Episode 1: Megan Kate Nelson Experiments with Structure

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For the debut episode of Drafting the Past, I talked to author and historian Megan Kate Nelson. Dr. Nelson is the author of four books, including the 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist in history The Three-Cornered War and Saving Yellowstone, which comes out next month. Dr. Nelson is an expert in the history of the American Civil War, the U.S. West, and popular culture, and has written articles about these topics for The New York Times, Washington PostThe AtlanticSmithsonian MagazinePreservation Magazine, and Civil War Times. Before leaving academia to write full-time in 2014, she taught U.S. history and American Studies at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, and Brown. She earned her BA in History and Literature from Harvard University and her PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa.




Megan Kate Nelson 0:00
This is the kind of stuff that I, I go into very deep rabbit holes about, you know, the research for this probably took me a day or two just to write this like one paragraph.

Kate Carpenter 0:14
Welcome to Drafting the Past, a podcast devoted to the craft of writing history. I’m Kate Carpenter, and in each episode I talk to a historian about their writing process; everything from when and where they write, to what motivates their work. You’re listening to the very first episode of Drafting the Past. And I am delighted to have award-winning author and historian Megan Kate Nelson as my first guest.

Megan Kate Nelson 0:38
I’m delighted to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Kate Carpenter 0:41
Dr. Nelson has published three books with the fourth coming out in just a couple of weeks in March 2022. We’ll talk a bit more about that book in this episode. But her previous book, Saving Yellowstone, was a 2021 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. Dr. Nelson has taught U.S. history and American Studies, written columns, articles, and op-eds based on her research, appeared on television and on the radio, and is a fellow in the Society of American Historians.

I want to just dive in to asking you about your trajectory as a writer.

Megan Kate Nelson 1:14
I had always been interested in writing and writing different kinds of things. I wrote a lot of fiction when I was in middle school and high school and read a lot and, you know, then kind of quickly shifted in academia to, you know, just writing and researching. But got my PhD in 2002, in American Studies from the University of Iowa, so I had major fields in history and literature and art history and landscape studies. So that allowed me to kind of read a really broad field of work and writing, a lot of nature writing, some science writing, which really opens your eyes to different ways to communicate knowledge, and really chose… I mean, I don’t know how many people out there listening will be American Studies scholars, but when I was coming up through my program, my advisors were like, well, you have to choose either history or English or art history or something. And I was like, doesn’t that really go against the ethic of American Studies? I did this because I didn’t want to choose. But you know, most hiring is done in traditional departments. So you have to kind of focus, so I decided, writing cultural history was going to be kind of my career path. And so the first two books that I wrote when I was teaching on the tenure track, and also an as an adjunct, was my dissertation, Trembling Earth, which was the history of the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. And then Ruin Nation, which was my first foray into Civil War studies about destruction during the Civil War. And those are pretty academically structured, very traditional history books. I had been in academia about 12 years, been on the tenure track, and then jumped off of it for family reasons. For those reasons I was living in Boston, figured I could get another job. And that never happened for a variety of reasons. And so in 2014, I decided to just leave academia permanently and try to make it as a full time writer. I had had this idea for the Three-Cornered War, I thought it was a trade book, although I wasn’t really sure, because I didn’t really know what that meant. But I was also really interested in experimenting more with style and structure and narrative history. And I really wanted to try my hand at that. And, lo and behold, much to my surprise, was actually able to convince an agent to take me on, and an editor to publish the book, who really saw my vision, and what I was trying to do in the Three-Cornered War.

Kate Carpenter 3:58
I asked Dr. Nelson if she had always considered a career as a writer an option, but she said it wasn’t really on her radar until later.

