Sheena McGrath on writing nonfiction

On Writing Non-Fiction with Sheena McGrath

I’ve been following Sheena McGrath, known as Solsdottir to us bloggers, for over two years now, and I’m never disappointed by her excellent posts on one of my favorite subjects: mythology. She’s also authored books on some gods and goddesses I’ve seldom or haven’t come across before, or whom I’ve misidentified within the Norse/Germanic lore. So, I counted on my lucky stars and asked Sheena to help us with some pointers on getting through the overwhelm of information when writing non-fiction. The stars and godly types were listening, ‘cos Sheena said yes, and shared these amazing tips with us!

Sheena McGrath on nonfiction writing tips quote

I’m always daunted by the prospect of writing non-fiction, particularly articles of an academic nature. Fields are so wide, opinions so numerous. Can you share 3 points you use to manage this overwhelm and actually begin writing?
Information overload is a problem. There’s often a point halfway through writing a post where I feel totally overwhelmed and convinced I’ll never make a decent blog post out of my material. I often write about a topic because I want to learn something, which is very different from writing about something you know well, and then it’s easy to feel like you’ve bitten off too much. Here are three tips that work for me:

  • Stay focused. Sometimes my articles start from a question, and then focusing is easy. Otherwise, try to think what someone who knows nothing about this subject would want to come away with. This can save you from getting too esoteric.

  • Look at sites that present the subject in a more basic form so that you can see what information a beginner would have. Then you can build on that knowledge. Everyone knows Poseidon is the god of the sea, but not everyone knows that he’s also the god of horses. Or, more recently, if anyone has heard of the goddess Zisa, it’s from Grimm or else as partner for the German god Tiw.

  • Use the outline function in Word. It’s a quick and easy way to get an overview of what you’ve written, to see if you’ve covered all the main points and aren’t repeating yourself. Writing in WordPress is easy, but the scrolling means you can’t see your whole article at once.

Norse gods njord and Skadi from the book by Sheena McGrath
illustration from Njord and Skadi by Sheena McGrath

Similarly, I also find myself diving down rabbit-hole after rabbit-hole, fascinated by where a subject may lead. Do you find yourself doing the same? How do you keep yourself disciplined and focused on your subject?
Ruthless editing. I also have a maximum word length: 2000. That’s four printed pages, so that’s enough for anyone to read and absorb. I try to post every Wednesday or Thursday, so that deadline keeps me focused. Some of my earliest posts were off-cuts from my last book, Njord and Skadi. They all represented a trip down the rabbit-hole, on the topic of wolves, who was the god Ullr, sheep and goats in Norse myth, and other things. (The sheep and goats post has been very popular, so I’m glad I didn’t just delete it.)

If a side-topic seems worth pursuing, I make a new post and save it to drafts. I have about 50 drafts at any given time, and sometimes they stay that way for a long time. Every so often I go through them to look for ideas or cull ones that aren’t going to work out.

Sheena McGrath nonfiction writing tips quote

For your blog, WeAreStarStuff, you concentrate mostly on comparative mythology—primarily Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse. What got you into writing about such a (in my opinion, and with all those Greco-Roman names!) complicated subject? And have you ever wished all those Gods and Goddesses had simpler names?
Sometimes, although it’s the Irish ones that get me. Although all my family comes from Ireland, I don’t speak Irish at all, so I’m always trying to remember how to pronounce names. I do try to keep things like accents to a minimum because they don’t always come up right on people’s browsers.

I got interested in the topic of mythology because I had friends who were Pagans, and they leaned towards Norse myth. I had read Wonder Woman comics as a kid, which had a lot of Greek deities, and naturally I looked them up and got interested in them, so I guess when I ran into it again as an adult the ground was prepared. When I wrote my first book, The Sun-Goddess, I focused mainly on European cultures, and they’ve stayed my focus. Mythology interests me because it always reflects the teller’s take on the world.

Bigantia by Sheena McGrath

Tone in an academic article is as important as voice in a fiction story, I feel. I enjoy the easy and accessible tone you employ for your blog. It’s almost like having an informal talk with you, particularly when a point/personality gets discussed in the comments. Is this your natural default for writing, or do you deliberately work to make your writing more accessible to those of us who haven’t formally studied mythology?
Thank you. It’s a bit of both. I do have a particular style, which has evolved over time, but since a lot of my traffic comes from Google searches, I have to assume that my readers are simply looking something up rather than looking for an academic paper. I think writing the blog has been good for me that way—you write all the time and it loosens you up.

