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, 19 March 2013

The Extra Chapter (oops?)

Piotr Tomicki , bishop of Cracow (d.1535) - beneficiary of an extra book chapter
Throughout last term, colleagues and students kindly kept asking how the book was going, and I would say ‘I think it’s on schedule’. I’d built a fair amount of slack into the book-writing timetable, but a whole month of that was used up when I made the slightly unwelcome discovery in February that I would have to add another chapter, slap in the middle of the monograph.

Having spent several years planning and structuring the book, it did seem a bit careless to suddenly discover a gap where a chapter should be. I’ve been wondering how this came about, and whether it was down to some rudimentary error on my part. So I offer this as a case-study in how a chapter can ambush you...

The original concept was for Elusive Church to have two parts – one discussing responses to the early Reformation by the Polish Crown, and the second responses by bishops & high clergy. It seemed perfectly simple. However, as I wrote up, it became clear that the Part II chapters which were meant to be about specific church policies (preaching, prosecution) would work better if they directly addressed the question which really stood at their heart, i.e. how contemporaries understood and articulated the differences between ‘catholics’ and ‘Lutherans’, if indeed they saw much difference at all. So Part II quietly morphed in my mind from a survey of church policies, into a series of chapters exploring contemporary Polish-Prussian understandings of Lutheranism, Catholicism and reform itself.

That reconceptualisation of Part II seemed to work well, except that it left the policies of bishops (inquisitions, preaching campaigns, sponsored polemics) without a home, and these were clearly an important part of the story. So the book has now acquired a new chapter 6, which takes a handful of Poland’s top bishops as case-studies, and traces their evolving responses to Reformation activity in their own dioceses. It didn’t require any extra research, as I had all the material to hand, but it still took over 3 weeks to draft.

My sense is that this kind of thing happens because one's thinking about a book’s core argument and shape is always ongoing – in the background, in subtle, half-conscious tweaks and shifts of perspective here and there – and sometimes those processes can throw up big jolts, like tremors. That’s why a book-in-progress feels like a organic object, and why it can sometimes break through the mould of even extensive planning – and that, I think, is a positive thing, a sign of life inside the work. Those jolts may be risky, but they are also creative.

Little jolts...
Seismograph, by matthileo

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