How I Wrote the Book “Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013”

by Amy Dee Stephens

My second zoo history book, Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, hit stores last week! I’ve known I would write “Part 2 in the series” for many years, but I kept putting it off as my attention was focused on other things. Last fall, Arcadia Publishing contacted me and asked if I would write another book because my first one had successfully sold over 2,000 copies (a good number for a local history book). That was the impetus I needed; it was time to write that book.

Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, released August 19, 2014.

Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960-2013, released August 19, 2014.

Who Agrees to Write a Book in 6 Weeks?

I had a lot of overtime built up at work, so I took off about 45 days in the winter to write. Being used to writing magazine articles on a short deadline, having weeks sounded do-able. I signed the contract on Halloween, and started a few days later.

Taking off to write a book sounds great—right? But it was such a hectic time. My grandma, Myrtle Davidson,

went into hospice and passed away, and my husband had surgery, so I had a hard time fitting the book in! I had chosen a mid-December deadline in order to push myself to get it done before the holidays. Many times afterward I chastised myself for being so ridiculous. I stayed up ‘til midnight, one, or two a.m. nearly every night. After logging 250 hours in six weeks, I turned the completed manuscript in on December 18th.

Photographic Treasures

Although the writing was important, another major factor to this book was gathering good-quality photos for each story. First, I sorted through 10,000 photographs in the zoo’s collection. About 100 of these will be in the book, but I didn’t have much representing the 1960s and 1970s.

A fortunate event occurred when I visited the Oklahoma History Center to inquire about any historical images they might have. Within a few hours, an archivist made a very kind allowance—he took me downstairs to the basement where hundreds of unprocessed boxes of Daily Oklahoman photos were stacked. The newspaper had recently donated their archives to the history center, but staff has barely started to scan the images.

With a little searching, we found four boxes under Oklahoma City Parks; Lincoln Park. I donned white gloves, and for two days I sorted through precious photos dating between the 1920s and early 1980s. Only fellow historians could understand how exciting it was to go through such treasures! The staff quickly scanned these in, and I suddenly had another 100 high-quality images to add to the book.

Selecting the Cover

Finding the right cover photo was challenging. Why? Besides picking an appealing photo, there had to be empty space at the top to allow for the title— almost impossible! Who takes a photo with great material only on the bottom third? My publisher dropped a number of photos into their template—but none of them popped for me. I wanted both animals and people in the photo, something that felt old-fashioned, and an image that wouldn’t make all zoo people run screaming because of antiquated practices (such as dressing chimps up in clothing). I’d found lots of cute kids with goats from the Children’s Zoo, but they felt too farm-ish.

Finally, I found this picture of five men lifting a Galapagos tortoise. It had nice action, looked dated (being from 1961 and including one man smoking a pipe), and it had an obvious “zoo” animal. One of the men happened to be a significant Oklahoman named Bob Jenni, who worked at the zoo and later became a wildlife filmmaker who opened his own wildlife center. It was perfect.

This last-minute photo substitution was special to my family.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

This last-minute photo substitution was special to my family. Photo by Amy Stephens.

Tweaks and Proofs

By spring, I started receiving proof copies of the book to review. I could tell I’d written it in a sleep-deprived state, as I found some obvious errors. Luckily, the publisher allowed me to make corrections. Since I’ve worked at the zoo for 16 years—the last chapters of the book were mostly written from memory. I was able to include events of importance to me—and a few of my family members even made appearances in the photographs. One image about Cat Forest wasn’t working well with the text, and at the last minute, I thought of the perfect image—a family photo of my late step-son visiting Cat Forest a few months before he died. The substitution was made, and I didn’t tell anyone until the first copy arrived in the mail. When I showed it to my family, we all got a little teary eyed.

It’s A Wrap

One day, the editor and I were making little word tweaks, and the next day I got an email that the book was “going to print in the morning.” It seemed so sudden. And so final. For the record—I wouldn’t recommend writing a historical book in 6-weeks. Although the subject was familiar and close to my heart, it took a long time to wade through 50+ years of research to pinpoint the most important themes. I also didn’t have the luxury of mulling over things, like I did with my first book, Oklahoma City Zoo: 1902-1959, which I wrote over a 2-year period. I’m proud of the final product, and doubt it would be much different if I had taken a little longer– but with my self-inflicted deadline, I didn’t have time to savor the process.

In less than a year, the book went from “okay, I’ll write a book” to “for sale in stores.” That’s pretty great! I hope to do another one someday—but next time, I plan to allow myself a little bit more time.

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Filed under History, My Philosophy on Writing, Published Article Announcement

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