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, 20 June 2013

A Sea of Notes

The offending pile
It’s the end of term, and even though I’ve been on leave, I’ve stuck to my usual start-of-summer-vacation ritual and spent a day tidying my office. This was in fact particularly necessary this year, because there have been piles of notes (on secondary reading for the book) building up in corners of the room, on tables, under chairs for some time now. As I move gradually from a writing-up to an editing phase, it’s high time to get a handle on all this.

Once I'd retrieved all the unfiled notes and put them into one big pile, that pile was alarmingly large. I had no idea that I’d read this much about the Reformation and the late medieval church, all over Europe, in the past few years. It was a nice surprise to see that I’d done much more work that I’d realised, and a less pleasant discovery to find how little of this I could remember reading, or knowing.

When I wrote my first book, the chapters were thematically quite distinct (a chapter on art history, on diplomacy, on high politics), so the notes from my secondary meeting were easy to keep on top off – you just filed them according to which chapter they were relevant to. In Elusive Church, however, virtually everything I’ve read contains ideas, or snippets of information, which are relevant to two or more chapters, as well as the central argument set out in the introduction. We solemnly tell our Freshers, in their first week, that keeping your notes in good order is imperative. I’ve not done such a good job of that – but writing a book is an organic process, even if the line between materials naturally coalescing, and total chaos, is a fine one. And, at the end of the day, I’m not sure there is any filing system which in itself solves the basic problem – that it’s just very hard for one individual to keep in their head, at any one time, the information from scores of monographs, not to mention hundreds upon hundreds of sources. In that sense, pulling together a first full draft of this book is reminding me more and more of revising for Finals – testing just how much historical information, and argument, you can upload into your brain at once. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

Paper on the Carpet

It’s Friday of 8th week, the last day of the academic year in Oxford, and even though I’ve been on research leave this year, it stills seems a fitting day to finally print out the draft monograph as it exists so far. Eight out of ten chapters, plus the introduction, have been drafted, and I tell (promise?) myself that the remaining two chapters are short, quick ones.

 A book will take on many physical forms before the final ‘real’ edition arrives in a package from the publisher – a final MS, MS returned with copy editing comments, proofs etc – but the first incarnation is this pile of A4 paper on my college floor. Given the effort required to produce this much, the pile looks a little smaller than I had expected, although I remind myself that it's printed single-spaced and double-sided. It’s nonetheless very exciting to see even this underwhelming sheaf of papers, and slightly queasy-making too – will it make any sense when I sit down and read through the whole thing (to which end I’m going to the seaside for a couple of days)? Is the central argument which snakes through all the chapters convincing? Will there be time to firm up this first almost-draft by the time the Freshers arrive in the autumn? How good/bad, appalled or relieved, will I feel after I’ve read it? It's a little bit of a Pandora's box.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

End Game?

Well, it now feels as if the monograph is moving towards a kind of endgame – all the months of sensibly splitting my day between reading in the library and writing back in college seem a long time ago, as it’s now just a matter of powering through the final chapters, to complete a first draft this summer.

I had, needless to say, forgotten how hard this stage of the process is. I’d forgotten how, when I first placed a copy of my first book, in its shiny red-black cover, on my shelf, every time I looked at it in the first few weeks as well as pride, I felt a little stab of sorrow and resentment that it had cost so much blood, sweat and tears to produce something which looked so small, so easy-to-miss on a bookshelf.

Writing full time to a deadline is hard because on many levels it's not not very good for you – people get backache, eye strain, RSI and even DVT. Even in short spells, writing for several hours a day is also bad for the brain – I seem to emerge zombie-like out of the 16C century in the early evening, or at college lunch, slightly stupefied, and I’ve seen colleagues on sabbatical with that same vacant but preoccupied book-writing look. I’m trying to counteract the mental drain caused by intense book writing, with things which might stimulate my brain in gentler ways – new box sets, magazines full of pretty photos of Italian interiors, weekends away.

Of course, the paradox is that book writing is gruelling, but it’s churlish to complain about it. It’s a great privilege to have the space to write, something scholars and authors over the century have pleaded for… and a particular privilege that this is funded by the British Academy. It’s just very hard work, like most worthwhile things.