Having said that, I wade through a lot of academic material to write my articles, so it’s very easy to slip into that tone. The Writer’s Diet is a very useful online tool to stop you sounding too boring or pompous. I try to balance being informal with showing respect for the material. I don’t think of the gods and goddesses as simply butts for my humour to work on; they were focuses of belief and human aspiration, and so simply mocking them seems wrong to me. But I do express my opinions, especially in the comments. I always feel that the articles should be informative, but in the comments I can be more unbuttoned.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The research, no question. And there’s a certain guilty pleasure that comes from challenging received wisdom.

Sheena McGrath on nonfction modular writing

You’ve published some books about lesser known/older gods and goddesses, like the Norse Skadi and Njord, which are on my to-get-and-absorb list. Tell us a little about how you approached these tasks. Were they a broader but similar process to the way you write your blog-posts?
Pretty much. I did a lot of research, followed by planning out the form of the book. You’ll note I don’t say “outline”. I didn’t outline it; I made a folder on my desktop and then a group of Word files with different topics as their titles. All my books have been written like that, because it’s less overwhelming that way.

With Njord and Skadi, each file’s title was in the form of a question that a newcomer to Norse myth might ask about the myth of how the gods killed Skadi’s father and how they offered her a husband in compensation, and how that worked out. (Hint: not well) It’s probably not the most efficient way to write, because I followed up a lot of stuff just because it was interesting and ended up having to cut about 20 000 words. Most of that ended up on the blog, though, so it wasn’t wasted. My second-last book, Brigantia, was written the same way, but much more focused. I probably could have written more for that one.

In essence, though, I’ve always written in a very modular fashion, rather than flowing from beginning to end, so in essence each book is like a series of articles that all focus on aspects of one broad topic.

You also have a passion for comic and modern depictions of ancient ones, shall we say 😀 Do you find your perception and understanding of deities such as Thor, Loki, Perseus and Zeus, et al, changing as the our modern collective’s perception varies them from decade to decade?
I think these days most people’s ideas of the gods and goddesses comes from Vikings, the Thor movies, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and various videogames. I found a great picture for an article on Poseidon only to find that it was a wallpaper associated with a videogame. I couldn’t not use it, even if it was a modern interpretation, because it looked right to me. So I’m a child of my times, too.

The way we understand the old myths changes too. I made Modern Mythology a category on my blog because I was investigating things that turned out be modern inventions or additions to the older myths, like the idea that Odin’s eyes were the sun and moon, or that Skadi was a magpie goddess. There’s nothing wrong with thinking these things, but they aren’t in the ancient sources. If they speak to people, and their perception of Odin or Skadi, then they’ll become lore.

Modern mythology can be very creative: in the 1990s some British pagans took the minor figure of Elen in The Dream of Macsen Wledig and turned her into a horned goddess and matron goddess of England. That was inspiration, not canon, but it gave voice to environmental and feminist concerns in the way that all good mythology speaks for what people care about. It’s a good idea to be open to that sort of UPG (unique personal gnosis) because that’s how that myths are made, and in fact if you look at Greek myth you can see the process of change from Hesiod and Homer through to Ovid and later writers who told the stories in their own ways. Euripides had the inspiration that Medea murdered her children to get revenge on Jason, and although that’s only one version of her story, that’s the one everyone remembers.

Sheena McGrath on nonfiction writing tips

So, last question 😀 Do you have nicknames for your favourite/most aggravating-to-write-about deities and mythic figures?
Odin and Loki are trying to take over. I don’t have nicknames for them, but I do have to remind myself from time to time that Loki was called the “rouser of tales” for a reason. You could write about him and nothing else. And while I can’t call Hera my favourite deity, I have a new respect for her after writing about her. She was an important goddess in her own right, something that gets lost in popular books on Greek mythology, which focus on her fraught relationship with Zeus.

Those useful links for further reading/help

The Writer’s Diet


“Platforms are Overrated”

About Sheena McGrath

Canadian Sheena is the author of five books on mythology, including one on sun-goddesses. Her latest is an analysis of the Njord – Skadi myth, from Avalonia Books.
She also blogs.

Find Sheena and her work

website     Goodreads      Amazon