I began writing like many other folks, contributing to the “Letters to the Editor” columns in my local newspapers. I had relatively little formal writing background, aside from having studied creative writing some in college. But, being politically motivated and a history major, I never lacked for material. I soon took up with a struggling free weekly, becoming a frequent contributor, first with letters, then with editorials. But the paper eventually went out of business.
I approached another area newspaper, The Hour, a daily in Norwalk, Conn., which had a wider circulation and sound financials. I met with the editor and pitched my idea for an article about World War II. I got the go-ahead and published an article on the German invention of nerve gas. This spurred a series of articles commemorating the 50th anniversary of the final third of man’s greatest conflict, ending with the Nuremberg trials.
I continued with The Hour for eight years, writing miscellaneous history pieces. The Connecticut Post followed, a larger daily with a broader readership.
Then, in 2003, my thoughts turned to writing a book. I had just finished reading James R. Reckner’s Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, the story of the historic 1907-1909 cruise of 16 U.S. battleships on a 14-month voyage around the world. And I was struck by the fact that the battleship Connecticut was the flagship for this epic global journey, and that not one book existed on this historic warship. So, I decided to write one.
Books are a departure from articles because of length and research. I revel in research, however, and this only fueled my eagerness to write the book and peddle it.
In the meantime, I published an article in the Connecticut Post on the Connecticut, and joined two local politicians in commemorating the battleship’s centennial before both houses of the state legislature in Hartford.
I finally found a publisher, Tate Publishing, and in 2007, with minimal editing changes, U.S.S. Connecticut: Constitution State Battleship became a reality, just three months before the 100th anniversary of the Great White Fleet’s departure from Hampton Roads, Va. This was followed last year by They’ll Have to Follow You! The Triumph of the Great White Fleet, which relates the adventures of the entire task force.
What I learned
Writing editorials for a free weekly did not reap financial benefits, but it did prepare me for bylines and deadlines. Then, with The Hour, I began to get a check for my work. It wasn’t much money, mind you. But unlike the column inches I had been used to, The Hour gave me the latitude to do full-page spreads, complete with maps, charts and photos of history’s greatest battles.
Nonfiction books are, in many cases, an elaboration of articles, but they allow the writer to bask in the freedom of greater amplification and detail. Yet newspaper writing provided the foundation— a training camp, if you will—for meeting deadlines and polishing my research skills. Whether the word count is 1,000 or 100,000, dedicate yourself to a level of quality that assures only your best work.
Do not give up. Be relentless. And have the skin of a crocodile, which will enable you to deflect rejection. Brushoffs are part of the business, but I did not let them get in my way. Why? Because I refused to accept no!
Be open to opportunities your writing provides—speaking engagements, for example. Libraries and veterans groups are among the stops I’ve made in Connecticut, and these speaking opportunities have allowed me to enlighten people about the only battleship ever named for their state. Besides, folks like hobnobbing with a local “celebrity.”
Do newspaper interviews whenever possible. And don’t forget radio and television. I recently appeared on a Fox affiliate, Channel 61 in Hartford, and they came after me! So take advantage of any opportunity to get noticed. You just might find that newspaper, radio and TV interviews can carry just as much weight as published clips when you market yourself for additional writing jobs.
Mark Albertson, a long-time member of the U.S. Naval Institute, has contributed historical articles to several Connecticut newspapers for many years. His next book, On History: A Treatise, is due out early this year.