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...

Thursday, 31 January 2013

All Change

Monograph on the move again.

I’m spending this afternoon packing up my books and monograph papers, housed since May in a rather nice Victorian  set in Somerville’s Maitland building, and tomorrow afternoon I get to unpack again in my ‘official’ room/office, in Wolfson building.

In my grumpier moments, I suspect that it’s not a good use of my time, in a monograph writing year, to have had to vacate my Wolfson office twice (once for 3 days, once for 9 months) as a result of noisy and overrunning building works in the college. 

But being a bit nomadic these past 13 months has had its advantages. Over summer, I got to share a work space with my History colleague Benjamin Thompson, which meant that the monograph-writing began to feel a bit more like a mainstream office job, with someone to chat to during tea breaks etc, rather than the default, splendid monastic isolation of the Oxford don on research leave. I’ve also been forced to sort out my papers at regular intervals, which has kept in check the tendency of my photocopied sources to migrate all over the carpet, like an ominous sludge. Above all, however, I find I write much better with regular changes of scene, and view. There’s something mentally stimulating about new surroundings and, conversely, a sense of staleness if you sit in front of the same window, at the same desk, most days for over a year. The sheer over-familiarity of the physical environment can dull the intellectual senses, which are already struggling to stay fresh from thinking about the same material, intensely, for a long period of time. So I’m hoping that all this upheaval will unleash some extra energy in the coming weeks… 

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Dear Diary

A useful new tool?

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a tiny blue note-book from WH Smith in Oxford station. This has become a book-log, a book-writing diary, where I simply write down a list of what I did on the 'Elusive Church' monograph each day. This is partly for my future self – so that when in 12 months’ time I’m tearing around Oxford again marking essays, teaching classes and giving lectures, and wonder ‘What an earth did I do with all that research leave?’, there will be a record to remind me that research (all that ‘free time’) is likewise very busy and very hard work.

The mini-diary is also there as a prop to morale, and as a diagnostic tool. When I think back over, say, a month of monograph writing, my sense of what I did turns out to be quite different to what the diary records me as having done. Entire days spent in the Bodleian, reading exciting books, seem to vanish in a flash, forgotten. What makes an impression on the memory, instead, and misleadingly, is the hour spent in a cafĂ© tearing one’s hair out over how to structure the second half of the book. So the diary can be quite cheering – the chapter which felt as if it had taken an eternity to draft had, in fact, taken only about 4 days. Which just goes to show that historians not only have to manage the actual writing of the book in hand, but also manage their own highly unreliable perceptions of how it is going. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A River of Sources

Trying to reach the other side...
Photo by  Janeyism

In the Christmas period, life intruded on the monograph somewhat, in the form of a chest infection and domestic relocation. Over that break, I decided to recalibrate the structure of the second half of the book slightly – rather than a series of chapters discussing different kinds of Reformation responses (printed polemics, preaching campaigns, humanist reform programmes), the chapters will instead discuss how ‘Lutheranism’, the old / catholic church and reform/Reformation were constructed by people in Jagiellonian Poland, as shown in their policies and writings.

This change of emphasis means, however, that I have to go back through all my marked-up sources, and read them in a slightly different way. This is proving to be (of course!) slow and labour intensive, though thankfully not yet dull. While book-writing itself is a big leap of faith, major source-processing exercises like this are particularly trying on the nerves – it’s like jumping into a river and trying to swim to the other side, hoping that your energy doesn’t give out, knowing how important it is to keep going… in this case, for a few weeks. The gamble is that, once all this information is extracted and logged and arranged in my computer files, writing the actual chapters will be relatively quick and straightforward.

Having to spend 2-4 weeks going meticulously through sources, maintaining a certain speed, isn’t particularly compatible with the book writing rules, which suggest half a day of computer work in college, followed by half a day in the library. So, I think it’s going to be a long, hard January...