More Geology?! Author FAQ

Isn’t this blog a lot about running, hiking, and family? Why so much geology lately? I’m writing a book! One of the biggest questions I get is: “How do I write a book?”

I’ve been working on my latest project for a few years (yikes!), but things are actually starting to come together a bit more solidly. The book is a revision of the New Mexico Roadside Geology, and I’m really excited about it. I post a lot of excerpts from my last book, “Colorado Rocks: A Guide to Geologic Sites in the Centennial State” and I’ll be testing out sections from my book-in-progress, the New Mexico Roadside Geology (Second Edition). Subscribe to the email list and stay tuned for updates.

The writing has been a long road, and this has been complicated by COVID, new babies, and other professional changes. I have an incredible editor at Mountain Press Publishing, and she has been integral in the building of this book. Writing takes a lot of teamwork, from my editor and co-athor, but also my husband, and all the friends and colleagues I email with random, specific geology questions.

Questions I often get:

How did I start writing geology books?

A former professor of mine at the University of Oregon, Dr. Marli Miller, was working on the Roadside Geology to Oregon and Oregon Rocks, and knowing we shared a love of photography and geology, she suggested I contact Mountain Press to work on a book about Colorado. I was working on my dissertation at the time, which focused on landscape evolution in the Rocky Mountains. I asked her flat out: How do I write a book?

Marli gave me some suggestions on how to frame a book proposal, and I started researching the project. The basic steps were:

  1. I researched and submitted a book proposal.
  2. My editor sent it back to me with a few suggested changes.
  3. I accepted some of the changes and resubmitted the proposal.
  4. My editor reviewed and approved the final proposal.
  5. I started writing!

Several years later, my first book was published!

Who do I write these books for?

This question often means, “Will I understand what you’re saying” or “Do I have to be a geologist to read your books?” and the answer is, No! I hope not! I try to write to a general audience, meaning, anyone can read them. Some of the terms I use in the books are very specific (“geo-speak” as my husband calls them), but these are usually explained in a glossary. I try to use lots of drawings, photos, and plain language to make the topic accessible to most people. 

I love to talk rocks: If you have a question about what I write about, please, contact me!

How do I know what to write about?

It helps that my educational background is in geology. I did my undergraduate, Masters, and PhD work in geology. This gives me a pretty broad understanding of geology in general, and specifically, in the Rocky Mountains of NM, CO, and WY, where I did my MS and PhD work.

Even with these years of study, I still have moments where I ask myself “how do I write a book about all the millions of things that are geologic in the world?” There is no way I know even close to everything I write about just off the top of my head. 

I do a lot of research using the NM Bureau of Geology’s website. The interactive NM Geology Map is a fun place to explore, and for a more comprehensive look at publications and maps, the USGS Map Viewer is the absolute best website to find a broad range of information. I also comb through publications, sometimes searching by a specific author who I know works in a place or on a topic, and sometimes just googling a topic and following sources until I can find enough reliable information that I can summarize or write about for a non-scientific audience.

How do I translate from technical to plain language?

There is no magic way to translate technical information into plain language (we can talk about AI another time!). I try to find the major themes of an idea and put those first. These major topics are ones that most people are interested in, and that often, have had the most scientific study to draw from.

To come to a readable statement from a slew of technical documents, I often end up “smooth over” really complicated details. I do not include the minute details that require a lot of technical terminology in a general text. 

For example, I might say a “reddish granite with abundant black biotite mica and boxy, pinkish feldspar crystals.” instead of “Medium grained, foliated, brown to red-brown granitoid rocks composed of variable proportions of quartz, plagioclase, and microcline with abundant biotite.  K-feldspar grains are coarser grained and dynamically recrystallized.” (Source)

Both descriptions are correct; the second description of this rock is geared more towards what a working geologist needs to know, while the first is a generalized description that more people will be able to recognize. You still would need to look up what a feldspar is but knowing it’s pinkish helps!

How long does it take to write a book?

Longer than I would like. I am not a full-time author, so I write in the odd hours of the day, weekends, and days when I’m not working my full-time job, or have my kids home. I prioritize my family above all else; I write to fulfill a creative itch. Writing is something I LOVE to do, so it’s something I build in to my weekly routine. 

I do bring my children and family into my geology work and writing, however. My older daughters have been on many a “geology road trip” where I am out collecting photos or scouting road routes. My husband is a constant supporter of my traveling for writing purposes, my strange mutterings about geologic topics, and my sudden pull-offs to take photos of rocks when we are driving. 

As my children get older, I become better at writing. They also keep asking me how to write a book, So hopefully, the next book will be even faster, and they might be my coauthors!

How to write a book: take your daughters to White Sands and have them ask you lots of questions.
My older daughters are my best author helpers. The questions they ask help me shape what and how I write about geology in text. Here, we have been collecting photos to write about the geology of White Sands National Park, but also took time to play on the dunes.

Do I get an advance?

No – no advance for these two projects. I am awarded a percentage of royalties, but did not request an advance on these first attempts at authoring.

What am I going to write next?

I’m not sure! What do you want to read about?!

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4 thoughts on “More Geology?! Author FAQ

  1. Jay

    Thank you for the update. Reading it I instantly thought of the Grand Canyon. When did you hike down/up it? And how was it?

  2. Hi Jay, thanks! I’ve hiked in and around the Grand Canyon several times, and had the opportunity to float the river doing geology research with my advisor and his lab group from the University of New Mexico.
    The hike up and down the canyon is spectacular, and well worth a visit if you’re considering it. It’s a long day and can be very hot – so my biggest advice is to bring lots of water and snacks so you aren’t feeling rushed. One of the best hikes I had we actually hiked down, napped a few hours at the canyon bottom area, and then hiked back up at twilight (with headlamps). It was a pretty unreal trip. I would like to do a rim-to-rim traverse at some point, but haven’t yet been able to swing the logistics! Have you been?!

  3. Jay

    I went years ago. Hiked DOWN the S kaibab trail. Spent the night at a small campground…Hiked up the Bright Angel trail the next morning. It was April of 85. I was MUCH younger then!

  4. magdalenadonahue

    Amazing – ha, yes, I’d say it’s been a few trips around the sun since 1985! What a great adventure to have had.

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