Megan Kate Nelson 4:06
And I was really focused on being a teacher. First of all, so I taught for two years, I taught English to high school students for two years before grad school. And when I went to grad school, I mean, as I think you probably know by now also, and I think anyone in academia knows, the track is is one track, and it is narrow. And everyone is focused on becoming a professor, everyone believes, including me, like I believed it too, like, I will get a job, I will become a professor. There was no training beyond that. But what’s interesting about academic training is it actually does train you to do a lot of different things. It trains you to teach and to edit, and to advise and sometimes to administer and also to write. I think it really depends for grad students kind of coming up through their own program, whether, are their advisors encouraging experimentation with the dissertation writing? Can it be narrative style? Can it be structured in a way that is not traditionally academic? In most cases? The answer to that question is no. And so, and I didn’t, I think maybe I proposed in my proposal meeting, I think I did propose that I was going to have these little interludes of more kind of creative nature writing. And my committee was having none of that. So I sort of ditched that and figured that I would have enough fun writing about swamps, you know, through literature and art and landscape studies and history. And that that that would have to do. Yeah, so I really didn’t, I didn’t really start thinking about it until I started thinking, again, around 2014. And, you know, if I leave academia, what will I do? And so the question really was, what is it about this gig that I enjoyed the most? And the answer to that question was writing. And I was like, Okay, let’s see how this goes. It really was a leap of faith. In many ways.

Kate Carpenter 6:16
It sounds like, though, you had already spent time thinking about style and narrative, even, even at the dissertation stage, and in your first two books. Has changing careers changed your relationship to writing?

Megan Kate Nelson 6:30
I think so. I mean, I am now fully on board with narrative history writing. For myself, I don’t think every book has to be narrative history. I don’t think every book really or every book topic is really conducive to that style, or that style would be useful. But for me personally, it took a little bit to shift from that academic mode into the narrative mode. And my first mistake was that I went like full on over, like, my first drafts were very narrative heavy with almost no argumentation. And my editor was like, you do need to have an argument. It can’t just be a story. And I was like, oh, okay, so then I had to go back in and really figure out how to balance narrative and argumentation in a way that continues to pull the reader along. Because, you know, narrative history does have arguments, but they’re not signposted in a way, that’s super obvious. So sometimes it can be easy, if someone’s not reading particularly carefully, or reading for argument, they can often miss it. So your job when writing narrative history, and my job now is to make it evident to the reader that there are ideas going on here. And that the book has a larger purpose, in addition to telling a really good story. And in addition to kind of illuminating people from the past and their full, fully articulated lives. And then also this historical moment, that’s really important, that maybe people haven’t thought about. I really, you know, the Three-Cornered War, I had the idea for the structure, it was multi-perspective narrative, and I got, I completely stole that from fiction. And this is something and I think this is actually related to my training as an American Studies scholar, also, is that I had always been trained to close read literature, and to use literature in my history classes. And so I would encourage students to read historical documents in a literary way. Like, where in Lincoln’s first inaugural, is he using rhetorical tools? Where is he using repetition? Where is he using metaphor? Where is he doing all of these things to kind of create an impression upon the reader or the listener? I think that has really helped me in writing narrative history, because I have, I read a lot of fiction still now. And I just sort of absorb a lot of that storytelling style. And now I embrace it fully. Saving Yellowstone, which is my book that’s coming out, is not quite a multipers- as strictly multi perspective as the Three-Cornered War. It’s a little bit more of a mash up, there are chapters that it’s just from one person’s perspective, but it’s not as fully rendered as in Three Cornered War. I’m still experimenting. I also don’t ever want to just be typecast as like, oh, that’s the historian who writes multi perspective and for every, for every book to sound and read the same way. So yeah, o experiment. I think I embrace more experimentation. You know, I don’t feel any kind of restriction on me as a writer anymore. Any expectation except, you know, for my editor that the book has to make, make a point and has to kind of all hang together, right? It has to be convincing, is a full narrative, have, you know, and the reader has to be able to, to want to turn the pages and not just kind of have to turn the page.

