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Member Spotlight: Scott Martelle

author Scott Martelle and an image of his book 1932

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? It helps me sort my thoughts, and focus on not only the topic I’m writing about but the language I’m using as I think about it. As a journalist who writes history, it also helps me see the weak points in lines of thinking, the holes in logic, in ways that can be harder to pick up when I’m just rolling things around in my head. Writing also helps me frame the world into different contexts. That’s globally important, too. Stories are how we collect our histories, and how we share them, and while the oral tradition has its strengths, writing acts as a preservative for the tales we tell. So when crises emerge that we need to better understand, we can quickly find histories and analyses and personal stories to help illuminate the forces at play, and the consequences. It’s a bit trite to say but writing is a global unifier – we can learn about other people and cultures even as we explain our own.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? The bulk of my career was spent as a daily journalist, and I think that expertise has inoculated me against the worst of writer’s block. Kind of like a Covid booster – I may hit a block, but it’s never a bad one. I just keep plugging away. If the words are dropping like bricks there’s always some more research to do, or some facts to check, so there is always a way to moving forward. But a lifetime of hitting a deadline in a couple of hours instills a deep level of discipline.

What is your favorite time to write? Early morning – I start at 4 a.m. or so when I’m in the middle of a project. Then except for short breaks I work through until I’m tired, which often takes me to noon or 1 p.m. I rarely go back to it after that for the rest of the day, though I might do a little research or reading.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? That this is work, and if you wait for the muse to strike you’ll never get anything accomplished. I read once that Graham Greene made a habit of writing a thousand words a day, then the next day revise that thousand and write another thousand. The key is to get words down even if they aren’t all that good, because you’ll at least have something to start working with the next day. I don’t do word count targets like Greene, or daily targets, but calendar targets – be done with Chapter X by Y date. And I’ve generally been able to keep all seven book projects on that production schedule. But the key is to get at it, and stay with it. Also, when you’re first starting on a project, it can seem like an unscalable mountain in front of you. But if you break it down into easier to reach goals, it’s not so daunting. For my first book – Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West – I started out envisioning it as a series of ten magazine articles, each 10,000 words. That felt more doable than the contracted 100,000 words. And that lie to myself worked. After the third chapter I could feel it all sorting into place, and from there it was a steady run to the end.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? The Internet has made historical research so much easier and richer. There is no substitute for sitting in an archive with original materials, but it is now much easier to find where those things are – and where they aren’t so there’s less time wasted on dry wells. What once required a phone call or an email (before that, a letter) to an archive, and then a delay for the response, now is attainable through WorldCat or site-specific search engines in a matter of minutes. My new book, 1932: FDR, Hoover, and the Dawn of a New America, uses excerpts from diaries by everyday Americans reflecting their lives against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the 1932 election. I was able to do most of that from my laptop in my home office. There’s also so much more published academic and local history available through JSTOR and other databases, which means an insomniac like me can actually get some work done at 4 a.m. instead of having to wait for a library to open. Not thrilling-exciting, but exciting enough for a history bug.

Scott Martelle’s 1932: FDR, Hoover and the Dawn of a New America is out now with Citadel.