How to Write a History Book, Part 3


Historically Speaking is the bimonthly bulletin of The Historical Society. The Society’s intent is to:

“revitalize the study and teaching of history by reorienting the historical profession toward an accessible, integrated history free from fragmentation and over-specialization. The Society promotes frank debate in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and common courtesy. All we require is that participants lay down plausible premises, reason logically, appeal to evidence, and prepare for exchanges with those who hold different points of view. The Historical Society conducts activities that are intellectually profitable, providing a forum where economic, political, intellectual, social, and other historians can exchange ideas and contribute to each other’s work. Our goal is also to promote a scholarly history that is accessible to the public.”

I joined the Society fairly recently and have been pleasantly surprised by how interesting and fizzy is Historically Speaking (the Society’s more mainline Journal of the Historical Society also runs a fine selection of articles). One of the bulletin’s enduring concerns is the interaction between academic historians and the writing of popular (or public) history. 

In the March/April 2008 issue, it printed a forum — Historically Speaking is really big on fora — discussing whether writers “need a license to practice history.” Quite an esteemed bunch of historians (Joyce Lee Malcom, H.W. Brands, Joseph J. Ellis, Jay Winik et al) weighed in on Adam Hochschild’s foundation piece. You’ll have to subscribe to read all their responses. Hochschild, however, you can read in full. Do so, it’s an important article. 

The question of whether popular history written by academic historians has vanished or is flourishing is a fascinating one, and has been tackled previously in Historically Speaking (not least by Eric Arneson in the November/December 2007 issue). 

But that’s not really what this post is about. For the moment, I’d rather focus on the specific act, the trade secrets, the craftsmanship, of writing for a popular audience. I’ll keep coming back to this question in the future, but for the moment, two articles from Historically Speaking illuminate some home truths.

The first was published last year (“The Perils and Pleasures of Going ‘Popular’; Or My Life as a Loser,” by Maureen Ogle) and is an entertaining account of her decision to leave a comfy academic post and join the ranks of independent historians. 

“I faced a mountain-sized learning curve. As an academic, I had mastered a particular set of rules . . . but in my new career, none of that applied. The public doesn’t care about ‘the literature.’ The public doesn’t care what’s au courant in the ivy tower and which trends have gone the way of the dodo. The public is interested in only two things: that the history they read contain a lively narrative—a story—and that the person telling the story be honest. [snip]

So up the mountain I trekked, learning to write a new kind of history. I hunted for the story buried amid the facts. I struggled to craft sentences that—gasp!—contained active verbs and narratives based on real human beings, many of them—bigger gasp!—dead white males. But I refused to abandon my primary mission: to bring well-researched, well-documented, well-reasoned history to non-academic readers. To that end, I plowed through reams of primary documents, spent months sitting in front of microfilm readers, shelled out money traveling to archives and libraries. I wanted my books to land on the front table at Barnes & Noble, but I wanted them to contain the same scholarly research as a monograph read by six. 

Not that I expected anyone to notice. Seven or so years into this new venture, I know that the average reader doesn’t grasp the difference between a primary document and a secondary source, and is unaware of the difference between a local public library and the one found at a university, or for that matter between a library and Google.” 

As someone who has trod a vaguely similar path, I’d agree with Ogle about much of this. To this day, I write my books with a full complement of footnotes (converted into endnotes at the insistence of my publisher) and a vast, tedious, and comprehensive bibliography. I also try to include various views of what’s “au courant“. But as I’m discovering, not many people really care that much. No university scholar has ever written to me saying, “Alex, you did a remarkable job with those endnotes.” Indeed, I’ve recently been informed that for American Rifle (sorry for yet another of these infernal plugs) there is to be no bibliography. Instead, it’s going to be sent to me as a PDF and interested readers can download it from my website. I’m not overly happy about this, but I suspect it’s the wave of the future for many trade historians and, to tell you truth, in some ways the decision makes sense.

