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, 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.

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