Kate Carpenter 10:07
When you are reading fiction, do you read actively looking for things, you know, thinking about, like, how does an author do this? How can I use this? Or do you find that it just sort of, you just imbibe that, it comes through when you’re writing,

Megan Kate Nelson 10:19
I think it depends on the book. Like I, I just finished reading Daisy Jones and the Six, which is structured as a transcript of a documentary, which is really fascinating. And at first, I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to be annoyed by this, but it was actually a really effective style. Because each person is just speaking, and you can see how their perspectives of the same event are completely different. Or that one person knew something that no, you know, you get a lot of dramatic irony. One person, you know, they’re, you know, these two people are like, Yeah, we were seeing each other, nobody knew. And then someone else says, Of course we knew. And it’s a very different, it’s all dialogue. So there is almost no narrative description of anything happening beyond the talking, which I think is really, really interesting. So I just kind of took that and I filed it away. I did have an idea, a book that I pitched for a possible next book, I wanted to be like a true crime detective type of history that would be structured like a detective novel. That one didn’t fly, I did not end up pitching that because my agent thought it was too kind of narrow, or as she said, kind of too small, wasn’t big enough for the next book. Luckily, the protagonist murderer in that book is actually going to be in the next book, as a protagonist, so I didn’t lose all of that necessarily. So his parts will read like a little mini detective novel in the middle of a history. So I do pay attention to those specific types of form, especially in genre novels. I also just finished reading the latest novel, Andy, I think his name is Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian. And he has a new book out, called the Hail Mary Project. And that book is fascinating because the protagonist has memory loss at the beginning and just sort of wakes up and you discover what he’s doing, as he discovers it, which is really interesting. So I, you know, I definitely pay attention. And I, I file it away and think about how something like that might work. If it could work for a full-on history book, if it would work, maybe more for something like a shorter piece, like a feature, I definitely think about that more. The very first thing I ever wrote, where I felt like I was achieving a new kind of voice was actually a media review. For the Journal of Civil War History, I was asked to write about to write a review of the first season of Hell on Wheels. And I was dragging my feet on it, because I didn’t know how to approach it. I got a great piece of advice from a colleague in the History and Literature Department at Harvard, who just said, she just turned to me. And she’s like, why, why are you having such a problem with this? I was like, I don’t know. I just don’t know how to write it. And she’s like, Well, have you watched the whole season? Do you have notes? And I was like, yeah, and she’s like, I want you to just go home today and just write it. Just sit down wherever and just count it out. Don’t even look at your notes. And I was like, What is this black magic that I am witnessing before me? And you know, I must respond to that kind of someone telling me what to do. Because I came home and I sat at my my kitchen island and I pounded out 1,000 words, and it pretty much made its way into print in that form, the first time I’ve ever used the word romantic in a piece of academic writing. But it was really fun. And I think that if I have any kind of pieces of advice for grad students, that is one thing is if you if you want to think of yourself as a writer, and you want to do this kind of work, start with those kinds of things, with book reviews with maybe an op-ed or with a piece for a blog and, and mess around and mess around with the style and just kind of sit in and feel a little bit more free from those constraints that we usually have with academic writing.

When and where do you write?

