Karen Abbott: 3 Things Writers can Learn from the Bestselling Nonfiction Author

Historical nonfiction is not a genre I normally dive into, but after listening to best-selling author Karen Abbott speak, I couldn’t be more eager to read her book.

karenabbott_photo_gal__photo_1076038926Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy interweaves the stories of four women who risked everything during the Civil War. Abbott began her speech by saying that she prefers her protagonists to be unlikable. With this book, she set out to find four women from the Civil War era who “brilliantly offended notions of femininity and used them to their advantage.”

Through extensive research and five years of writing, Abbott came to know her four mischievous women: Belle Boyd, a 17-year-old rebel and seductive charmer who became a courier and spy for the confederate army; Emma Edmonds, who became Frank Thompson to enlist as a Union private; Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals, and Elizabeth Van Lew, who placed a former slave inside the Confederate White House as a spy.

As a writer myself, I wanted to learn from this successful author. Although she is outside my genre, there is much to be learned from anyone’s process of idea to published to best-seller. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, these three practices are beneficial.

What Writers can Learn from Karen Abbott

1. Write what you’re passionate about

Bestselling author Karen Abbott talks about her book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, as part of the AViD series at the Des Moines Public Library.

Abbott could make anyone interested in the Civil War by the way she talks about it. Before the Q&A, Abbott gave a 45-minute presentation on her four female protagonists along with other favorite “characters” of the Civil War. She captivated the audience with her passion for the subject. As someone who is not quite a history buff, she had me intrigued.

This also got me thinking about what happens after we achieve these dreams of writing bestsellers. Speaking opportunities and book tours are a large part of promoting your book. I was amazed by Abbott’s verbal ability to tell the compelling story about these four women. She was engaging and hardly looked at her notes. Her passion for the subject and her characters came through, which excited me as a reader.

Be passionate about your subject, in your writing and in the way you speak about it. Your enthusiasm will catch on to your readers.

2. Get in your characters’ heads

Abbott was fortunate that she had primary source material to pull from in connecting with her characters. Her four women had written memoirs and plenty of interviews had been done on them.

“Draw from their worlds,” Abbott said. “That’s how you get in their heads.”

If you’re characters are fictional, plenty can be gained from spending time inside their heads. Write out journals or interviews for your protagonists. What do they think about certain things? What would they do in certain situations? Spend some time in their heads, and let that connection come through in the way you write them.

3. Keep a journal

While Abbott discovered journals or memoirs for her protagonists, she noted her frustration when she learned that journals for other Civil War characters had existed but had been thrown away. These things make nonfiction writers like Abbott cringe.


Even if you’re a fiction writer, keeping a journal can be beneficial for a few reasons:

  • Memoir material: Down the road, it may strike you to write a memoir. Perfect timing to go through old journals!
  • Connecting to themes: When you’re writing about a specific theme or idea you can relate to, it may be helpful to go through your journal entries from a time of your life that reflects that theme. How did you handle it internally? What were your thoughts during that time?
  • Idea generation: Before surrendering to writer’s block, sift through your journals. One of those thoughts is bound to stick with you. What thoughts come up frequently? What is the story you can’t not tell?

I’ve written in journals for years and have kept most of them. I haven’t looked back through any of them yet, but I know they’re there if I need them.

Karen Abbott is a bestselling author for a reason. She has an incredible passion that she is unwilling to ignore, which comes through in her own personality and in the depth of her research.

What subject ignites your writing?


Karen Abbott was the first author to present for the 16th season of the Authors Visiting in Des Moines (AViD) series at the Des Moines Public Library. To see the full list of authors coming to the city, click here.


Photo credit: Courtesy of Karen Abbott

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