David L. Bristow

Frequently Asked Questions


When did you get interested in writing?


My second grade teacher told my mom, ďHeís going to be a writer,Ē though I have no idea what gave her that idea. In fifth grade we had to write stories and read them to the class. I wrote a series of stories about a burping robot, which my classmates enjoyed.


So, yes, I thought about writing for a long time. I wrote a fantasy novel between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. I sent it to some publishers and received my first rejection letters. In hindsight, the story wasnít even remotely publishable, but I learned a lot from writing it.



How long does it take to write a book?


Depends on the bookóand on your other responsibilities. Except during summers as a kid, Iíve never been able to write full-time. My first published book, A Dirty, Wicked Town, took about a year and a half, working evenings and weekends. Itís about 300 pages long. Sky Sailors, which is only about half that length, took about a year.


Itís easy to start a book; not so easy to stick with it. It helps to break it down into smaller goalsóIím going to research this particular topic, Iím going to write a draft of that chapter.



Is it hard to get published?


Itís impossibleÖ until it happens. A lot of people write books, and relatively few are ever published. Lots of people pay to have their book published, which can be a good option depending on the project. But convincing a commercial publisher that they can make money by publishing your book isnít easy. Youíve got to have a good idea, and youíve got to have the skills to tell the story.


The hardest part, really, is the time it takes to develop the skills. Youíve got to spend time being a bad writer before you can be a good one. Some people are in love with the idea of being published. Being published is great, but unless you enjoy the process of writing (and revising!), you wonít stick with it long enough to develop the skills.



How do you keep from getting discouraged?


Donít expect instant success. Most successful writers spend years honing their skills before breaking through. And most writers never get that far. But the other side of it is that there are a lot of audiences out there. Even writers who donít achieve national publication can often find a local or regional audience for their work. And aside from print, the web has its own possibilities. But aside from finding readers (and who doesnít want readers?), it is satisfying to see your own work improving. Itís a rush to finish something and realize that itís the best work youíve done so far.



Why balloons?


Why not? Call it the serendipity of research. When I was working on A Dirty, Wicked Town, I was scanning newspaper microfilm in search of articles about a completely different topic when I stumbled across a new item about an 1875 balloon flight in Omaha. I hadnít heard of a balloon flight in Nebraska that early, so I kept reading, not knowing how it would turn out.


Day after day the aeronaut failed to get the balloon off the ground, and the whole thing became a subject of local ridicule. Then, finally, one morning the guy took the basket off the balloon and went up sitting on the wooden ring that the basket had been tied to. He went up about a thousand feet, and then crashed into a lake, and then hung on as the balloon was blown across the lake and through the tall grass and trees on the other side.


I ended up writing a chapter about that story, and it was a lot of fun. That got me interested in the subject of early ballooning. Back before airplanes it was the only way to fly, and the early ďaeronauts,Ē as they called themselves, often pursued their aerial adventures with a great disregard for safety.



Did you ever think history was boring?


I didnít mind history when I was in school, but it wasnít my favorite subject. So it never occurred to me to major in history in college, even though I was becoming exposed to history in English, philosophy, and religion classes. But I didnít truly appreciate it until I got out of school and discovered people like the filmmaker Ken Burns, the writer Shelby Foote, and others who could bring the past to life.



Is it OK to use Wikipedia as a source?


Only if you donít stop there. Wikipedia articles vary widely in quality and accuracy, and the only way to know what youíre dealing with is to check the sources. I actually learned a few things for Sky Sailors from Wikipedia articles. For example, an article about the aeronaut Sophie Blanchard cited an obscure scholarly article that I didnít known about until then. I tracked down the article and it proved to be very helpful; the scholar who wrote it cited primary sources (letters and other documents of people who were participants or eyewitnesses to the events).


So Wikipedia wasnít my source, but it led me to a few sources.


In other words, use it but donít trust it. Thatís a good rule for anything, by the way. Researching history (or reading the news, for that matter) involves some detective work. You have to keep asking the author, ďHow do you know that?Ē And you have to check enough sources that youíre confident that you're not missing anything.


And at this point, online research will only get you part of the way there. Googling a topic is a good way to start, but itís only a start.†





Death of Thomas Harris. Some say he leapt from his plummeting balloon to lighten the load so that his lady friend might survive the landing. She did, but whether Harris really jumped or was simply killed in the crash is unknown.

Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02561

Balloonist Dolly Shepherd performed the worldís first aerial rescue in England in 1908, when she and another balloonist jumped to safety on the same parachute.


Paris, France, operated the worldís first airmail service during a war with Germany in 1870-71. With the city surrounded by German troops, French balloonists carried mail and homing pigeons out of the city. The pigeons then flew microfilmed messages back Paris.


Illustration of death of Thomas Harris, falling from balloon basket in 1824.