Well, that has changed a little bit in the last two years. Because of pandemic conditions. I really, my preferred place to write is a cafe. You know, lots of people find cafes distracting, but I actually find them really helpful because I can kind of shut out all of a mess. Unless someone’s having a really interesting conversation, sure, next to me, yes, unless something juicy is happening, like, is there a first date? Is there a breakup happening, that can be a little distracting. Most of the time, though, I’m pretty good at blocking it all. And if I have the screen in front of me, I will just kind of dive right in. It’s also helpful to me, because I am very, I mean, I am a massive consumer of popular culture and, you know, have fallen into many Netflix binge watching marathons. And so being in a cafe actually helps me not do that, and not be constantly checking Twitter or my email or whatever. And really, that it exerts that kind of peer pressure, you know, people are around, what are they going to think of me if they look and I’m like watching cat videos like, that person is not doing the work she’s supposed to be doing. And it’s also I think, helpful to go somewhere else. One of my biggest challenges that I had not really foreseen about leaving academia was how lonely it is. And you know, you’re just, you’re at home. And I think people now in the last few years have experienced that, and how weirdly disorienting it could be, to be stuck at home. And to not be able to leave and change the place where you write, I’m pretty lucky in that, you know, we have a house. And so I’m able, I have an office. So I have an office space for writing, which I’m sitting in right now. I also sometimes write at the kitchen island, I have done other kinds of work, I haven’t yet written at the dining room table. But that is an option. But any kind of, I was the kind of kid who rearranged my bedroom every six months, like I like new spaces, and I like being in new environments. And so the pandemic has been a little bit hard to not have that, that change of of place. Usually what I’ll do, it’ll depend on the project and how long I have to write it. But for Saving Yellowstone, which is coming out in March, I was on a short deadline for that. And I had to write it pretty fast. And so I really only had about a month per chapter, when I lined it all out. Yeah, so I had done significant research before I started, you know, before I pitched the book and sold it and had been working on it before the pandemic, but really was working on that kind of pace for the real meat of the of the project. And so my usual method is to do if I have a month, I do three weeks of just really planning out the research and getting to– I take a bunch of notes. In a Word file, I don’t use any note taking programs or footnote programs or any of that. I’m totally old school. And I just use Word docs. And I just have a chapter note file. And I divide it into themes. With narrative history, it’s a little easier because I know I’m going to be moving through time. And so I usually organize it that way. But then I’ll have other kind of big chunks that are historical context. I usually know when I’m ready to write because I will have in my head, the opening scene, and where I want the chapter to go from there and where it’s going to end. I can like sort of envision it in my head. And then I know I’m ready, pretty much to sit down and write it most of the time for any given chapter. And you know, these are pretty short chapters that I’ve been writing in Three-Cornered War and Saving Yellowstone, probably they’re probably in kind of regular font and double spaced only really about 18 to 20 pages, but I have usually more than 100 pages of single spaced notes for those chapters. And this probably also sounds familiar. I mean, this sounds familiar to anyone who’s writing a book; you have massive, massive note files for for chapters. And so I will print them out, print out the notes, read through them, make notes and use them to make an outline, which I then usually never refer to again.

But once I’ve kind of gone through it, and I’ve I’ve written out an outline or typed out an outline, and I’ve read it and I have it in my head. And it usually takes me that I’m when I’m ready to write I write in sections in the chapter. I don’t do word counts. Because I, you know, I never know how long a section is going to be. But it usually takes me about three days to write a chapter. By the time it’s all like said and done. I write about, probably write about 2000 words a day or per writing session. Sometimes I’ve gone up to as much as 3500. But really, it just depends. It depends on if I’m in a really good flow for sure. Yes, yes, but luckily I have more time for this next project that I’m doing, I have like three months per chapter, which seems very, exactly, very luxurious, I’m like, Oh, wow. I mean, and in some ways, it’s bad because then I’m like, Well, I can actually binge watch the entirety of Yellowstone, when really I should be doing research.

Kate Carpenter 20:20
Is there a big difference between your first and second drafts? How do you sort of approach revision?

