun project to work on and I had so enjoyed being back working in the British Library reading rooms after an absence of a few years working on other projects.

The idea

Lara and Rob from British Library Publishing asked me if I had any more book ideas as they were keen to expand their gift-book offering. I went away and had a brainstorm. Looking back at my notes from researching The Georgian Art of Gambling I noticed there were references to many of modes of dress, games, foods and fashions which had become outmoded and it was this that led me to my idea. Why not create a collection of lost or outmoded advice?

pencil-and-idea-x600I then sat down and wrote a long ‘master list’ of skills that I thought were no longer common knowledge and used this to create my book proposal. I have written previously on how to write a non-fiction book proposal so I won’t repeat the detail here but it was a really useful process to clarify my thinking and focus my research.

Fortunately the British Library team loved the idea and commissioned the book, leaving me roughly eight months to get the 40,000 words written.


I spent the first six months of this time researching and collecting content for the book. I had to juggle this with my other commitments – working part-time as a freelance copy-editor and indexer, and looking after my three children. This meant using my Saturdays to travel to the British Library to do my research for which I am forever in debt to my wonderful husband for doing all the kid’s Saturday gym clubs and swimming lessons al solo.

To focus my research trips I would use my ‘master list’ of lost skills and pick a couple of subjects for each visit. For example, I might decide to look at how to keep bees, how to build a tent and how to preserve food in one visit.

I would then search the online catalogue for books about bee keeping, restricting the date to pre-1930s. From here I would look through all the titles and select three or four which sounded the most promising and order those. You can only order ten books for each visit and fortunately this proved plentiful!

Once at the library I would flick through my stack of books and try and find sections where the skill I was looking for was described. I would then copy-out passages I wanted to use onto my laptop, aiming to keep as much as the original spelling and punctuation as possible (which makes the transcription take longer as I was constantly checking I had added all the archaic capital letters and the abundant commas).

Aside from looking for skills from my ‘master list’ I also often ordered books which sounded like they might contain lots of old advice which could be used in different sections of the book, for example manuals on etiquette which produced a number of entries from how to hold a cocktail party to how to afford introductions.

At this point I knew I had some really great content but the thought of taking this and crafting it into a finished book seemed so daunting, but with my deadline looming I knew I had to just dive in and get writing!

Next week I will publish my blog on the writing and editing process.

Smithsonian article on most interesting and accessible libraries around the world

As a bibliophile I have always been drawn to libraries, from my lovely local village library where we stock up onBritish_library_londonx600 books for the children to the beautiful rare books room at the British Library, where I conduct most of my book research.

The chance came up to pitch an article to the Smithsonian online magazine and I immediately thought of writing something on the most interesting (and importantly) the most accessible collections around the world.

It was a real joy to research and so difficult to chose just eight libraries but I am proud of how the article turned out. Have a read of it here and please leave a comment about your favourite library.

How to Skin a Lion: the challenge

I spent much of 2014 in book heaven – that is immersed in the British Library rare books room. I enjoyed many days poring through Georgian, Victorian and early twentieth century books researching How to Skin a Lion: A TreasuryHTSALx600 of Outmoded Advice.

I selected snippets of fascinating information on a wealth of lost arts such as how to address a Maharajah, how to shoe a horse, how to train a falcon and how to read the future with snails.

As I compiled the book I realised that although many of the skills described were lost or forgotten, some of them were still relevant today. I resolved to collect some of the more doable skills (I would love to train a falcon but lack the necessary time, space and bird) and try them out myself.

I have just started this journey and will be blogging here about how I get on. The first task is to make mushroom ketchup (it sounds delicious) and I will report back shortly on how it went.

Research skills for nonfiction books: My top six tips for library research

Libraries are still the best place for quality research. Nothing beats sitting in a nice quiet reading room with a pile of"British library london" by Jack1956 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - useful books for getting your teeth into a subject. But sometimes it can be hard to know how to find the right books and how to use libraries to your best advantage. The following tips should help you to make the most of libraries.

I would recommend completing some basic online research on your chosen subject first as this will help you to find key texts, identify experts in the field and provides a host of useful starting points.

Once you have a list of books and authors to explore the first stop should be identifying which library to attend. Your first stop should always be your local central library. Search their catalogue online and if they have the books you require then this is the most sensible option to use as you can borrow the books to use at home.

If your needs are not met by your local library then you may want to try one of the legal deposit libraries such as Cambridge University Library, the Bodleian in Oxford or the British Library in London. These are huge libraries with an astounding range of books and articles and are the best places to do some serious research, however they are not obliged to let you use their services so you usually need to speak to reader services to see if you can obtain a reader pass.

I am lucky enough to have a reader pass for the British Library (obtained in my case by having a letter from my publisher confirming I was researching a book) therefore the advice here relates to my experience at the British Library but hopefully it can be applied to other institutions.

It is always best to pre-order books before your visit so as to maximise the amount of reading time when you arrive. At the British Library books cannot be taken out but must be read in one of their many reading rooms.

If you already have a list of books and authors then it should be fairly straightforward to look them up in the online catalogue and reserve them. The complication arises when you are looking up specific information but have no idea which books to use.

As an example for my latest book How to Skin a Lion I wanted to look up… how to skin a lion. In order to find accounts of this skill I needed to find books on the wider subject of big game hunting. So I searched for books on this subject and then refined my search to titles about countries in Africa (where lions would have been hunted). I was ideally looking for colonial era books so I further refined my search by date.

This brought up a modest number of books in the catalogue which I then discounted or ordered depending on the title. It is always somewhat of a gamble ordering books this way but I find that by ordering the maximum ten books every visit I end up with enough gems to have made my visit fruitful.

When I get my pile of ten books I generally have a quick look at them and you can usually see quite quickly which will be most useful. I then work through the books in order using the contents page and index to find relevant passages and if a book is especially interesting I will see if it contains a bibliography so that I can find more books to consult.

Good researchers are like detectives, noticing references to other authors and following one lead to another. Researching is like picking up scattered jigsaw pieces and fitting them together until you have fashioned a whole picture.

It is very important that information taken from books but re-written in your own words are referenced in the bibliography, whereas quotations must include a page number so that readers can refer to the source themselves if interested. Collecting references for your bibliography is best done as you go along as there is nothing worse than realising you have forgotten to properly note down page numbers and having to go back to try and find them retrospectively.

My top six tips for library research:

  1. Do an online search of your subject first to give you background information and note down references to books, authors or experts.
  2. Look up these books, authors and experts on your local library’s catalogue. Reserve any with potential.
  3. If your local library draws a blank, investigate if you can get a reader pass at a legal deposit library.
  4. Use the online catalogues to identify books you want to consult – it always helps to demonstrate to reader services that you have specific books in their collection that you wish to peruse.
  5. If you are looking for specific information but do not know of any books that cover that area then try searching for wider search terms e.g. if you are looking for information on the origin of Baa Baa Black Sheep try widening the search term to nursery rhymes or folk tales.
  6. Always collect full references for your bibliography as you go along.

List of UK legal deposit libraries:

Bodleian Library, Oxford

Cambridge University Library

The British Library

National Library of Scotland

Library of Trinity College, Dublin

National Library of Wales