This blog takes you behind the scenes of the writing of an academic history book – like a ‘making of’ featurette. Its aim is to make visible the traditionally invisible process of what it’s like for a university academic in the Humanities to write a research monograph, i.e. a single-authored 100,00 word book.

I’m a History Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford, and the book I’m writing has a working title of The Elusive Church: Luther, Poland and the Early Reformation. This project is supported by a British Academy Mid Career Fellowship (2012-13).

On these pages, you'll find a regular 'log' of how the book is progressing, plus information about the project. I welcome your comments and thoughts - whether you're studying or teaching history at school or university, or writing non-fiction yourself...

Friday, 30 November 2012

Stacking Boxes

I’m just back from a Reformation colloquium in Hungary, where I squeezed this book project into a 30 minute conference paper (wisely or otherwise). That was painful to do, partly, because writing the paper prompted a slight crisis about the structure of the book. In trying to resolve that, I ended up in my Budapest hotel room scribbling yet another diagram of the monograph. This one is more like stacking boxes (or Russian dolls, to use an East European metaphor):

This diagram (apologies for bad photo) sets out what I’d like the book to do (even if I don’t yet know entirely how it’s going to do it, structurally). The central argument / thesis sits in the middle, enclosed by the evidence and the main meat of the book. This in turn sits within a box labelled ‘Context of the European Reformation, 1520s and 1530s’, i.e. what is happening in other kingdoms etc at the same time, comparatively. The biggest, outer box, into which everything has to consciously fit, is ‘the wider Reformation’, i.e. making sure my material speaks in some way to (or has one clear eye on) the bigger, longer-term religious trends seen in the 15-17C. The book, with its own specific early 16C Polish focus focus, thus has to be in dialogue with what is happening Reformation-wise across both time and space. Now I need to find a way of mapping this onto the daisy diagram… 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Reconnecting with Place

Monograph fuel... fresh Warsaw pączki 

           I spent this weekend in Warsaw, seeing a major new exhibition on the Jagiellonian dynasty.  Although I was last in Poland only back in May, it was a good boost to the monograph-writing, a shot in the arm, to have another trip over there. On a frivolous note, it enabled me to stock up on my favourite Warsaw rose-jam Polish doughnuts, from the legendary 19C cake-shop Blickle, and I’m munching my way through these as I plough on with the current chapter.

There are great benefits to writing a monograph about a country from the outside – geographical and (in my case, some) cultural distance can create fresh, challenging new perspectives on old stories. But it’s also draining having to constantly tell colleagues and students here in western Europe that 16C Poland, and its neighbours in Central Europe, are major states which we should know and care about as historians; that this is something worth writing a monograph about. So, even though Warsaw itself (only a provincial capital in the early 16C) doesn’t feature very much in the Elusive Church story, it was refreshing, and reaffirming, to be reminded in the noise and bustle of that city that this is a major European country, with a big past. It was good to see how unapologetically that 16C Central European past was celebrated in the Polish-Czech-German Europa Jagiellonica exhibition. So maybe there’s an appendix to the book writing rules – semi-regular trips to the locations of your research subject, to re-ground yourself in the reality of what you’re writing about, and to provoke reflections on what happened to those places in the historical longer-term. And to remind you once again - centre and periphery are largely a matter of subjective perspective.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Condensed Monograph

I’ve agreed to give a paper later this month in Budapest, at a Reformation conference organised by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and I’ve promised that this paper will be an overview of the Elusive Church book project.

This sounded straightforward enough when I gave my kind hosts the title. I’ve given ‘book overview’ papers several times before. These condensed my first monograph into a 50 or even 20 minute talk, and they were very quick to write. I’m realising, however, that there’s a crucial difference between giving a bird’s-eye, condensed tour of a book you’ve already written, with the arguments reasonably crisp in your own, and of talking authoritatively about a book you’ve not yet drafted.

On the plus side, if you give a paper on a book post-publication and people in the audience make very perceptive points about things you’ve missed or could explore differently, all you can do is smile thinly, and swallow the sinking feeling, knowing it’s too late. Whereas whatever feedback colleagues in Budapest might offer, there is still plenty of scope to act on it…

Friday, 9 November 2012

Clock and Keyboard

Does monograph-writing bend time?
Photo by Simon Shek

One of the difficult things about writing a monograph is the sense, minute by minute, of elapsing time – of deadlines approaching, or precious research leave evaporating. There’s a constant internal tick-tocking, the pressure to achieve something substantial towards the book every single day.

In these circumstances, what I feel I should be doing most of the time, as the clock ticks, is writing prose - sitting in front of a screen, constructing sentences, paragraphs, chapters. That’s what book-writing, in its final analysis, obviously seems to boil down to. Plus, it’s reassuring to be creating large Word documents.

However, I’m becoming increasingly aware of how much of a siren call this psychological pressure to keep writing can be. Obviously, the book needs to be physically typed out, but the paradox is that the process of composition seems to happen more quickly, efficiently and painlessly if you limit the time spent in the apparently defining authorial act of writing prose. Paradoxically, if you make yourself spend an extra two days planning, even as you panic about deadlines, the chapter often writes itself much faster as a result. Paradoxically, simply putting in more hours at the computer – in an apparent bending of the rules of physics – doesn’t automatically lead to a quicker book completion, and might even have the opposite effect. This is of course what we solemnly tell our undergraduates in their Fresher/induction week: plan meticulously, don’t rush, write only when the argument is clear in your head. But the magnetic lure of the keyboard, and the power of the clock to propel you towards it, remains very strong… Book writing happens in the mind, I keep telling myself, and not really, or not just, on the keyboard.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Saab Meets Monograph

Where is the monograph?
Photo by Leo Reynolds

Over the past week, I’ve been recovering from concussion, after an accidental but forceful blow to the head involving a solid Swedish-manufactured car door. It’s been rather odd thinking about academic writing in the subsequent slightly wobbly haze. One of my first thoughts after realising I’d been hit was ‘oh no, the book!’, as if a hefty bang could literally knock a monograph out of your head. (Which thankfully, it hasn’t). While I’ve been tucked up at home reading secondary literature, I’ve found it rather curious that a bruised brain might find it hard to make a cup of tea, but is still perfectly happy digesting and mulling over the arguments, for example, in Euan Cameron’s latest tome on the Reformation. Pulling together this monograph, one of the challenges has been trying to second-guess how the mind works when writing a big academic text, and trying to create a cognitively optimised environment (e.g. the book-writing rules). This incident, however, is a rather blunt reminder that all that thinking, and rumination, ultimately has a physical locus and origin. My Somerville colleagues have optimistically suggested that a firm knock to the head might have a positive effect on the book, unleashing new insights... but for now there are no mysterious historical super-powers to report, only a faint background headache.