Megan Kate Nelson 20:25
I love revising. I really do. I mean, I love the feeling of of putting words on the page initially. And really kind of getting into the the nitty gritty and the details and kind of what this person — usually it’s, it’s a chapter based on a person. So what is this person doing kind of in this moment, I’d really do love that portion of it. But then there’s something just so lovely about having text already. And then going back and fixing things. And usually my writing process is usually that I just I write that first draft, and then I put it, I just copy and paste it into a Word doc that is just literally titled “full manuscript.” And then I just keep adding to it. And I don’t actually unless I am presenting a chapter to Book Squad, which is one of my writing workshops that actually reads and responds to work in progress. Unless I am doing that. I usually don’t show it to anybody at all. I just write and I write and dump it in the file, right? Dump it in a file, write, into the file. And then when I’m done, I go through, and I read it and see if it’s hanging together. Very often, it will be my editor who’s like, Ah, the biggest cuts come in response to her comments where she’s like, do you need this chapter? And I’m like, Wow, a whole chapter. Okay, um, yeah, and things have been really, really cut down. In Saving Yellowstone, Thomas Moran, who is a painter, his production of what he called his big picture, which is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone painting, huge painting, which he sold to the Congress in 1872. For $10,000. That was an entire chapter. And now it is about six pages in an, in a single chapter. Because yeah, figuring out how to take something you know, that big, and then integrate it into another chapter as part of a different kind of story, which takes a reshaping, takes some kind of serious revising, and not just kind of cutting and, and putting better words in that part. I also like, and I don’t, I’m not afraid to be edited and I don’t get mad about it, which I think my, my editor appreciates, yes, because I’m like, because I know, and I and I tend to write long. In the first drafts, I tend to have many, many words that need to get cut. My first draft of Three-Cornered War was about 160,000 words. And the final book is about 100,000 words. So I cut, yeah, I cut about a third of the book, which was a little insane, but again, like taking out full chapters, or like putting two together or moving things around actually moving, restructuring entire sections that that takes some doing and some rewriting, but it’s also that that I find challenging and interesting

Kate Carpenter 23:47
As an experiment in talking about the writing process, I asked Dr. Nelson to walk me through a little bit of her thinking for writing a couple of paragraphs from her new book, Saving Yellowstone. I’ll read them here so that you can follow along. “One week after leaving Philadelphia, Ferdinand Hayden walked down the plank from the steam ferry, and stepped onto a wide muddy street that led to Omaha’s busy business district. The town was little more than 15 years old, laid out in a grid system of right-angled streets on the western bank of the Missouri River in 1854. In the congressional fight over transcontinental railroad routes that began that year, Omaha’s founders had lobbied to become the eastern terminus, arguing that the Platte River route was the cheapest and most feasible path westward. Their dreams were realized in 1862 when Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act and President Abraham Lincoln, who had land holdings across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa, deemed Omaha the starting point for that massive technological effort. Although it had taken the Union Pacific several years to begin laying track west of Omaha, the town had benefited immediately. Hayden passed a large complex of multistory brick buildings, machine shops, and round houses belonging to the railroad company. He was making his way to the firm of Wilcox and Stevens, where the members of the 1871 Yellowstone expedition were expected to check in when they arrived.”

Part of the reason I chose this paragraph is because I was really struck by what a great job you do here of sort of putting us in the moment and making us feel like we’re there with Hayden in this historic world. But also, I mean, there’s just a ton of context packed into this paragraph. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you shape a paragraph like this, kind of what what your thinking was?

Megan Kate Nelson 25:37
Well, I knew I wanted to start this paragraph with him in Omaha. And initially I had, I had him stepping off the train. And I was like, wait a minute, was there an actual bridge across the river at this point? And no, there was not. So I was like, oh, so I did a lot of research into the steamships that were there, were going up and down the river, where you would disembark in Council Bluffs and come across to Omaha, looked at photographs looked at plat maps of Omaha, as a city, I looked at city directories to figure out where he would be going after and what directions he was turning, knew from that, that Omaha was a grid city, like many of the cities in the West west of the Mississippi, and, you know, had sort of figured out where he was going. And this, this is the kind of stuff that I, I go into very deep rabbit holes about, you know, the research for this probably took me a day or two, just to write this, like one paragraph, and, you know, looking at a history of Omaha and looking at a history of the Union Pacific Railroad. And, you know, very famously, you know, Lincoln agreed to this terminus, and he had land across the river, which is interesting. So whenever, whenever any historian talks about Lincoln’s interest in the West, they always point this out. So I knew that I wanted this in there. I knew I wanted to point out that Omaha was kind of an old city in this part of the country for Americans, but was most definitely not an old city, in the larger frame of indigenous communities and Spanish communities, French communities, like there’s, you know, it’s, it’s actually quite new. So I wanted to kind of give you a sense of him, kind of entering this space of this really bustling town that has been, whose importance has been really magnified by the transcontinental railroad, and really just in the past two years, right, and that this is why he’s gathering all of his scientists there. This is why they are starting off from here. It is the terminus. And then of course, it was a beautiful thing to have both Wilcox and Stevens, which is a merchandising firm, that was providing some of their materials. And then also William Henry Jackson’s photography studio. And so I knew I wanted to take the reader to both of those places. Because the the logistics of the survey were really interesting to me, like how they actually got everything together and the number of people it took to get them on their way west, moving toward the Yellowstone, and toward this survey, how important the railroad was, for the survey itself, for American visions of the West at this moment, for settler colonialism, for increasing campaigns, and increasingly violent campaigns against indigenous peoples in this region. I mean, the railroad, I think, has a major role to play in all of those stories. Also this chapter is called Pulse of the Continent, which is just a beautiful phrase that I took from a Walt Whitman poem about this train. And so I wanted there to be that sense that this is a kind of industrializing town, but a still growing town and a really kind of rough-edged town, also, right here along the riverbank, and that this is where that whole jump into the West is going to begin for Ferdinand Hayden, and for most of his his scientists and the people coming along on the survey.

