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, 21 December 2012


When an articulate teenager was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Answers?’ last week, she talked confidently about herself as a visual learner, as opposed to an aural leaner. That’s not a vocabulary I’ve come across before, but that basic difference in how people prefer to think and learn has long seemed obvious to me, and it plays a big part in how the monograph is being written.

I fall squarely into the ‘visual learner’ category. Even if the monograph text itself looks pretty monochrome on the computer screen, the thinking behind it is underpinned by lots of images. When I moved into my temporary Somerville rooms (a building work exile) back in spring, I printed pictures of the book’s dramatis personae off the internet and put them up on the walls – woodcuts of King Zygmunt I, portraits of Luther and the Prussian humanist Johannes Dantiscus, cityscapes of early modern Cracow, Danzig and Poznań, and so on. These are arranged on different walls to mirror roughly the geography of 16C Europe – the German actors in the far west, then Poznan and Prussia, and Cracow to the east. The desk and pc sit between western Poland and the Baltic.

These pictures liven up my room, and remind me that the heaps of photocopied sources scattered all over the floor (to my scout’s horror) relate to real people and places. They also help me in a big way to analyse what is happening in Poland in the early Reformation, to visualise more easily the spatial and even political relationships between key individuals and urban centres. Unfortunately, when the room gets too warm the pictures curl up and fall off the walls, but I try not to read too much into that….    

Friday, 7 December 2012

When is a draft not a draft?

Colleagues and friends kindly ask me at regular intervals how the book is going, to which I say that (fingers crossed) I’m still on track to have a first draft of the monograph at some point in the spring (giving me several months to do mopping up archive trips to Poland, editing, checking, etc).

I’ve begun to wonder a bit, however, about this phrase ‘first draft’, and what it really means. The printed-out chapters already filed in my mock-up ‘book folder’ are certainly not first drafts, in any strict sense of the word… as any glance at my computer files will reveal. In the pc folder entitled ‘Chap 1’, for example, there are 7 versions of that chapter: the current one, and its much less happy ancestors. By ‘first draft’, I suppose I mean: after weeks of working on this piece, this is the first draft that I am reasonably happy with, in the full knowledge that it will be rewritten (possibly radically) once the rest of the book has taken shape, to keep it in line with everything else. ‘First draft’ means, in other words, ‘good enough for now’.

I’m not sure that many historians do write first drafts of chapters, in the purist sense, of writing a chunk of prose from beginning to end for the first time, like running a race from starting gun to finishing line. You might write some of it, realise that despite all your planning and analysis there is a structural problem, unpick it, then carrying on writing. (A bit like iteration). Editing, writing, rewriting and rethinking are so closely entwined, that what constitutes a ‘draft’ is a moot point, and counting with any precision how many ‘drafts’ of a chapter it takes to get to the final version is perhaps therefore impossible. ‘Draft’ implies that we work in neat units of polished prose; it may look like that at the end, but the process itself feels far more organic. So maybe ‘draft’ is a psychological category used by writers, rather than an empirical measure of progress.

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. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Monograph as Daisy?

A little while ago, I was about to go to sleep when a picture popped into my head, which I scribbled down like this:

I’ve tried thinking about the monograph as a machine with interlocking parts, or as a skyscraper, but I’m currently finding this floral metaphor quite useful. Chapter 1, which offers a narrative/ historiographical/ analytical overview of the early Reformation in Poland is the stalk, the basic root (of fact, evidence and context) which keeps the whole thing up (hopefully). The yellow centre is the core argument of the book, which will get its initial statement/airing in the Introduction. The petals fanning off are the individual chapters which all touch each other, but also point to and grow out from the central argument. Trying to decipher my late-night handwriting, I can see that I initially scrawled ‘windmill’ underneath the picture, which might be a slightly less twee formulation that ‘daisy’. I’ve found this a reassuring way of thinking about the monograph, because it makes the book look somehow solid, rational and an organic whole…. on my late-night note-paper at least.

Photo by I am His
Photo by chrisdonia

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Fishy Business

German carp. Photo by photon de

Sometimes you can be quite far into a project, when the sources suddenly turn around and bite you. I was about to start drafting Chapter 3 this week, when I discovered another set of published sources which I thought I had better check out – the correspondence of Duke Albrecht of Prussia, Europe’s first Lutheran prince, with his Catholic neighbour, the prince-bishop of Ermland (in Polish Royal Prussia). 

