Hannah Nordhaus is a bestselling nonfiction author and journalist whose work explores history, science, and the natural world.
Her books, The Beekeeper’s Lament and American Ghost, were national bestsellers and award-winners. She writes for publications like National Geographic and Scientific American, covering topics from contested public lands to intrepid nuns. Hannah is a Journalist in Residence at the University of Colorado Boulder and lives in Boulder, CO.
Hi Hannah, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am an author and journalist. I am a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine, among other publications, and write about the American West, history, and the natural world.
I have also written two nonfiction books, The Beekeeper’s Lament and American Ghost, about two vastly different subjects—struggling bees and beekeepers, and a history of my German-Jewish merchant family in New Mexico in the 19th century, and about the family matriarch, who is said to haunt her former home in Santa Fe. I like to write about the strange, hidden corners of our world—places and stories that might otherwise slip through the cracks.
Can you take us behind the creative process for your book, American Ghost, and how it differed from your first book, The Beekeeper’s Lament? I could imagine both works required an enormous amount of research.
Yes, both books involved heavy research, and very different research. The Beekeeper’s Lament was heavy on science and examined an issue unfolding in the present day—the troubling and mysterious die-offs that affected millions of honeybees starting in 2006.
For that book, I spent a lot of time with and learning about beekeepers, bee research, and bees. I knew next to nothing about honeybees when I started, so my learning curve was steep. My biggest challenge with that book was learning the science, absorbing it, and then finding a way to make it interesting to a non-bee-obsessed reader.
The research was the hard part; the easy part was writing about my main character, John Miller, a fourth-generation beekeeper on the forefront of the struggle in modern beekeeping. He was funny, lyrical, well-spoken, well-written, and engaging—an irreverent beekeeper-poet who was always opining on the state of the honeybee and the state of his world. His story really wrote itself; I just had to weave it together with the science and the backstory and share it with my readers.
My main character in American Ghost, by contrast, was a total cipher—a literal and metaphorical ghost who, as the wife of a prominent Santa Fe merchant, was present in history books only because of her better-known husband, with very little of her own story recorded for history.
So the book was really built around someone who was completely unknowable, and it was a challenge to find and tell her story. But I adored the research: learning about the history of Jews in Germany, the migration path of German-Jewish merchants to the American Southwest, the history of the Santa Fe trail and 19th-century New Mexico. I read dozens of histories, waded through genealogy websites, interviewed elderly family members, and read decades of newspaper accounts about my family in territorial New Mexico.
I read about ghost hunting and the late-19th century spiritualism craze. I went on a ghost tour in Santa Fe and stayed in two “haunted” hotels. The research was the fun part; I could have happily gone on researching forever. But when it came time to write, I struggled. It was a real challenge to bring together the historical record, the contemporary ghost story, and my own personal arc in searching for Julia Staab and coming to understand what her life and death and afterlife might mean to me.
I had to rework the structure multiple times, subtracting a lot of historical minutia and adding myself as a more present character in the book. It became a more personal book than I had initially intended, and it took me many tries to find the right way to tell my own story in a way that felt authentic.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
Before COVID came knocking, my typical day used to begin with seeing my kids off to school and settling down to work. I would write/research/interview for 4 or 5 hours, go for a run or bike ride, return emails and calls, and then pick up the kids.
Since COVID, I’ve struggled to have a regular routine. Even now, with people traveling again and the kids back in full-time school, I’ve found it hard to regain my footing and productivity. I had been working on a National Geographic fellowship in 2019, following research teams looking for “lost species” that hadn’t been seen in many decades but for which there was hope that they might still exist.
I had already traveled to Kazakhstan and Ecuador for the project, and had two more trips to complete before I started writing. But the remaining research involved international travel and very specific timing, coordinating with international teams, and once things shut down I found it was nearly impossible to finish the project in a timely manner. At the same time, my kids were out of school and home all day, and all scheduling and focus was shot to the wind.
So in the first year after COVID hit, I dropped my journalism projects and finished a novel I’d been working on. Then I wrecked my knee in a mountain bike accident and, two surgeries later, spent about 9 months recovering. I have just in the last couple of months started traveling again for National Geographic (we reworked the fellowship project). And I am hoping, devoutly, that once the kids are back in school after this summer, I’ll really be able to get to work.
Do you have a target word count that you like to hit each day?
I aim for 1000-1500 words a day when I’m in the zone. Often these days I’m not.
Can you talk about some of your must-have writing tools?
I’m pretty old-fashioned—I write with a laptop and Microsoft Word, like it’s still the 1990s. I have a very elaborate system of naming and saving files so there’s lots of duplication of notes, outlines, and different drafts, and it works well for me. I keep resolving that I am going to learn Scrivener or some other writing software, but can’t seem to find the mental energy to uproot my long-held practices.
My other important writing tool is a couch. When I’m really digging in and writing—in the composing and early editing stages especially—I have to be sitting on a couch. I find that a desk is too upright and constraining. To write properly, I need to slouch.
Whenever you hit a roadblock during a writing session, what are some of the methods you use to get back into the flow of things?
When roadblocks arise or the brain just goes bleary, I get up and outside and go for a run/hike/bike ride, and try not to think. Usually, the answer just comes to me about an hour or so into my hike, when I have truly let go of conscious thought and effort and let my mind wander.
My other major coping mechanism is my writing group. There’s six of us—five prose writers (nonfiction and fiction) and one poet—and we’ve been meeting regularly for more than a decade. They are talented and kind and indispensable, and always there to help me find my way around writing problems large and small. I wish for every writer to find a group of smart, compassionate, and like-minded souls to support them in their work.
What does your writing workspace look like?
My office: a jumble of books, photos, piles of documents, old drafts, old notebooks, tchotchkes, wrapping paper rolls; a spin-bike lent by a friend after my knee injury and massive collection of physical therapy devices; a very dated red couch which sometimes functions as my writing station.
Lately though, I’ve preferred to sit by the fireplace in the living room; and a cork board pinned with family photos, kid drawings, an ancient post-it love note from my husband, favorable fortune cookie messages (“Among the lucky, you are the chosen one”), a completely meaningless Pokemon card, a Mao Zedong pin, a Nepali postage stamp, and an assortment of rosaries, charm bracelets and lockets, which probably have important backstories that I can no longer recall.
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