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...

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 fa├žade 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…