So I sat down to work through this large volume in the Bodleian Upper Reading Room, expecting to find a lot of acrimonious letters dealing with the Reformation – ecclesiastical disputes, theological rows etc. This part of the Baltic, with its contested Catholic-Lutheran border was, after all, one of the great front-lines of the Reformation in the 1520s.

But it turns out that the Lutheran duke and the Catholic bishop barely wrote to one another about religious or church-related matters at all. Instead, the principal subject of their correspondence, at the height of the early Reformation, was carp. With growing bemusement, I spent yesterday scanning scores and scores of letters about carp fisheries, mutual gifts of carp, the price of carp. It felt like a 16C practical joke. And, of course, when early modern actors are so far from writing about the subjects which modern historians think they should be writing about, all sorts of alarm bells should start ringing…

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Clever Questions?

Albrecht Hohenzollern, Duke of Prussia (d.1568)
Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder

This week, I’ve been working through one of the many collections of published sources on which the monograph will be based – in this case, the letters of the pious King Zygmunt I of Poland to his Lutheran nephew, Duke Albrecht of Prussia, printed in Rome in 1973. These letters are full of intriguing, sometimes extraordinary statements about the Reformation, religious toleration and the old church. What amazes me just as much as their content, however, is the fact that historians haven’t used them before. 

Eminent 19th and 20th century scholars, such as the Polish princess Karolina Łanckorońska, spent years of their lives lovingly editing these letters, but didn’t feel moved to engage with what is actually being said in them about the Reformation, and nor has anyone since. I’m interested in how King Zygmunt and Duke Albrecht negotiated their religious differences; most historians in this field have been interested in the relative power of Poland and Prussia in the 16C. ‘I can’t believe nobody has looked at this before!’ and ‘I can’t believe no-body has asked this before!’ are common feelings in research, and necessary ones, if the point of research is to say something new. I find the challenge is - in the midst of the excitement - to retain enough sensitivity and humility to understand why great scholars in the past asked different (and to our mind, often less interesting) questions of the same source material… and to remember how novel and seemingly pressing those questions were in their own day. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

365 Days

Today is the official start date of the British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship which will enable me to spend the next 12 months completing the manuscript of the Elusive Church monograph. My temporary replacement at Somerville, the historian of early modern science, Dr. Alex Wragge-Morley, has arrived in Oxford and is settling into college.

It’s an enormous privilege to be in receipt of an award like this – with it comes excitement but also a keen feeling of responsibility (akin to that which I felt when taking up my British Academy-funded Masters studentship in 1998, and my Arts & Humanities Research Board-funded doctoral place in 2000). I now have to produce a book worthy of the investment of public research funds, and which also merits the British Academy’s faith in the idea of a new monograph on the early Polish Reformation....

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


As I emerge from the grant-writing storm, and am finally able to sit down and again read through religious texts from 16C Prussia, I have at least learnt that the book-writing rules which I drew up at the start of the monograph-writing are sound.

Over the past month, when writing the grant application, I broke them all systematically – I worked very long hours, in the same room without varying my environment, on the same piece of prose, without interspersing it with other kinds of work or reading, because there simply wasn’t time. My room, in Somerville’s Maitland building, began to suffer and look horribly like the scene of an undergraduate late-night essay crisis – papers everywhere, so many open books on the carpet that I could scarcely reach the door, with a nasty collection of food wrappers and old cups of take-away tea.

And it wasn’t very good for my mental faculties either. It reminded me of periods of writing my first book, when I’d worked so long and incessantly on a particular chapter, that I had become completely snow-blind to it – I had simply lost all sense of whether it was quite good or incoherent rubbish. That gnawing sense of doubt keeps driving you to rewrite it again and again, almost certainly making it a more confused piece of prose in the process.

But now my room is tidy (I’ll spare you a photo of what it looked like before), and I’m back on the monograph-writing straight and narrow, chastened and with a new respect for the rules.

