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...

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

History & Triangles

Edwards-Venn 6 set diagram
From http://www.learnnc.org/lp/multimedia/7689
One of the stimulating things about writing a monograph is that you repeatedly and quickly come up against things you don’t know, and have to chance to learn fast about new subdisciplines, methodologies, debates etc. Last week, I learnt a lot about Venn diagrams.

I once briefly worked as a social policy researcher, and since then I’ve tended to include a smattering of graphs and charts in my history work, even though these are usually seen as a characteristic of socio-economic history, rather than history of the political / cultural / religious kind. These visual aids have been pretty simple, but I have now definitely bumped up hard against the limits of my ‘charts and graph’ knowledge.

The book will have two language/concept analysis chapters, which look at how ‘Lutheranism’ and ‘catholicism’ were described & understood by people in Jagiellonian Poland. Having gone painstakingly through the sources, I’ve drawn up a spectrum of 6 key words for Lutheranism – e.g. schism, heresy, plague, error, sacrilege, etc. I’ve looked at how frequently each term is employed, and also at how they are used in relation to each other (e.g. ‘heretical schism’, ‘blasphemous apostasy’, ‘blasphemous Lutheran heresy’ etc.), as, done on a large scale, this is revealing of contemporary religious rhetoric. I had thought all this analysis could be captured in a simple diagram, but I was wrong.

It turns out that a Venn diagram (of a rather extreme kind) can be produced for 6 interlocking, overlapping data sets (i.e. the 6 key words). On the internet, 6-set Venn diagrams look quite pretty. But in practice, after 2 days trying to draw one based on these Polish Reformation sources, it is hellishly complicated, producing a chart so dense, so difficult to interpret, that it would be all but incomprehensible to a monograph reader. Old fashioned prose can’t really capture this 6-way analysis very effectively either. So here, sadly, is one of the limitsof my training as a historian, and also perhaps one of our collective limits as readers of history books.

6 set Venn diagram devised by Jeremy J Carroll
See http://www.hpl.hp.com/techreports/2000/HPL-2000-73.pdf

Friday, 5 April 2013

Project Management for One

Even though I’ve been on research leave for a number of terms now, I’m still baffled and frustrated by how much time each week I spend on tasks which, in my weekly timetables, get labelled as ‘admin’. I try to bundle up the admin, and tackle it begrudgingly in bursts.

This week, I finally decided (like a good historian) to interrogate the concepts I was using, and tried to work out what all these administrative tasks really boiled down to. Although there are very occasional, small things I am asked to do for the college or the Faculty, it turns out that most of this oppressive ‘admin’ is basically monograph project management… booking flights for research trips, filing expense claims, updating the small research budget which comes with the BA grant.

So, once again, this has challenged my notion of what ‘book writing’ consists of. There is, I think for many historians, a powerfully strong and instinctive belief that monograph writing = sitting by a computer, typing. But sometimes, in order to write a book well, you need to take breaks, and recognise those to be an integral part of the wider process too. Sometimes, you need by buy a book on-line, or register for a conference where you’ll test some of the monograph ideas, or spend an hour searching for an archive’s phone number on the internet. They may not feel like proper writing, but they are a necessary element of the strange process whereby a new history book is conjured up, as if out of thin air.

Because a monograph, as I’m beginning to see more clearly, isn’t just one person writing an academic book; it’s also one person managing themselves.