I’ll present this guest post without any pre-amble, as Clay already gives the backstory to why it’s here. You can find Clay’s excellent biography on Sam Langford on Amazon here, and my review of it here. He also runs a website selling used boxing books and memorabilia here: Prizefightingbooks. Take it away, Clay….
Every so often, I perform a Google search to see if there might be any new reviews or information on-line concerning any one of the three boxing biographies I’ve written. As a result, I recently came across a review of my book concerning the life and career of Sam Langford on Nick’s blog. In the review, Nick speculated on the subject of the many fascinating unwritten and deserving stories waiting to be written. He suggested that in this current day and age when so many newspaper archives are available on-line it may be easier to accomplish than it’s ever been. I agree.
He went on to say that thanks to the internet, one can very easily find a notable subject of interest, Google search their name, and go into one of any number of newspaper archive databases to search for articles, organize them chronologically in clusters around key events in their life, and then begin to put together a narrative. He suspected that may more or less be the approach I’d taken to write Langford’s story. That led to an email exchange between us and an invitation to write this piece on the methodology that I applied when writing the book.
For over 25 years now, I’ve been a serious collector of boxing books and have amassed a personal library of over 4,300 different boxing titles.
As I began to read more about boxing in the early 1900’s in my books and other boxing periodicals, I continually came across more details concerning Sam Langford, a.k.a., ‘The Boston Tar Baby.” The many accolades he received from his contemporaries, including fellow boxers, managers, trainers, promoters, and sportswriters convinced me of his greatness. Time and again, I came across references to him as one of the greatest boxers of all-time and the stories of his exploits convinced me he was one of boxing’s most colorful characters as well. I wondered why nobody had ever written a book about this legendary, now largely forgotten sports figure.
At the same time, I’d often thought about attempting to write a book myself one day. So somewhere around the year 2003, I decided I’d try and write one about Sam. Never having written a book before, I wasn’t sure where to start. But I knew I was going to have to do a lot of research, and compile it in an organized manner of some sort.
So the first thing I did was create a Word document listing of all of Sam’s professional fights in chronological order from a website named Boxrec.com. My next step was to begin searching for written accounts of each and every one of those fights. Now Sam was no ordinary professional fighter. He fought over 300 officially documented professional fights! So that’s an awful lot of fights to research. And in the course of my research, I uncovered a few more unrecorded fights. And while I did everything I could to try and identify all of his professional bouts, I’m sure there are more to be found.
So I spent a lot more time conducting research than I ever imagined I would. And at some point, I remember thinking that both the length of his professional career (24 years) and the hundreds of bouts he fought may have had a little to do with the reason nobody had written a book about him.
In any case, I used Newspaperarchives.com to find as many newspaper accounts of Sam’s fights that I could. But that site didn’t have accounts of all of his fights, and in many cases they didn’t have local newspaper accounts of his fights. I knew that whenever possible, it was important to obtain local newspaper accounts of a fight to ensure the accuracy of the information.
So that meant that I regularly had to order microfilm of the desired newspaper accounts through a local library and spend hours reviewing the microfilm for the desired fight results and events leading up to and after the event itself. I printed these articles and took them home with me before returning the microfilm. In some cases, I ordered microfilm of newspapers from England, Australia, Canada and Mexico in search of details concerning his life experiences and/or fights in those countries. Since he also fought in France, I also obtained specific accounts of his fights and time in that country and enlisted the help of a cousin who was proficient in the French language to translate those materials for me.
Taking advantage of the fact that I owned an extensive boxing library, and a large number of boxing magazines, I also used those sources to search for any additional details concerning specific details of Sam’s fights and life outside the ring.
Now being an anal sort, I not only grouped all of these materials in chronological order as much as possible, I typed every single word I could find concerning his life and career from newspaper articles, magazines, other books, and from my own recorded interviews with parties, chronologically in what would become a very large Word document over the course of the next 5-6 years.
Finally, once I’d put all that research together, I was ready to begin writing the story. I began by creating an outline of the chapters I would write, or as Nick correctly surmised, essentially arranged all of that information around key events in Sam’s life. Then, I went about writing each of the chapters, while continuing to try and fill in any missing details with additional research. Inevitably, there were many chapters that had to be rewritten as I gained more details, and resolved numerous mysteries.
By the time I completed drafts of all the chapters, I found that I’d written a book comprised of over 150,000 words. It was only then, as I began to learn more about the process of submitting a book proposal to publishers that I learned that in terms of biographies most publishers are looking for something more in the range of no more than 80,000 – 110,000 words. So I shared my draft with a friend who is a voracious reader and asked him if he’d do me a favor and cross out anything that he thought wasn’t really of interest or vital to the story. Ultimately, I couldn’t bear to delete everything he suggested I remove, but I was able to edit it down to approximately 113,000 total words.
To the best of my recollection, that’s the approach I took. In hindsight, I’d have to say retyping all the information I collected chronologically was certainly very time consuming and the most questionable thing I did.
I undoubtedly would have accomplished the work much quicker and easier had I foregone that part, but I’d like to believe it helped me absorb the information to a greater degree, and enabled me to do a better job of identifying inconsistencies and putting the story together.
Thanks Clay. That gives an interesting insight into, and how-to guide, for writing the biography of a semi-famous figure. Those of you who’d like to read Clay’s biography of Sam Langford can find it on Amazon here. Readers interested in Nick’s books can find them here.