Saturday, 15 September 2012


Photo by gentlemanbeggar,
reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

Having a year to write a monograph feels like trying to steer a ship on a very long journey. So far, the book-ship has been on course, making slow but steady progress. Every so often, however, unexpected headwinds make it harder.

When I was writing my first book (the thesis-book), those headwinds mainly took the form of lengthy and regular job applications. In the past month, Elusive Church has been sailing through some windy weather – at first these were small breezes (checking proofs for an article about to go to press), then slightly more difficult distractions (revisions to another journal article), and how I’ve sailed right into a storm, in the form of a bulky funding application  for a future project, well beyond the horizon of this book. This monster application has slowed progress right down, and caused a little consternation on the bridge… But the end of this inclement spell is in sight, and it will be a relief to get back to the slow-and-steady again.  

Monday, 3 September 2012

Twenty Minutes

Taking the aerial view...
Photo by Rennett Stowe

One of the biggest conferences on Reformation history, the Reformation Studies Colloquium, is coming up this week, in Durham. For me, this has involved attempting to condense one of the monster chapters in the monograph (Chapter 2) into a 20-minute paper comprehensible to those with no prior knowledge of Polish history. (Entitled, for those who are interested: King Zygmunt Goes to Danzig: Reversing an Urban Reformation in 1526).

It’s not uncommon, at conference coffee breaks, to hear people grumbling about the impossibility of doing justice to their current research in a mere 20 minutes, as if this requirement were fundamentally unjust. I’m of the firm view that any argument or episode can be condensed into 20 minutes (or even rather less). It’s an excellent discipline for historians at any stage of their career. That’s not to say that it’s easy but, like a visit to the dentist, it’s probably very good for you. Writing this paper has, as ever, mercilessly forced me to sift out the very important details from the ‘interesting but less important’ ones, and to undertake the painful process of pinning down in 2-3 clear sentences what I’ve found in 5 months of research on this topic, and why those findings might be important / worthwhile. Writing the short conference paper also means I can look back at the 30-page chapter itself afresh, and see more clearly its structural underpinnings – like an archaeologist doing an aerial site-survey.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Obscured Church

My former view of Saint Aloysius church

Since May, temporary HQ for the monograph writing has a Victorian Fellows’ set in Somerville, while my own room in a much more recent building is gutted and refurbished over summer. Since May, I’ve quite enjoyed the view from the kitchen in this set – onto the back of St. Aloysius’ church on Saint Giles, its stained glass windows and the crosses on its roof. These have been quite a useful aid to ruminating on the history of the church while waiting for the kettle to boil.

Armed with funds and devotion, St. Aloysius is however engaged in building work of its own. Behind the set, they have with remarkable speed erected a fantastically high brick façade without any windows. So my helpful ecclesiastical view, while I write Elusive Church, has vanished entirely. From here on, I’ll have to rely solely on my own powers of imagination. 

Friday, 17 August 2012

Don't look down

Denver skyscraper, by Jose Kroezen

When I first learnt that I would have the whole academic year 2012-13 to finish this book, as British Academy funded leave, I drew up my most detailed ever work plan – a 20 page document which timetabled, month by month, the drafting of chapters, copying of sources, trips to archives and conference outings. This was a comforting experience at the time, a reassuring way of getting a handle on the 19 months of book-writing stretching out ahead of me.

I stuck to this plan pretty closely in the spring and early summer, but today  I took a close look at it again for the first time in a few weeks. The schedule isn’t panning out exactly as foreseen (chapters written in unanticipated orders, old articles to revise at short notice for journals), but everything is basically on track. However positive that conclusion might be, I did feel a bit weighed down by just how much there still is to do – 5 more chapters, plus a difficult introduction, in the coming year. At the moment, I feel there is plenty of momentum, energy and general good karma about the book writing… but I wonder how easy that will be to sustain for another 12 or more months!

Perhaps writing a monograph is like standing on a high ledge – you shouldn’t look down at the months of work stretching out ahead, but just open your eyes to take a quick peak, now and again.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A book in a folder

After a productive time in Weymouth, this week I decided that the moment had come to create a ‘draft monograph’ folder, i.e. a ring-binder with coloured cardboard dividers, which houses each chapter as it is drafted.

