7 May 2015

The making of How to Skin a Lion: part 1

By nonfictioness

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.