Kate Carpenter 25:37
One thing I really enjoy both about Three-Cornered War and Saving Yellowstone is that, you know, you include such a sense of place and landscape and sort of physical space, even though you might not necessarily call them environmental histories, like the surrounding environment is very much a part of how you write. Do you keep anything specific sort of in mind as you’re writing to make sure that the reader feels a sense of place?

Megan Kate Nelson 29:48
Absolutely. I mean, this is I have always been interested in landscapes. I think this is the thing that ties all of my work together. You might look at all of my books and be like what is happening? We have swamp, we have ruins, we have a desert war. And then we have a geothermal basin filled with animals. But this is, you know, these are all landscapes of conflict and landscapes of importance. They’re also a little bit weird, in certain ways, which I like. And really, from the very beginning, my experience with history has always been connected to the landscape, because my parents took us on these vacations for two weeks, every August and my dad, who has a master’s in history from The Ohio State University, he’ll be very happy that I said that, he would always, we always joke that, that we should have a bumper sticker on the car that’s like “will brake for historical markers.” Because we would, I mean, he would just, he’d see those signs and just boom, like veer over to the side of the road. And we always went to historical sites, we always kind of paid attention to the history of the places that we were going to see on these trips. And so and it is so cliche, but it is actually true that this is how I experienced kind of America through a car window. And with a map in my lap. I love maps, I love making them. I got a chance to actually make part of the map for Saving Yellowstone, that’s gonna be in there, I geeked out like, not believe I was like, yeah, here’s my chance. I’m like a secret cartographer. But, but yeah, so I always pay attention to the landscapes around me, no matter what I’m doing, whether I’m driving or walking, or riding my bike, going places. I really also appreciate nature writing, and other forms of writing that really put you in a place in a really vivid way. And so often what I will have is, when I’m writing in a, when I’m writing a chapter, I will have both period photographs. And then also hopefully, my photographs of that place, I really like to go to the places that are in the book. With Three-Cornered War, I went pretty much everywhere, except for the battlefield of Valverde, which was, it’s on private land, and I was not able to access that but, and what really was terrible about Saving Yellowstone is that I actually didn’t get to Yellowstone until after I had written the book. And I have not been there in almost 40 years, like I’d been there in 1982. On one of these trips. Luckily, Yellowstone is very well photographed, and documented, in all kinds of ways. So I have a lot of visual sources at my disposal, but nothing really could replace actually kind of driving through and seeing it myself. And I luckily was able, I was in between a copy edits and page proofs when I took that trip to Yellowstone finally, so I was actually able to make some changes and add some things to confirm. Most, probably 90%, of what I had written, was actually confirmed by being there. So I was happy about that.

