Michael Rank is the author of nine history books. He covers everything from Bronze Age civilizations to Kim Jong-Il, but his guiding principle is to make history as interesting as possible.
Michael is also the author of History’s Greatest Generals: 10 Commanders Who Conquered Empires, Revolutionized Warfare, and Changed History Forever.He has been writing and publishing since 2012, along with hosting the podcast “History in Five Minutes.” He is also working on a PhD in Ottoman history but has way more fun writing history books than he does reading old documents in an obscure language.
So why do you write history books? I thought the book market only wants YA dystopian fiction or S&M bondage thrillers targeted to soccer moms.
I can’t help it – I am an unmedicated history addict. The subject likely bored most of us out of our minds when we were in high school, memorizing facts about the Battle of Gettysburg to pass our AP test. But when you dig past the boiler plate and look into the lives of actual historical figures, you find them every bit as sensational and odd as our modern-day celebrities and politicians.
Take Richard Burton – the man I believe to be the real-life World’s Most Interesting Man. The Victorian explorer learned 29 languages, went undercover as a Muslim on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and wrote 50 books on topics ranging from a translation of the Kama Sutra to a manual on bayonet exercises. He was a career diplomat but often neglected his duties to go on side adventures, such as doing a 2,000-mile solo kayaking journey down the San Francisco River and hiking the Andes Mountains down to Tierra Del Fuego.
So my advice is to write what you care about. Your interests may not be the most marketable, but your reader will be able to tell if you hate the subject.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
The best advice I’ve received as a writer is as useful as it is absurdly straightforward.
Yes, yes, I know. Mind blowing. That is about as profound as saying that a successful runner must breathe in order to build up endurance. But unlike our hypothetical runner – who simply dies if he does not breathe – there are many self-proclaimed “writers” who never write. They claim the title as their profession but never put out a word. Why? Paralysis by analysis.
Too many people believe that the key to excellent writing is to meditate at your keyboard and only spoon out tiny servings of words whenever the muse whispers in your ear. Such a process seems appropriate for creating a literary work of art – like a painter at a canvas dabbing away with microscopic brushstrokes – but it is not how the great writers did their craft.
Take Isaac Asimov for example. The doyen of sci-fi wrote over 500 books – the only writer to publish books in every category of the Dewey Decimal System. That’s a book every two weeks for over 25 years. How did he do it? It sure wasn’t by a slow, contemplative process. Asimov wrote in a fast, straightforward style and attacked his typewriter; believing that output was far better than deeply nuanced dithering.
Here’s a quote of his that explains his process far better than I ever could: “I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.”
Why did you decide to self-publish?
Making a full-time living as a traditionally published author is almost impossible; partly because you keep so little royalties, and partly because a publisher’s agonizingly slow process of book production reduces an author’s output of everyone but James Patterson to one book a year. Authors need a wide catalogue to make a living and build a readership. That would take a decade with a traditional publisher.
How do you get ideas for your books?
From readers! I’m constantly sending out emails, asking them what historical topic they want me to write or podcast about. If I ask people what they want, and give it to them, then how can I go wrong?