To begin with, I’m an ordinary person who likes to write, not “a writer”. But to the extent that I’ve been successful in writing and publishing, I’m happy to talk about it.
Conquistador Voices is my latest book, and possibly the most difficult one I’ve written. This is mainly because the events recounted took place in a time so distant and among two cultures so alien to our own, namely, the Spanish and the Indian. It’s virtually impossible for any but the most devoted student of those times to imagine what life was like then, whether for the native peoples of the Americas or for the Europeans who “discovered” them.
Contrary to what many people believe, one does not write a nonfiction book necessarily to instruct or to entertain, but rather to learn. The act of research and of putting one’s findings down on paper in an orderly and hopefully interesting manner is absolutely the best way to wrap one’s mind around an issue and understand it. This was certainly the case with me, who, when I conceived of this project, knew nothing about the conquistadors beyond what is normally taught in the schools.
Writing a book takes a certain degree of self-confidence, but it also requires a background as a reader and a considerable amount of practice stringing sentences together in such a way that people will be interested in reading them. Importantly, it also takes a willingness to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite again, not unlike the act of sanding a board till it’s smooth as glass, or of grinding and polishing a rough stone till it shines.
I didn’t acquire the tools for grinding and polishing sentences till midway through life. As a child I read almost nothing and wrote the minimum necessary to get through the school year. I was more interested in roaming the woods with my dog, fishing, building model airplanes and radios, or playing baseball. Reading books seemed boring to me. In my twenties, however, I began to realize the great depth of my ignorance and embarked upon a serious program of reading, both fiction and nonfiction, that has lasted a lifetime. But the idea of writing—the thought of trying to write for publication—didn’t occur to me till my mid-thirties. I soon found, however, that writing for publication and actually getting published were two quite different things—for nearly a decade, everything I wrote was rejected. But by dint of persevering, this eventually changed. I gradually learned to write a passable paragraph, and my work began to be accepted—first a biography of a high-profile Confederate officer from America’s Civil War, then a book about a New York state pioneer, these two books taking their place within a fabric of published essays, poems, and articles on various topics that interested me. Then I tackled Conquistador Voices, a book that had been taking shape in my mind for a few years.
The Spanish Conquest would probably have never held much interest for me were it not for a particular event in my life: on a sunny day in May many years ago, I encountered a young Spanish woman named Maria Carmen Garcia Pascual on a train in Switzerland, and the next year we were married. Our marriage has certainly been the cause of my interest in and deepening acquaintance with the history and culture of Spain, as well as of my imperfect but steadily increasing knowledge of the Spanish language. These several life-strands then, braided together, greatly increased the likelihood of my producing a book on a Spanish theme.
Since Conquistador Voices has only recently been published, it remains to be seen how successful it will be, but from a personal satisfaction standpoint it has been eminently worthwhile. It’s given me a sense of accomplishment, not only because of having had to immerse myself so deeply in these events over seven or so years (with time off to remodel our kitchen) but also because, at the last minute, I was required to become not just a writer, but also a highly focused translator. Late in the game I found I couldn’t use most of the existing translations that I had selected, but that instead I’d have to translate the original material myself. The reason for this was twofold: (1) I found the costs associated with using existing (copyrighted) translations to be exorbitant, and (2) I came to see translation as an opportunity to make centuries-old Spanish and Italian prose sound more modern. So, near the end of the writing process, I took four months and did nothing but translate, day and much of the night. The result was not only a more financially viable project, but also a package of translations that were more in tune with modern usage, and, in some instances, I felt, more accurate than existing translations.
Research and writing, as most people know, is a lonely business. You have to isolate yourself if you want to get anything done. You occasionally have to say no to social engagements and normal household or outdoor chores. My wife on many days saw me only at mealtime. She supported me thoroughly in what I was doing, however, as did my brother Tim, who read and made constructive comments upon everything I wrote. Our daughter Cristina suggested the book’s title. Our two sons Benjamin and Ian and their wives maintained an interest throughout the project. I did manage to have some minimal social life and keep our house from falling apart.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, it’s to encourage you. It’s to say that if you have a dream of your own that you’d like to flesh out and set down on paper, give it a try. It might be a few paragraphs on an event in your life, or a longer piece—even a book—on some topic that interests you, something that you feel needs to be said. Research it methodically and thoroughly and start writing. But be prepared: your first draft is likely to be poor. At this point, tell yourself this is just the beginning, this is just to get the juices flowing, and try it again. You’ll probably see an improvement, but not much. Don’t be discouraged. Work at it. Go at it again, and again, and again—try to get outside of it and see it as a reader might see it—until it’s as clean and polished as you can make it. (Along the way have a look at Strunk and White’s excellent little book, The Elements of Style.) Then have someone read it, one or two people—no more—whose judgment you trust in such matters. Be prepared then to revise it again. But don’t slavishly take your readers’ suggestions for change. Weigh every suggested change carefully; accept some, reject others, do what you think best. After all, it’s your work, not theirs.
When you know you’ve given the project everything you’ve got, when you come to feel you’ve actually produced a diamond, you’ll be happy. If your “diamond” is polished brightly enough to be published and read, you’ll be even happier.