But uh, but yeah, I usually have visual images up kind of on my computer, so that I can reference them and really see things, I could probably not see things as Ferdinand Hayden and his scientists had seen them, or, you know, Sitting Bull and his people, because, you know, it’s 150 years later, but it is useful to have both period images and today’s images for comparison, and then also to see how some things actually haven’t changed all that much, except for the pace of of natural change. But to see, oh, like, these are the colors actually, in this landscape. If there’s, you know, a lot of this particular kind of vegetation, let’s see what it looked like and see what its flowers look like and really help put the reader on the ground in that place. Because I think this is one of the things that kind of brings the past. I don’t want to really say alive, because that sounds weird, but I think it kind of brings a more vivid sense of the past to a reader if you have that kind of physical detail of color and texture and surrounding, especially, you know, because so many so many readers have not been to the places that we’re describing, right? I mean, even Yellowstone, which has 4 million visitors a year, 4 million visitors a year and is you know, in the top 10, and now I think even the top five of annual visitors. Yeah, that’s a lot of people but it’s not all the American people and it’s not, you know, it’s still pretty difficult to get to and so you really have to make an effort. And so a lot of readers of the book may not have actually may only have seen photographs that may not have actually been there. So my hope is that the descriptions in the, landscape descriptions in this book will kind of intrigue people who haven’t been there and make them want to go. And for people who have been there, it will remind them.

Kate Carpenter 35:21
Are there specific writers or books that you continue to look to or have looked to as inspiration in your writing?

Megan Kate Nelson 35:29
Well, as we have discussed, I do get a lot of inspiration from fiction writers. Tana French is a writer whose both plotting and character development and landscape description I really enjoy. She’s an Irish writer, she writes a lot of suspense and mystery, but she, to me kind of transcends that genre a little bit, and then kind of moves into some literary fiction, especially her most recent book, The Searcher, is really, really good. It’s a one off book, and just a gorgeously written book. And interestingly, I listened to an interview with her, and she thinks of it as a Western, which is really, really fascinating. And now I can see it, I hadn’t been thinking of it in that context. But now that I go back, and I think about that book, I’m like, oh, yeah, that kind of lone man comes into town. He’s a stranger. I mean, you know, it’s, and that he kind of has to solve this mystery, this violent sort of town out in the middle of nowhere. And I think my primary inspiration is fiction writers. I think there are, though, historians whose writing I really admire. Bathsheba Demuth, I think is a glorious writer. Even some of her tweets, I’m like, Oh, my God. Amazing. She just writes these like beautifully lyrical tweets, and like that, like no one else, right? And her, both her short pieces, and I think Floating Coast do a really, really good job of, you know, making you feel the cold, right, and actually envision what it is like to be in this space as part of these communities. And I just, I really admire that. I think she’s, she’s a superstar. And I really, really enjoy her work. And, and really, I think for most at maybe, it’s just because environmental history does have that method to it, of putting yourself in place, that there’re just a lot of really good writers in environmental history. I did, I learned from every single one of them. And for the most part, I think the writing is just really, really gorgeous. In civil war studies, Stephen Berry’s work is always just lovely. He has a beautiful writing style, and he really gets it, the the issues that are close to the bone, and he’s not afraid to really talk about emotion, and to write emotionally. Right. And so, you know, sometimes I think that’s a lot of academic historians don’t do that. Because they see that as either not objective or not serious. But I think Steve just really hits it out of the park with everything that he writes, also.

Kate Carpenter 38:27
Do you deliberately work to improve your craft? Are there ways that you approach that? Or is it just through practice?

