Writing Lively Non-Fiction
by Wendy St Germain
Wendy St Germain has written about 30 titles; almost all non-fiction.
Since Wendy is trained in science, that's what publishers tend to ask her to write about. Wendy says it's
mostly biology, but she has also written quite a lot on the other sciences: chemistry, earth science, space
science, health and physics. Biology, howeer, is huge. For example, Wendy has co-authored a two-volume set that
covers genetics exclusively.
She has also written a few English books and some children's fiction. She is currently completing a book
about faith and why she thinks people should believe. Additionally, she writes a feature article and a Q&A
section for the monthly High Chaparral fan newsletter. As she says, she's pretty flexible!
Wendy's non-fiction books and articles are lively and interesting, as you can see from her article on Cacti
in High Chaparral's April newsletter, so it's no wonder her work is popular with editors. (See a link to the High
Chaparral article at the end of this interview). In this interview, Wendy tells you how she got started writing
non-fiction, and offers her Top 5 Tips for keeping non-fiction interesting...
Q: What is the age of your readership? (Is there a mix between writing for adults like the High
Chaparral article and writing for kids, or is it weighted more one way than the other? Are you changing
direction at the moment?)
A: I'm definitely finding myself changing direction. Most of what I've written is probably for about 12-16/18
yrs. The science has included middle-upper primary but the bulk of it is senior science and/or university bridging
courses. I am told my work is so easy to follow that it's quite popular among ESL teachers. This is because it
covers the material the age levels are meant to be covering (eg high school) rather than having them have to use a
lower level simply because the English is too tough.
Since I step back and clearly explain all concepts, the ESL students grasp my science writing better than other
materials. This one surprised me but several teachers have emailed me to ask if I have other books out and told me
they were using them for ESL. Lots of universities also use them for bridging or refreshing first year students.
These weren't my original target markets but they've come along after the fact.
Last year I completed a few titles for about mid-upper primary. Two were written in conjunction with the Royal
Children's Hospital - and the publisher actually emailed me to say one of the medical heads of dept told him he was
going to rewrite all of his information sheets using my more casual style. Another book I wrote last year for the
same age group was co-authored and covered the science behind sci-fi. For example, what is possible and what isn't;
what developments we now have as a result of the minds of science fiction authors (eg the submarine from Jules
I have started writing for older readers (adults). My High Chaparral articles are written for fans of the
show which aired in the 60's so they are no longer children. I have fun with that using puns and things that
younger readers might not understand. I'm also starting to look at screenwriting.
Q: How did you break into writing non-fiction? (ie. Did you send things away on spec? Hear of an opportunity
through networking? Meet somebody by chance? etc)
A: While I had been sending my fiction away, I stumbled into writing non-fiction quite by accident. While at
university, the woman I often paired up with in the lab missed a day. I loaned her my notes (genetics) and she
found them so well written and easy to understand that she photocopied them. I had written what the lecturer said,
of course, then in my own way added things that made me remember or understand the material better. This woman was
a high school English teacher.
She had a friend, a former teacher, who was an assistant editor at an educational publisher. When they caught up
for lunch she brought my notes. The assistant editor liked what she saw and showed it to her boss. Unfortunately
the boss was less impressed and that was that. Since I hadn't planned to impress anyone with it, I wasn't fazed and
gave it no more thought.
About a year later, the boss left and the assistant editor was promoted to editor. She tracked me down and
comissioned me to write the first two books in what has become a four volume set (and they will have three more any
time I want to write them). From there, I started sending ideas out to other publishers if the one I was dealing
with didn't cover what I wrote. It went from there.
I finished the books and was asked to be project manager on another set while also outlining two genetics books.
This author, named Peter, (with whom I later went on to co-author several texts) was running over the page limit.
He had written several pages of introductory genetics while I had been working on the more advanced material for
the two genetics books I was comissioned to write. When I suggested he cull the genetics pages and we work together
(I had yet to write the intro material he had done so well), we drew up a new contract and I wrote the genetics
with him. From there I was asked, as one project ended, if I'd be interested in the next idea the editor had.
Fortunately I work well with Peter. He specialises in biochemistry/chemistry and I specialise in
zoology/genetics. So whenever we take on an assignment, we divide the work based on our strengths and share out the
work we aren't fussed on between us. Then we swap and work over what each other has written to make it flow as if
one writer did it. It's better for the reader that way.
Q: Once you started writing regularly, did you find that most of your work came from one source or did it
come from a variety of sources? (Were you at any stage forced to knock back work because there was too much? Were
there 'dry' periods?)
A: For the first few years the work came from the editor I mentioned above. When ideas more suited to
primary-school-aged children came to mind I sent them elsewhere simply because it didn't occur to me that the
science editor's publishing house also did primary work (with different editors). From there, I applied here and
there for work that I heard about through newsletters or friends who wrote fiction but heard of work they thought
might interest me.