When I was writing my thesis, I had a battered purple lever-arch file into which I reverently slotted each chapter as, month by month, they rolled off the production line. Yesterday,  I stood over the Somerville Fellows’ printer, watching the machine spit out three draft chapters of Elusive Church on fresh, hot sheets, and feeling pleasantly taken aback at how much of the book already exists.

The monograph ring binder is a big step, the point at which the ‘virtual’ book which exists in your head, and in scattered electronic files all over your computer, begins to take on a tentative physical form. With all its immaculately printed pages, it is the monograph in embryo… something which is starting to resemble (if Kindle users will forgive me) a ‘real’ book. 

Monday, 6 August 2012

Caution: Chapters in Transit

Chapters 5 & 3, giftwrapped...
This week, for complicated logistical reasons connected with the Olympics, I’m working from Weymouth where I’m staying with relatives. For equally complicated logistical reasons, I couldn’t join the rest of my party by car, so I had to come down by train with all my book writing materials for the week.

In what is meant to be a paperless age, I am nonetheless fiercely protective of the copious physical papers which I need to write the book – not least the hundreds of pages of photocopied sources which I’ve annotated heavily by hand. So I didn’t sent my sources and notes ahead to Dorset by car, but insisted on taking them with me (on my lap) on the train, as if I were a courier with some high-value diplomatic pouch.

Monograph-writing isn’t as transportable as I had hoped it would be – the papers I need to draft Chapter 5 by the seaside, and start a bit of work on Chapter 3, turned out to be very heavy, and very hard to pack. So I ended up having to cut a cardboard box into the right shape, and tying it up with assorted strings and ribbons, as if I were a presenter on a childrens’ programme. Never let it be said that monograph-writing doesn’t call on a wide variety of skills.

Friday, 3 August 2012


Too many balls?
Photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro

 When I wrote my thesis, and indeed my first book, I went though in a sensible, sequential order – one month spent drafting each chapter, working methodically from nr. 1 to nr. 9. This time, it’s working out rather differently. Not only are the chapters being written (for reasons of morale and scheduling) in a funny order, but it feels as if I’m juggling several of them at a time.

Over the past 10 days, for example, I’ve spent time
-         Drafting chapter 5 (foreign policy)
-         Planning chapter 3 (Ducal Prussia) and photocopying additional sources for it.
-         Editing chapter 2 (Royal Prussia), which was drafted earlier this summer
-         Reading in general about heresy and doctrine, for the book’s framing argument/ Introduction.

This feels like an organic, very stimulating, but also slightly high-risk way of working. When all the balls are in the air at once, and you have a good clear view of them, it’s exciting to see how they all fit together to make one book. It’s easier to see connections between chapters and sources, and so far it has brought a sense of clarity. However, it also feels as if just one false move will send the balls flying, leaving me in a fog of confusion, and unsure how to start picking up the pieces.

Then  I received an email from a journal asking me to urgently make some revisions to an article I had submitted a while back, which is related to yet another chapter (on printed polemic). This may prove to be one ball to many, I fear. Time to gently put some of them down…

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Jigsaw Pieces

An international fit?
Photo by the incredible how

When I was researching my doctoral thesis, I had a persistent anxiety that the documents I was working with might all be part of an elaborate hoax, the archives themselves a grand fabrication, because it was hard to believe that those bits of 15C paper/parchment had really come, as it were, from another world. A fantastical form of paranoia, I know, or perhaps a crude form of post-modern angst. This worry only subsided once I was working in the Vatican (Archivo Segreto Vaticano), and was able to cross reference 15C documents there (outgoing letters copied into papal registers) with those in Cracow (the original papal letter, as received and filed by the kings of Poland). This was to my mind was such a strong paper trail, such a perfect cross-referencing of very obscure late medieval documents, that is was surely too elaborate to be a hoax.

