How To Write a History Book, Part 1


I quite often get asked how one writes a book. Well, I reply, it all depends on what kind of book you want to write. That’s why I can’t speak as to how a novelist writes a novel, for I am not one of their kind. One does read anecdotes, however, of how the Greats did it. Anthony Trollope, if I recall correctly, once wrote half-a-million words in less than a year — in longhand — but that was a freak occurrence. Usually, I guess, he cranked out 365,000 words, simply because he wrote 1,000 words each day before breakfast. Apparently, when he had reached his quota, he put his pen down and just stopped, mid-sentence. Twenty-four hours later, he would spend 15 minutes reading the previous day’s work and pick up where he left off. If you can that, you too can write a book. I don’t know whether it’d be any good, but you’d certainly be writing something.

Me, I’ve always wanted to know whether Trollope just made up his plot as he went along (which might partly explain his books’ prodigious length) or if he had it all worked out in his head before he started. P.G. Wodehouse, perhaps the greatest novelist of the twentieth century (some might think that’s a minority opinion), was of the latter persuasion. He used to tack hundreds of index cards, each containing one beautiful, crafted sentence or paragraph, in precise order on a wall. When the entire book was plotted out, word-by-word, line-by-line, page-by-page, only then would he write it. He invariably turned out gems honed to perfection.

As I said, though, I’m not a novelist. So how does one write a history book? Well, I’m going to explain a few things in a series of postings. What I’m not going to do is give you lots of inspirational advice. I’m going to be a bit more techie than that, mainly because I think the process of writing has changed considerably in the last decade owing to the influx of new technologies. (Note: Many of the apps that I’ll discuss in due course are only for Macs, though others will be PC-based as well. Services available on the Web will inevitably be for both Macs and PCs.) Along the way, I’ll no doubt also bore you to tears with monologues on the art of history-writing. Or maybe I’ll leave that stuff for a separate series.  

Anyway, getting back to the point, in Ye Olde Days, when one wanted to write a history book, one went to the library, looked up a source in the card catalogue, ordered it up from the stacks, went to lunch, came back, and picked up the book from a surly librarian at the desk. Then you pulled a battered pile of ruled, 5″x3″ index-cards out of your bag and scribbled down a note on each one. Sooner or later, when you had a couple of thousand of these, you would shuffle them into some kind of logical order and start writing. As for scholarly articles, you would leaf through the new journals as they came in and if you found an interesting article you would photocopy it, jot the title down, throw it into a folder somewhere, and proceed to forget about it. What you ended up with was a half-dozen plastic boxes crammed with near-illegible index cards and a towering stack of unread photocopies. 

All I know is that we historians were always greenishly envious of novelists. The fiction guys, we thought, could live anywhere they wanted (on a mountain in Vermont, by the pool in a gated community in Orange County, at the North Pole, etc.) and just write their stories with nary a care in the world. They could do this because they didn’t have to check anything; all they had to do was put a bunch of words together and make up stuff. We hard-core non-fiction writers, on the other hand, were forced to live in cramped, diabolically expensive apartments near large university libraries in order to take advantage of the five million books on their shelves. Without access to a major library, we simply could not write. (By the way, I have now been made aware that most novelists do not actually live in idyllic rural retreats sipping martinis and knocking out the odd short story for The New Yorker.)

I’m glad to say that the score has evened somewhat in the last couple of years thanks to the advent of Google Books. I only began using Google Books when I was about two-thirds of the way through American Rifle, but it soon proved a marvelous timesaver and a vital resource. These days, historians aren’t inextricably tied down by the necessity of having to live near a first-rate university.

The service has digitized roughly a million books — for the most part, in the public domain — held by a number of major research institutions (the New York Public Library, my usual hangout, has partnered with Google) and made them available to anyone with a browser, gratis. Anything that’s out of copyright — basically, books published before 1923 — can either be viewed on the screen as they were originally printed or downloaded as a PDF.

The real lifesaver is the ability to search the full text. There were several occasions when, finding a quote in someone else’s book, I would call up the original source, type in a few words from the quote, and see what else was there. Surprisingly often, I would discover either that the quote was slightly wrong, or that it had been taken out of its rightful context by someone decades ago and replicated unquestioningly by subsequent authors, or that there was a far more arresting sentence on the next page. Previously, I would have had to skim every page to find the quote in question and proceed from there. What used to take hours now takes just seconds. 

Now, keep in mind that by no means everything in, say, the Harvard University Library, has been scanned in. This is a project that will require many years’ work before it will come anywhere near replicating the true library experience. That said, I was able to find incredibly obscure eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources with a few clicks. (You try getting hold at the local bookstore of something like J.R. Bartlett’s Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, Connected With the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission, During the Years 1850, ’51, ’52, and ’53 (D. Appleton and Co., New York, 2 vols., 1854) or Benjamin Church’s The History of the Eastern Expeditions of 1689, 1690, 1692, 1696, and 1704 Against the Indians and French, originally printed in 1716.) Thanks to Google Books, I was rapidly able to add a host of vivid anecdotes to my own work and cite sources that had been overlooked for more than a century. If that facility can’t help historians write books, then nothing can.

One dilemma did crop up almost immediately: It’s impossible to read a 600-page book online. Quite apart from the lower-back and red-eye problems associated with sitting in an office chair for hours squinting at a monitor, you can’t annotate it or easily skim sections. At the same time, you rarely have to read the entire manuscript; most often, you just need a couple of chapters. What to do? 

I decided that the optimum strategy would be to download the PDF from Google Books and manipulate the file on my computer. The problem is, quite a few of the otherwise serviceable PDF applications (like PDFpen) I tried out tended to choke on such large documents. Crashing was a constant problem. After much experimentation, I settled on Adobe Acrobat Professional, the big brother of the ubiquitous Acrobat Reader. Unfortunately, it’s by far the most expensive app out there for this sort of thing. Then again, it handles massive 600-page PDF documents with aplomb and I’ve never had a problem with it. 

What I do is open up the downloaded PDF in Acrobat and extract — saving as a separate file — the required pages. Then I junk the rest of the PDF. This saves an enormous amount of hard-drive space and cuts down on paper otherwise wasted on printing, while allowing me to more efficiently manage my inexorably growing collection of PDFs. (We’ll be getting on to that subject another time.) Once in Acrobat Professional, it’s simple to add comments, stickies, and notes to the document, as well as search within the text. 

Additionally, since whatever’s on Google Books is long out of copyright and has, moreover, been scanned in at a relatively high quality, you can scour old texts for fabulous illustrations for reproducing in your own book. I found, for instance, an excellent sketch of the famous shooting range at Creedmoor, Long Island, in a journal dating from the mid-1870s. I merely downloaded the entire volume, extracted the page, converted the PDF to an image, and transferred it to iPhoto. Voila!, a previously unseen photo of Creedmoor that cost me almost nothing in time, effort, or dollars . . .

OK, well, that’s my top history-writing tip for today. I’ll be covering a variety of topics in coming posts. If your heart thrills to read about bibliography-management systems; if your pulse skips whenever some nerd talks about multi-sync notetaking applications in polite society; if you weaken at the knees at the thought of database maintenance . . . Then stay tuned!

Disclosure: I have no financial or personal relationship with any product or service I discuss or recommend. It’s possible I’ve previously emailed the developers about a bug or something, but I don’t profit in any way if you purchase an application. 





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