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Writing a book... a province at a time

October 21, 2013
Phillip Vannini

The trip that began over two years ago on a Pacific rock, Lasqueti Island, ended June 16 on an Atlantic one: Newfoundland.

Newfoundland was the last one of our thirteen major field sites, each corresponding to one of Canada's provinces and territories. The stories from the three homes we visited will be the concluding chapter in the forthcoming book. The final headcount is 175 interviewees and 99 sites.

Newfoundland turned out to be one of the most beautiful places we visit. It was certainly one of my favorites together with the Yukon, Nova Scotia, and Quebec.

Now that the data collection is over (and after a little summer rest!) it's time to roll up my sleeves and get this book written. While Jon and Matt are at work on the editing of the video I'll concentrate on putting together all the various pieces of writing and craft the final book. I'll be reflecting about the writing process in the next few weeks on my own blog, as I figured it might be of interest to anyone out there trying to make sense of how to deal with a mountain of data/information.

I typically like to begin any writing task with a headcount. My contract with Routledge specifies the book must be 83,200 words. It's not much when you consider I need to work with 13 chapters--one for each province/territory. Rather than write uniform 6,000 chapters, however, most will be 7000 and three (NWT, NU, and NL) will be shorter to reflect the narrower focus of the research conducted in those three places.

Choosing to situate every chapter on a geographical point of reference (like a province), rather than a "theme," is a pretty commonsensical thing to do amongst writing types like authors of travelogues. It is, however, a pretty strange thing to do for a traditional ethnographer, as the latter might prefer to "slice" the data horizontally to capture the main conceptual arguments of the book. While I share with traditional ethnographers that goal, I also want to write this book as if it were a travel account (which it is!) and appeal to wider audiences than traditional ethnographies do.

The book will also progress through the seasons: beginning in the summer in BC and ending in the summer in NL, moving across the rest of the country from coast to coast to coast through autumn, winter, and spring. That should give the writing an even greater place- and time-based narrative structure.

Every single chapter will focus on a key aspect of off-grid living. There will be chapters on light, heat, water, appliances, etc. In addition to those foci every chapter will also zero in on some key ideas we've generated over the last two years. Those ideas will, all together, constitute our interpretation.

It doesn't end there. Every chapter will also be accompanied by web-based material like short interview clips and Jon's photos. All that will be clickable and hyperlinked for the electronic version of the book, whereas the print-based version will make use of footnotes asking interested readers to make note of URLs.

Writing an ethnography for both popular and academic audiences is tricky business. Doing it in a twenty-first century style with the tricks and special effects of the world of multimodal publishing will complicate things even more. Quite ironic, considering that one of the book's main points is about the value of simplicity.

Writing the introduction

It took me a week to re-work (extensively) the article that appeared about Lasqueti Island in Transfers a while ago. That article was written for a peer-reviewed journal that focused on mobilities. Thus, it had a narrow focus on our fieldwork on Lasqueti Island. The first chapter of the book, instead, needed to have a bit of an introductory feel to the whole study. It needed to touch on fieldwork done elsewhere in BC as well. And it needed to employ a different language and style.

So, a lot of re-writing, re-structuring, re-focusing, and re-organizing was necessary, but in the end I'm happy with the product and delighted that it only took about a week (I figured that if I want to finish by December 31 I can't spend much more than a week on each of the 13 chapters).

Introductions are tricky things to write. A typical academic introduction (something that I desperately wanted to avoid writing) needs to achieve the following:

  • Situate the research project into a well-defined discipline and field of studies;
  • Outline in detail the research question;
  • Present the broader objective of the study by highlighting its usefulness;
  • Declare the theoretical underpinnings of the work;
  • Describe the research methods followed.

That's a lot of stuff. In fact, most ethnography-length books do not really even begin their actual narration of the fieldwork until the introduction chapter is over. I wanted to avoid that, and begin with the stories right away. So, my intent was to let the stories from the field show what the broader research is about.

So, I adopted the approach typical of a more narrative project and used the introduction to:

  • Set the scene and begin to introduce the action;

Introduce the main characters (the off-gridders) in intimate details;

  • Introduce the supporting cast (myself and Jon) and begin to paint a portrait of our characters;
  • Hint at the personal relevance of the project;

And most importantly...

  • Create a narrative structure that presents our fieldwork as a story, and a journey across Canada, in search of something everyone can relate to: a better way of life.

In the process of doing that, I hope, I managed to achieve most of the typically academic introductory goals as well.

The word count is 7500. About 500 over the limit. The excess will need to be cut from the next couple of chapters.