I had a similar moment of cross-referencing frisson yesterday. I was looking at letters exchanged between King Zygmunt I of Poland and King Henry VIII of England about the Reformation, and specifically about Danzig merchants arrested in London for heresy. The Polish side of the correspondence was printed in the 19C in the Acta Tomiciana. Yesterday, I ventured for the first time onto Tudor State Papers online, and found a fine list of those items of this correspondence which survive in the UK National Archive. Better still, there was a little button labelled ‘Manuscript’. When I clicked on this the scanned originals of Zygmunt I’s letters to Henry VIII opened up on the screen in a flash, in the beautifully neat hand of the Polish chancellery’s scribes, with ‘Sigismundus’ scrawled heavily at the bottom. That felt like a little bit of magic, like two pieces of a 500 year old jigsaw fitting together.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Sources and Systems

Too many sources: is this what it feels like?
Photo by randradas

One of the main differences between my first book, on the Polish royal cardinal Fryderyk Jagiellon (2007), and this project is the massive increase in the number of surviving sources, once you edge out of the late 15thC, and well into the 16th. I suppose this is one difference between being a late medievalist and an early modernist. (I have no idea how modernists write monographs…) There are days, like today, when I feel I am simply drowning in 16C documents – all of them directly relevant to the topic in hand, and all containing some interesting phrasing or claim.

At the outset, I tried to impose some order on the documents by first identifying the one I needed from the massed volumes of published sources, photocopying them, and putting basic summaries of each into a central database (only Excel, nothing very flash). That gave me an overview of what I had. Now, as I write up each chapter, I have to do close readings of all these letters, treaties, instruction documents, orations, petitions, royal decrees etc. So each document gets annotated by hand (usually in a café) and then I write a little analysis of it in a Word file created for every chapter. It feels like an elaborate process of distillation, or sifting for gold; if you work through this large collection of material in 3-4 different ways, the really striking nuggets will rise to the top.

The challenge is to create a ‘source co-ordination system’ which can keep track of the 1000s of details a human brain simply can’t hold in any one moment (far less over a book-writing period of 18 months), i.e. a universal information pool, but one which can simultaneously shape that material into a coherent, analysis-informed structure, which reflects the argument of the book itself. My technologically unsophisticated collection of Excel files, Word files and very large physical piles of paper seems to work at the moment - even though there are times when it feels as if I’m being sucked helplessly into a vortex of 16C documents, rather than acting as an orchestra conductor holding it all together, and moving confidently towards some grand book finale.

Monday, 16 July 2012


Spending quality time with the lever-arch files.

When I did my first spells of work experience in an office environment, between the ages of 16 and 17, I spent a lot of time in basements photocopying or stuffing envelopes (chiefly for a variety of think tanks). I thought that the amount of time you spent doing basic clerking duties like that decreased sharply the further down the line you were in your career, but book writing has rather proved me wrong.

Alongside all the things most researchers (I think) find enjoyable – digging up interesting new evidence, writing it all up, thinking hard, seeing new things – producing a monograph seems to involve a lot of old-fashioned, low-level clerking work. I’ve spent literally weeks this year standing in the Upper Reading room photocopying the main body of sources for the book, the Acta Tomiciana (16C Polish court papers), and then entering all those pages in a database. I had thought that would be the end of the dull bits, but I was wrong. Every time I start a new chapter, as I’ve discovered in recent days, I have to spend between 60 and 90 minutes sitting on the floor of my room, putting the 100s of pages of documents relevant to one chapter back where they belong in my lever arch files of sources, and pulling out the 100-200 fresh documents I require for the next chapter. It’s not very comfortable, or very interesting, or remotely cerebral. The one thing that can be said for it is that it’s a painless way to fill an afternoon when you’re feeling sleepy, and not up to much else. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Analysis and Iteration

Caution: Analysis in progress

I was once employed as a research assistant for the Social Policy professor Jane Lewis, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with, and she gave me some advice about writing. She said that people tend to assume, wrongly, there are 2 stages to academic writing -research, and writing up – whereas there is an oft-omitted extra stage which comes in the middle: research, analysis, writing up.

I’ve never yet managed to follow that advice in a linear way. My own approach has always been far more iterative (perhaps not very efficiently so). I tend to skip back and forth, repeating those 3 steps again and again – research, analysis, some more research, write a bit, read some more, finish the draft, think about it, read some more, redraft etc. etc. 

