Last night, while I was working on this article about the bizarre wave of suicides in Germany in 1945, I found myself in a predicament. The minutes were ticking down to dinner time–which is pretty much sacrosanct in my house–and I was struggling with GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program, the photo editor I use) trying to create the composite header image for the article. I didn’t even realize it until I was halfway through that somehow, quite randomly, I’d stumbled into the single most difficult Photoshop challenge I’ve ever faced. I managed to get through it, though, and just barely got the article finished and in the queue in time for dinner. Later on I was thinking, damn, I really do spend a lot of time on this blog, and the tasks of writing it have become so ingrained into my daily life that I hardly notice it. The header for the Germany 1945 article was a bear, but it was all in a day’s work.
That’s when I decided to write this article and give you all a glimpse into how I build this site. Normally I wouldn’t imagine anybody would care, but several friends and readers have emailed me over the past few months asking about my writing process and for advice on blogging. So, for a little change of pace, I thought I’d give you a glimpse of how I write the articles here. Because we’re already talking about the Germany 1945 article, I thought I’d use that as sort of an “anatomy of a blog article” to show you the process from beginning to end–but as everything here is interconnected, naturally it doesn’t stand alone.
Far and away the hardest part about running a blog, especially one that covers as many subjects as this one does, is thinking up ideas for articles in the first place. I keep a little black Moleskine notebook near me at all times for daily notes of various kinds, and it has several pages devoted to a running list of blog article ideas. I’ll just write one down when one strikes me, but I also use the “black book” as a last resort: I’ll pull something off the list only when I can think of nothing else. Also, I now have many series running at the same time: more or less permanent series like Metal for Friday, Planet Wine, Earth or Historic Photo; multiple article but more finite series, like Biggest Loser; or single subject series that I can’t do justice without splitting into more than one article, like my profile of Vladimir Putin. The series mean I have to truly go fishing for an article subject only a couple of times a week.
This is my “black book” where many of my blog articles start life.
Often where an article starts is by trolling through Wikipedia, particularly their pages on dates. For example, I’ll type in a date, “April 28,” no year, and get a list of historical events that occurred on that date. This is why so many articles here have a “today in history” tag or are written on the exact anniversaries of events. The Germany 1945 article started this way, when I realized April 30 was the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death. I didn’t want to do an article on just that, so I clicked around on Wikipedia and found an article about the mass German suicides. This was, I think, on Monday. So mentally I knew that sometime this week I was tentatively planning to do an article on the German suicides.
Wikipedia helps, but it’s not enough just to regurgitate historical facts. Before committing to an article I have to feel like I have something interesting to say about a subject or can at least present it in a way different than you’d see on Wikipedia or in an encyclopedia. This is what I call the “punch line.” Why should anyone care that a bunch of people killed themselves in Germany in the final days of World War II? Thinking about it on my walk to work Tuesday morning–I deliberately take two long walks every day for exercise and mental contemplation–I thought about how extreme right-wing ideologies cut off avenues of political compromise, and that might explain why fanatical Nazis felt they couldn’t live in a Germany without Hitler. That became my “punch line.” Thus, I decided this article idea was a go.
Another major source for blog article ideas is Wikipedia’s date-lookup function. Hundreds of articles here started from things I found in just this way.
Tuesday afternoon. As things were winding down at my office, I had the Wikipedia article up on my laptop and I briefly browsed the facts on the German suicides, as well as clicking on related links to learn more. (I never rely on just one source). On my second walk of the day I decided how the article would flow: introduction (why I’m writing it; why I’m writing it today), background (historical facts), some analysis, the “punch line,” and then conclusion. When I got home I was ready to start writing. I can write very fast, and after years of doing this blog I don’t agonize much over word choice or composition. I write directly into the WordPress editor. When I’ve got the text, I click Save Draft, and then start looking for visuals. Blog articles have to have catchy visuals to break up the text, and the pictures have to be copyright friendly: public domain, some sort of commons license like Creative Commons or GNU, or a very clear rationale for fair use if there’s nothing free available. I also like to embed YouTube videos into articles, which is absolutely necessary for articles about movies, for instance. In the particular case of the German suicides article, I doubted any YouTube video would be appropriate so I didn’t look for one.
Although the Wikipedia articles I consulted for source material did contain some relevant pictures–and clicking them on, I saw they were public domain–I thought the header image should not, if possible, be black and white, and I certainly didn’t want the header image to be that of a dead body. This seemed like an article that would require a custom-made composite–maybe something with a gun, and an image of Hitler or something related to World War II. I went to MorgueFile.com, which is a blogger’s secret weapon: it’s a huge database of absolutely free, public domain images, no sign-up or registration required. Using the search term “gun,” I found the below image, which was almost good enough as-is. But, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if the gun could be sitting on something, perhaps a newspaper with a headline reading “GERMANY SURRENDERS” or something?
This is the original version of the header I used for the Germany suicides article. I got it from Morguefile.com.
I did another web search–Google Image–looking for images of newspapers announcing V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe. I found two, and, after checking they were in the public domain, downloaded them. Then came the struggle with GIMP. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I had to build the picture in layers, cutting out the gun and the blood drops, then adding in the newspapers and making them semi-transparent, then adding the gun on top of them. When done I merged the layers, cropped and resized it (11 inches across works well for header images), downloaded the other public-domain images I was going to use, and placed them into the text in the WordPress editor.
After that it was easy. I added tags, mindful of what search terms people might use to find a subject like this, and an excerpt which shows up as a brief description when I share articles on Facebook or Google Plus. Then I clicked “schedule,” a function on WordPress where you can put an article in a queue to publish at a certain time. All evening articles go up at 8:30 PM. I copied and pasted the title and short URL to my TweetDeck, that controls my Twitter, added in the header image, and scheduled that for 8:31 (WordPress can feed automatically to Twitter, but won’t include images which is why I do it manually). Then it was dinner time.
The finished header image, after a lot of wrangling with GIMP. Image-wise, this is some of my best work, if I say so myself.
This is how it’s done. The hardest part, aside from thinking up article subjects, is keeping up the discipline to do it day after day. I can’t say much about that except you have to want to do it. I like to think this blog is a reflection of my mind, and I enjoy sharing it with people. It’s nice to know the stuff I find interesting is also interesting to others.
Hopefully this has been interesting to you, and, if you also write a blog, perhaps helpful. Here it is for what it’s worth. Thanks so much for reading day after day. My regular readers are the ones I’m writing for.