Megan Kate Nelson 38:33
It’s usually through practice, I do think that everything that you write, every form of practice that you have makes you a better writer, I think also, the more you read, the better writer you are. For my purposes, reading across genre, I think really improves my writing, reading fiction, reading poetry. I also I mean, I know there, there are lots of academics who are like, I don’t watch TV, but I think some of the most interesting experiments with narrative style are happening on television right now, television and the movies. And so I pay attention to those. And I kind of think about those and think, Okay, well, what if I, if I wanted to structure a book in this totally different way, like, what would that look like? And that’s the kind of backbone of this exercise that I’ve put on my website called the five by five, where if you are feeling stuck in the structure of an article or a book, and you don’t really know if it’s working, this is basically just a brainstorming exercise to think about all of the different ways that you could organize something like that. And I’ve, I’ve done that for books. I did that for Saving Yellowstone. Also for the new book I’m writing, The Westerners, I’m actually going to experiment again, and I don’t know how it’s gonna go. My editor doesn’t know either. The structure I’m going to do for that book is a little bit more like Isabella Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, where you are with people for three subsequent chapters, like really close to the ground, and then there will be a context chapter. And then there will be a shorter piece and then another context chapter. And it’s not as, you’re not just moving through protagonists, and you’re not just, you are moving through time, but you’re not necessarily following, you know, a thematic or an argumentative or, or even a strictly chronological structure. So I’m going to see how that plays out. My biggest thing is I like to experiment. But I also know that if the experiment doesn’t work, then that’s okay. And I, I will acknowledge that and start over. But definitely the more that you write, and the more that you write in different kinds of genres, either you do a media review, or an op ed or again, like a blog post, or some sort of, I just, I wrote a piece to pitch to the Washington Post as part of their five myths series. And that’s a different way of writing about something, right? And those have been really fun. So yeah, I mean, that is my usual approach. But I would not hesitate to to actually work with a little more intentionality just for myself if I felt like I needed that, and I felt like I needed a kind of creative punch to kind of get myself going.

Kate Carpenter 39:15
Well, I know that you’re in the midst of promoting Saving Yellowstone. Can you talk at all about the next book?

Megan Kate Nelson 41:40
Yeah, absolutely. So it is a book tentatively titled — because, as I know quite well, the title can change, like, up to the very last minute. But the title for now is The Westerners: The True Pioneers Who Built a Region and a Nation. Really, it’s, it’s I started thinking about this in response to two books that came out in 2019, the David McCullough book, The Pioneers, and the HW Brands book Dreams of El Dorado, which are, you know, extraordinarily popular books about pioneering and about the West, that really privilege the narrative that we always hear, which is white people moving from east to west, and a Calistoga wagon, confronting all sorts of dangers, including indigenous peoples, overcoming them and becoming true Americans. I thought, You know what, I mean, Western historians have been talking about this for forever, but somehow, it just hasn’t really kind of moved into the popular consciousness that the West was actually built from all different directions, by so many different communities, by white people moving from east to west, yes, but also by Mexicans moving from south to north, from all different kinds of indigenous communities and moving in all different directions, Asian immigrants, Asian Americans moving from west to east, you know, I mean, so many different communities. And so, the, the idea of the book is that we’re going to follow at least seven, maybe, maybe some more, um, it depends on on how it goes, I might add some folks, but seven people who, whose experiences are kind of pioneering Western experiences, but not ones that you would ever, that you would think of, or that Americans in general would think of, in order to really give this sense that, you know, who are the actual people who built the West, and created this really fundamental myth of America? And how do we really move against that very popular mythic American scene, which we are seeing in this new show 1883, which is another thing to talk about entirely, because this is all still alive, right? It’s all very much present in our popular culture and in our history. So I’m just starting the research on that. But I’m hoping to kind of build it as this kind of big, larger notion of who was coming to the West, who had always lived in the West, and how they kind of worked out their conflicts and really defined what it meant to be a Westerner.

Kate Carpenter 44:44
Well, I could talk about writing and about history all day long. But I will not take up more of your time. But I just want to thank you again for coming on the show and for sharing so much of your work with us.

Megan Kate Nelson 44:56
Of course. Thank you so much and thank you for reading both The Three-Cornered War and Saving Yellowstone.

Kate Carpenter 45:01
Thanks again to Megan Kate Nelson, and thanks to you for joining me for this first episode of Drafting the Past. You can find the show notes and links to all of the books that Dr. Nelson and I talked about in this episode at You can also find me on Twitter @draftingthepast. Subscribe and review the show wherever you get your podcasts and, hey, tell a friend about it. I can’t wait to talk more about writing with you soon.

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