In fact, it often feels as if the real analysis, and most important thinking, can only happen after the writing up, once I have a decent first draft of in front of me. This week, for example, I spent three unbroken hours at my college desk reading the current draft of Chapter 2, annotating it, writing notes to myself on which paragraphs to move around, drawing little diagrams of how the argument fits together. It’s only with this panoramic view of the material assembled in front of me, that I can begin to see the shape of the final, crystallised argument, and how to get to it – like a vision on the horizon. So, in some sense, analysis comes at the end, and then the real work begins.

This kind of review-analysis, when it goes well, is for me one of the most enjoyable bits of book writing – the mental patter of things falling into place. But when it goes badly, the gremlins come out!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Photo by Yvo Waldmeir

A newspaper column I was reading recently said that parenthood is all about learning to manage your terror, but I think that’s also true of book writing. The terror, specifically, is the little voice which whispers that you’ll never finish it, and that it’s unfinishable. I imagine this is a common gremlin…

In the case of Elusive Church, at these very early stages this is, at present (happily), still a largely irrational worry. The writing is on schedule, the schedule itself seems reasonably realistic, and there are a full 15 months to go before the deadline, i.e. conclusion of the British Academy grant. Nonetheless, it can be hard to keep sight of all that if you feel that you’ve been stuck in 1520s’ Danzig (Chapter 2) for weeks and weeks, writing, following up new leads, rereading key documents etc. There is a now a draft of Chapter 2, but it can’t take on a definitive or final form until most of the other chapters are written, and the argument hammered firmly into shape. It’s therefore done (it physically exists!) but also not done.

To boost my morale, therefore, I’ve decided not to press on to Chapter 3, which promises to be just as thorny and overloaded with sources. Instead, I’ll skip ahead to tackle Chapter  5, which at this point I innocently think will be relatively straightforward and blessedly short. These are the little tricks I at least have to play on myself – if I can produce a set of coherent prose entitled ‘Chapter 5’ by the end of the month, and have it sitting neatly printed and paperclipped on my desk, it will make it much easier to manage my book terror… at least, say, for this summer.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Forced break

Chapter Two is in full flow, I'm poring over the anti-heresy statutes printed for Danzig in 1526, but it's now time to go on summer holiday.

This means no updates for a couple of weeks, and it also means that I have to write myself a laborious, intricate document setting out how to pick up where I left off, when I return. From past experience, I know I'll forget almost all the minutae of the book which are currently firmly and clearly in my head, so the 'after holiday' instructions to myself have to be written in a patient, spelling-out-the-obvious, slightly patronising way. "Item 1: Keep writing chapter 2...."

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Rashomon and the monograph

Can Japanese film inform a monograph?
Film poster, photo by Roninkengo

Most of the book chapters I’ve written in the past have consisted of an introduction, a section explaining the basic events to the reader (because I write on early modern Poland…), followed by an analytical part, which discusses said events, sources, implications, comparative view-points etc. It’s not that I carry a conscious template in my head, but simply that this is how they have turned out so far.

Chapter 2, on Reformation in Royal Prussia, has started to turn out rather differently, now that I’ve started writing it, almost as if it had a mischievous life of its own. As it currently stands, it has acquired a Rashomon-esque quality – re/telling the same story three times, from three different angles (ok, in the film it was four). In this case, the three strands consist of a bald ‘basic’ narrative of events, a reprise of that narrative which foregrounds political forces to explain what’s going on, and a third account of these same events which places the emphasis firmly on religious factors and perceptions. It’s quite exciting that a new way (very new to me!) of writing a monograph chapter can present itself from nowhere, but I’ve still not convinced myself that the Rashomon take on the Danzig Reformation can survive the final cut. It’s pretty risky – you need to tell the story in a concise and artful way to get the three accounts to play off each other, and there’s the real problem that it could all come across as tediously repetitive to the reader if you get it wrong. Plus, I’m not quite ready to believe that a chapter can function without a hard-core analysis section. Maybe I need to be more open minded...

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Starting Guns

One of the tricky things in research (and probably in any literary activity too) is knowing when to start writing. I’ve now been circling around Chapter 2, on the Crown and the Reformation in Royal Prussia, for some time now - wading through the secondary literature, 16C vernacular Prussian chronicles, and the comparative reading which will help me to set these Baltic events in their European context.

