Tim Starnes, author of Agony: Suffering Yesterday, Entertaining Today

What is the biggest thing that people THINK they know about nonfiction that isn’t so?

The walking public believes, or at least I think so, that nonfiction has to be boring – and sadly, it usually is, but the reality is that it doesn’t have to be. 

There are too many people out there who think of boring classes in high school when they hear the word “history.” They immediately think back to basic world history – a reading of Romeo and Juliette, basic facts on the Egyptian Empire, Mesopotamia, Dinosaurs, 1700’s-period England, and dusty VHS tapes of mildly-boring Discovery Education after-lunch specials and pop quizzes.

Pop Quiz:

Did you ever learn anything from an educational school video?


Likely not. 

This is the problem with the nonfiction market. Niche-interest information aimed at niche-market readers. This is largely the fault of mainstream publishers, who publish books in this manner specifically so that they are marketable. While this is a business essential, as a broke publisher’s Gutenberg press will be burned for fuel in the winter, but it leaves much to be desired for perspective readers.

Can you share with readers a little bit about your latest book? 

Agony: Suffering Yesterday, Entertaining Today

Over five hundred thousand years ago, this swinging party we’re having would have not been possible, as we now of course have the advantage of indoor cooking, plumbing of both cold and hot water, music with no effort, and ready-made meals sold in semi-hygienic supermarkets.

Following this, I’m inviting you to join us on a trip.

This will be a trip through the course of human history, examining the diseases and disasters of yesterday, and how that these agitations along the course of history can aid us today in hosting a successful party. To help make sure you understand, and earn you course credit if you’re in community college, we’re going to experience these disasters firsthand. That’s right – get your tissues ready for a stay at a poorhouse in Milan during the height of the plague, a blanket and bottle of whiskey for our stay at the Confederate battlefield hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg, lifejacket for a sail on the Titanic, and a copy of all of your insurance forms for a stay at a modern day hospital bar, to recover from all of our educational experiences.

What “Agony: Suffering Yesterday, Entertaining Today” is about:

Agony is the mixture of three types of book in one – A historical cookbook combined with information on food-borne disease from 1400 to 2000, joined with home entertaining – as we explore ways that we can use the pestilence of yesterday to help inform our choices on hosting a great party today – all with a bit of fiction tossed in for good fun.

Mixed in with these recipes are small flash-fiction chapters around the time-travelers guiding the reader along. Satan joins the group – he evolves as the chapters go on – being a physical presence in the beginning of the book, to an ethereal voice from an internet cord in the 2000’s.

Pull quotes on disease and urban legends share space with recipes related to their subject. Mad cow disease for steaks, on and on.

What is the most important thing that people DON’T know about nonfiction that they need to know?

Nonfiction doesn’t have to take on the textbook image to be nonfiction. Nonfiction can be experiential, such as in my case, a cookbook, or perhaps a stage play script, game book, etc. – or even lie in the realm of creative nonfiction, where some fictional elements are included such as an overarching fictional storyline tied in with the nonfiction elements. 

(Note how Agony: Suffering Yesterday, Entertaining Today has many of these elements! This is on purpose!)

What are some day jobs you have held?

Here they are in no order:

  • The development director / CFO of a homeless shelter for women and children.
  • The volunteer coordinator for a homeless shelter.
  • Intern at a small-town museum.
  • Marketing director of a CBD oil manufacturing and distributing company.
  • Ad buyer for a CBD firm.
  • Freelance ad sales for a small-town newspaper.
  • Owner and operator of the largest ghost tour company in the U.S.
  • Playwright / Author / Game Designer

Do you have a special time to write, or how is your day structured to accommodate your writing?

I write only when the “energy” strikes. Many authors suggest writing daily, but personally, I noticed, when trying this method, that the quality of my work dipped when I wasn’t feeling 100%.

Having said that, I can write anywhere. If I’m not at my computer, I’ll simply write the snippets I come up with down, and transfer them over later.

Much of my writing is a patchwork process of ideas, paragraphs, and sentences. I very rarely start a piece and go through to the ending in one go. Even on one-page works, I’ll often stop and start for a few days.

Develop your sense of humor. Find what makes you laugh and watch more of it, read more of it. Investigate it.

Tim Starnes

One tactic I have come up with to keep my ADHD in check is to leave current projects currently open in Microsoft Word documents on my desktop. (I never turn off my laptop, after reading in multiple tech magazines that more damage is done on cold (power off) starts to on every day, than bringing a laptop out of “sleep” mode. I’m not in the mood to buy a new computer regularly, even if it is tax-deductible.)

Do you work to an outline or plot sketch, or do you prefer to let a general idea guide your writing?

No matter what, I always have an outline. I never start writing without one. These outlines are as detailed as I can possibly make them, and are generally set out like so:

I’ll use the first chapter of Agony: Suffering Yesterday, Entertaining Today as an example.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Advice #1: This will go against the grain of most of what you have ever been told – if you are of reasonable experience, never throw out any writing.

The way I follow this advice: Writing that doesn’t make the cut is simply removed to another word document, think of it as a virtual “recycling” bin, but not the desktop kind. In this file, everything is stored and categorized until the right moment.

When I’m stuck, feeling lazy, in a pinch, or think a piece will fit – it is retrieved, sewn in, and the work continues!

Advice #2: Learn that nobody will truly support your work 100% – you must be your own champion. You will be hurt when your closest friends and family doubt you, but this will happen.

Advice #3: Develop your sense of humor. Find what makes you laugh and watch more of it, read more of it. Investigate it. In most creative professions, there is humor. Laughter is one of the most basic expressions of human happiness, outside of smiling. Understanding how to make someone laugh is to understand how to work with their emotions and psyche on their most basic, animal level.

What do you like to read in your free time?

My un-formally diagnosed adult ADHD makes it impossible to sit and read most of the time. Instead, I take in audiobooks as much as possible, preferably ones that are read by the author of their respective material. I often discover new works via the suggestion feature in Hoopla (public library-supported) and Audible.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?

  • David Sedaris (Favorite: Calypso)
  • Garrison Keillor (Favorite: (a tie between) Liberty and Pontoon)
  • Randy Taborelli (Favorite: Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness)
  • All the self-printed authors in the gift shop at the Museum I once interned at. (-And that I’m now banned from.)
  • E.L. Doctorow (Favorite: Ragtime)
  • Paula Poundstone (Favorite: The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness)
  • John Waters (Favorite: Mr. Know It All)
  • David Lynch (Favorite: Room to Dream)

What is one thing you hate about being a writer?

The constant pressure to continue adding to work, or to continue editing it. In the world of writing, I have never had a good “stopping’ intuition, instructing me when to lay the keyboard down. However, in other aspects of my life, this “stopping” intuition is well-honed and put to good use.

Want to learn more about Tim Starnes and get the spooky cookbook?

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