I have definitely knocked back work when there was too much on my plate. There are dry periods, for sure,
but I think largely because I have put the word out that I'm not taking work at present. I have told two of the
main publishers I work with that I want to focus on screenwriting and animation techniques at present, plus the
articles for High Chaparral and of course the most important, home schooling. This doesn't mean that I'm not
outlining science ideas. Just that I'm not prepared to be locked into a contract at present since I'm not sure how
much time I will have.
Q: When did you start writing for e-publishers? Do you write for other websites as well as High
A: I only started writing for e-publishers in April of this year, for High Chaparral. I don't write anything
else for other websites.
Q: Do you write fiction as well?
A: Yes. I like to write for children. I have written a few picture books, some primary work and some high school
level stories. Only the junior fiction has been published so far but I haven't done much in the way of sending out
the older works. I'm still not quite happy with them.
Q: Your article on cacti (for the High Chaparral newsletter) is lively and interesting - yet it's about a
subject most people would think could be quite dry! Do you have any tips on how to keep non-fiction
Here are my 5 Top Tips on Writing Non-Fiction:
1. When you're given any topic, try to groan only once if it's dull. With the cactus I thought: how on earth
does one make a cactus sound exciting? Then try to find something funny about it to get your mindset in the right
place. In this instance I thought, you can't even hug them, then smiled at the stupidity of anybody wanting to.
2. Read a lot about the subject and pick funny points. For example, I have been asked why cactus have
spines. While reading up on them, I found the scientific name of the 'Old Man Cactus' funny and as part of the
It's scientific name is Cephalocereus senilis. I love the last bit of the name. Can't you just picture
the old cactus reminsicing with itself about the good old days when it was no more than pin high?
I jumped on the reference to senility and pictured a dotty old cactus talking to itself. If you extend your mind
a bit you can usually find something.
3. If it's a topic you don't want to do but might be able to, challenge yourself. Give yourself a few days
to investigate before giving up.
4. If it's a topic you really don't want to do, decline. You will know if you're going to kill it and it's
better not to try than to turn out something that will reflect badly on you. I was once asked to write a piece that
focussed entirely on plate tectonics. I couldn't do it. I could write the facts alright, but couldn't find a single
thing to grab onto to bring it to life. It would've come across as dull and I don't want people thinking I'm a dull
5. Sometimes, I imagine the object in question as something no one in the world cares about. They I feel sorry
for it and find ways to make it loveable. Sometimes you can compare it to something people do find loveable.
For example, I could've brought in an echidna or porcupine analogy for the cactus. You can even walk a mile as one.
If you were a cactus what would you think of yourself? Would you wake up thinking gosh, I can't do a thing with my
spines today? Just think of something like that and go from there. Then, as things get too comical, weave in some
facts. When it starts getting bookish, bring back the humor.
I will have to remember these hints again soon as the editor has mentioned something that might involve
Q: Can you offer any further tips on building a writing career in writing non-fiction or working with
If you're qualified in the subject you write that really helps. If not, then try to get someone who is to do a
critique. This way, you can tell the publisher that while you aren't a scientist (or whatever it is you need to be)
you did get a qualified person or persons to look it over and they are satisfied that it's properly done.
As for working with editors, I try to take on all their suggestions but if I really disagree, I say so. But I
always give a reason why I don't want to go along with their idea. Only once did I agree simply because her
argument made more sense than mine! I try never to be precious. There are other writers out there who could write
on the subject well, too. Their style might be different but I never assume that I'm so special that I can pull
rank on anyone.
A Peek Into Wendy's Study....
I have my own study where I'm surrounded by science texts and photos and figurines of whimsical characters.
Since I love writing fiction with a fantasy aspect, I like to have these things around me. When I start a new
project, the first thing I do is look through my books then the internet. I don't look for anything in particular,
I just look around at what's out there. Sometimes I see lots of the same thing and think, why can't I find info
about... whatever. I note that and try to write something myself.
I have an (overflowing) intray that I put everything into so that my desk is semi-tidy. Then I use scrap paper
(the backs of publisher's rejection forms are good for this) and just randomly write ideas. There is no order, just
thoughts. I do this for a day or so then by about day three I have a better idea of what I want to say. For
example, I'm just finishing another article for High Chaparral based on an episode that featured a camel. I didn't
know a whole lot about them so I simply looked up general info.
I ended up with pages about their height, running speed etc. Didn't use any of it but it seemed like it might be
useful at the time so I jotted this down. Though I didn't use it for the article, it sent my mind in the direction
it needed to be to write the article. I might later use it if readers send in a question that it can answer.
Research is never wasted. It helps the mind to work out where it wants to go by seeing what it's not interested in
as much as what it is. It helps things to fall into place.
Link to Wendy's High Chaparral article on Cacti: The
Silent Stars of the West