Because research is a theoretically perpetual process (you could go on researching any given thing almost indefinitely, following new leads, sources, angles, methodologies, theories etc.), you’re never going to have read absolutely everything of potential relevance to your problem before you start writing (or even when you finish writing). The trick lies in knowing when you have read enough to say something new, to have a stab at a first draft. The challenge is to pick the right moment to open a pristine, blank Word file and confidently type ‘Chapter Two’, in the belief that something sensible will then follow. 

Having a plan isn’t, in itself, necessarily evidence that you’re ready to start writing (unless you’re having an undergraduate essay crisis, in which case you might not have much choice). My doctoral supervisor, Nick Davidson, told his students that you know it’s time to start writing up your research when you start dreaming about your historical subjects. I’m not dreaming about the radical Reformation preachers of Danzig yet, but I do wake up in the middle of the night and realise I’ve been thinking about them in my sleep, which is unsettling in itself. The dreaming question suggests that knowing when to start writing is not an entirely conscious or rationale decision, but is rooted in intellectual and cognitive instincts which are hard to articulate. It’s just a feeling – here’s this great list of texts I still have to read on the 1519 Polish-Prussian war, on the Stegman Danzig chronicle, on Luther’s later letters to Danzig, and although all that is important and will be slotted in later, things are starting to come together in my head, and so this is the moment: ‘Chapter 2’.  Of course, it’s possible to get the timing wrong and plunge in far too early, and make a terrible mess of your piece. No instinct, after all, is infallible. 

Thursday, 7 June 2012

When is a book like a machine?

Gear cogs: a picture of intellectual harmony?
Photo by Ralph Bijker, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

I was talking recently to someone who has experience of working with big City management and strategy consultancy firms, and I was interested to hear a description of what these hot-shot teams do when they go into a company. My interlocutor used a machine metaphor. It sounded surprisingly like writing a monograph.

Consultants apparently start by learning a little bit about the client company, and then come up with a hypothesis about its activities and trajectory – this is the big master cog which turns the machine. As they get into the nitty-gritty of the firm’s documents and processes, they produce little bits of analysis (the small cogs), which have to fit with the big cog. The trick, of course, is that the cogs are not static, but always turning, because new information is always popping up, which leads to new insights, which can change the shape of both the small cogs and the big cog. The aim is to adapt your overall, evolving hypothesis to the smaller units under examination, as they evolve too. When (and if!) it all comes together, you have a well honed, gleaming, analytical piece of work, with all the cogs driving each other, teeth neatly biting into place.

So that’s given me a new, ‘world of forms’ visualisation of my book, and something very lofty to aim for – the bigger argument and the individual chapters working in harmony, like a fine, well-tuned, elegant chrome machine. Whether such a book can exist beyond the world of forms is a moot point. 

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Book Writing Rules

[April 2012]
In March 2012, I learnt the wonderful news that I’d been awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship of £101,000, in order to give me a year’s research leave in which to finish writing Elusive Church.

This means that I now have an eighteenth-month stretch of writing time stretching out ahead of me – a great privilege in a busy academic job, a source of real excitement, a big responsibility, and also a rather daunting prospect. Writing a complete monograph on an extended period of leave is the intellectual equivalent of a marathon. One of the big challenges is keeping your mind clear and your spirits up, so that you can write well and at the necessary pace. I’m trying to learn from some of the big mistakes I made when writing my first book, so I’ve written myself 7 rules for book-writing, and put them prominently on a shelf next to my desk.

Narratives: Space or Time?

[December 2012]
I’ve now completed a first draft of Chapter 1, charting the spread of Lutheran ideas in Jagiellonian Poland, but writing this narrative has exposed a raft of issues. All earlier accounts of these events have told the story region by region – here’s what happened in Cracow, 1517-40; now for Prussia in this same period... I always found these rather frustrating as  reader, because I felt I wasn’t getting a joined up picture, so I decided to give a panoramic chronological account in my book, going through in effect year by year, showing what kind of bigger story emerges if you talk about Zygmunt I’s monarchy as a whole. One major purpose of narratives, from medieval chronicles onwards, is to impose some order and coherence on what is otherwise an inchoate series of events. But reading over my first draft, I can see that if you go meticulously through year by year, your narrative retains far too much of the disorientating original confusion of these events. A rigidly chronological narrative also becomes quite repetitive - there was a set of heresy trials in Cracow (1521); and another (1525), oh look and a few more (1530). Confusing and repetitive are certainly not what I’m aiming for in my first chapter, however authentic to the original grain of events…

