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, 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.’