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...

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.