The very concept of ‘events’ is also proving tricky. Certain aspects of the early Reformation in Poland easily lend themselves to a good narrative and a gripping story – domestic servants and unemployed sailors storming the squares of a Baltic port; a plot to blow up King Zygmunt I as he slept in the town hall of Danzig one spring night; a peasant uprising in the name of Christian liberty. But a lot of the evidence for Lutheran sympathy in Poland in these years comes from much smaller facts, which don’t necessarily constitute events per se – a cache of Lutheran books owned by a Poznań merchant, a noble employing a Lutheran tutor to educate his sons, a rumour of an invading Protestant army from the Empire… Trying to integrate both kinds of material – dramatic happenings, and piecemeal evidence – into a coherent chronological narrative is proving tricky. So, time for a second draft.

Chasing Johann Böschenstein

The mysterious Johann Böschenstein
Rijksmuseum Collections
[November 2011] 

Chapter 1 is superficially (and superficially only) the simplest chapter in the book – a full narrative/account of Reformation events in Poland from 1517 to c.1535. The last person to attempt such a thing did so in 1910-11.

This chapter is going to be one of the hardest to write, because one of the fiddliest things to do as a historian is establish what happened – or to set out the evidence which indicates what might have happened. I get a full 10 lines into drafting my Chapter One narrative when I hit the first snag. On my desk, I’ve spread my notes from a range of Polish and German Reformation books and articles – the Polish ones brightly state that in 1520 the Ingolstadt Professor of Hebrew Johann Böschenstein came to Danzig (in the Polish Crown lands) to preach Lutheranism. The Polish books give no references. The German books don’t mention this event at all. A quick internet trawl shows that Böschenstein was quite a big fish, an important humanist, but the on-line German Dictionary of National Biography entry on him doesn’t mention any trips to Prussia. An on-line copy of a 19C Prussian history by the Prussian scholar Voigt does refer to this visit, but again, exasperatingly, gives no reference. In the afternoon, increasingly vexed, I trudge to the Bodleian, to consult Simon Grunau’s very detailed chronicle of the Reformation in Prussia (c.1529) – Grunau does mention Böschenstein, but has him preaching Lutheranism in Thorn in 1524  - different date, different place. A footnote added to this text by a 19C German editor says: this is the same Böschenstein who preached Lutheranism in Danzig in 1520. I want to shout out in the Upper Reading Reading: how do you know? This is the kind of puzzling and highly time-consuming merry-go-round which, in a monograph, gets reduced to sheepish footnote reading something like this: ‘According to some reports, those preaching Lutheranism in Danzig in 1520 included the humanist Johann Böschenstein.’

Friday, 25 May 2012

Plan A or Plan B?

[November 2011]
From talking to colleagues and students, there seem to be basically two approaches to tackling a large piece of historical writing, like a book, doctorate or thesis. Adherents of Plan A diligently complete all the research, sit back, analyse everything, and then take a deep breath and place themselves in front of the keyboard, in order to write up the learned work in question, from start to finish. This is what I did for my doctorate (because, innocently, I couldn’t think of any other way of doing it), and if seemed to work well enough.

Followers of Plan B, by contrast, break down the research into manageable chunks, and write up each section or chapter as they go along, before moving onto the next research segment. Some of my doctoral peer-group adopted this approach, and I had simply no idea how they did it – how could you mould your material into a coherent shape, bit by sequential bit, if you didn’t yet know what the overarching frame or story holding it all together would be? With Elusive Church, however, I’ve finally been seduced by Plan B. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been mulling over the central ideas for a while, so I do have a pretty clear sense of what the main argument is going to be (whether it will survive the writing up process remains to be seen!). Maybe it’s changing context too –  perhaps a university post with lots of teaching and admin, interspersed with irregular research leave and vacations, simply forces you into a more bitty pattern of book production. Let’s see how Plan B works out...