Bibliographies are important, but nowhere near as important as foot/endnotes (so long as they contain complete citations) and nobody’s talking about putting those only online. (Did I just jinx myself?) Economically, too, the cost of paper has recently skyrocketed, so if the publisher can save 30 or 40 pages per copy then that’s all to the good. As it is, American Rifle is priced at $30. That ain’t cheap, especially as we head into a recession. And lastly, it turns out that the great majority of readers don’t look at the bibliography. What they want is a good, strong story with vivid characterization and not a whole lot of scholarly nuance, otherwise known as hemming-and-hawing. 

Does that mean we’re doomed to dumbing down popular history? Not at all, so long as we remember that what’s critical in popular-history writing is to achieve that potent narrative and prose style by basing it on sound, empirical, comprehensive research. Lots of people can write well, but “research” can’t or shouldn’t be done by just anyone: It requires a bedrock of training, often acquired in an academic institution but also through practice. It’s getting the writing and the researching (the “two Rs,” I guess you could say) to sync with one another that’s the trick. 

These days, though we hear much about the “democratization of learning” thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I believe that good research threatens to become still rarer and even more difficult. Put it this way, unless you have access to a university library or a really fine public one (like the New York Public Library), now-crucial electronic resources like JSTOR, Project Muse, and ProQuest (let alone the specialist databases of, say, eighteenth-century newspapers) are out of your grasp. Ten years ago, I photocopied all the scholarly articles I needed; today, I download hundreds of PDFs from scores of institutional-subscriber-only databases and stick ’em all in Sente. (I’ll talk about bibliography apps in some other post.) 

An author who relies only on books and magazine articles commonly available at a local library is therefore going to be at a disadvantage. The fabulous innovation of Google Books does even the odds for some nineteenth-century materials, and Amazon allows customers to acquire some otherwise unobtainable stuff (at no little cost), but the research work of many budding historians unable to breach the university gatekeep is necessarily going to suffer in terms of comprehensiveness and depth. Their writing style may well be spectacular, but the originality of what they’re saying is likely to be limited.

The second article of interest in Historically Speaking was written by Nicholas Guyatt, a lecturer at the University of York in England. “The End of History; Or My Summer with Apocalyptic Christians” appeared in the latest issue (May/June) and tells of his experiences writing a trade book about contemporary evangelicalism in the United States. There’s some very funny parts and it will certainly ring true for anyone who’s pubbed with one of the major houses or dealt with literary agents. Now over to him:

“I found myself an agent in London, and he came up with simple suggestions about how to proceed. Write a proposal. Play up your historical knowledge, but don’t become a prisoner to it. Look for a big thesis, and hammer it home when you map out your chapters. Boast that you’re going to interview the colossi of the Religious Right, even if you have no idea how to contact them. I followed all these steps, and let the agent do the rest. He quickly sold the book to Random House in the UK, and Harper Collins in the U.S. Then, to my enormous surprise, he was fired from the agency. One of the things I’ve found out during my brief exposure to commercial publishing is that every author has a story to tell about their editor/publicist/mentor/marketing person/jacket designer being fired at the crucial moment, just when the book was poised for enormous success.” 

There are three morals to this post. The first is provided by Guyatt: “I was quickly made aware of one of the realities of commercial publishing: your book needs to fit within quite rigid guidelines of what sells and what doesn’t.” The second is that you should purchase membership to The Historical Society. And the third is that writing for a wide audience while retaining a scholarly backbone is neither as simple nor as easy as it looks, or some haughtily believe. I still haven’t quite got the hang of it after three books, but I flatter myself to think that I’m making some progress. We’ll see what readers think.

Posted by Alexander Rose,


One Response to “How to Write a History Book, Part 3”

  1. An interesting post. I still believe that it is possible for writers be they from an academic or journalistic background can write serious but entertaining history. It just ain’t easy. The past is alive with good stories that make for fantastic reads. The problem is that most graduate programs train their students to focus on analysis and research, critical tools—nay—fundamental tools for any type of historian, but the faculty in these schools place little emphasis on teaching them how to develop their accounts in an interesting manner and/or how to write well and in engaging fashion. For example, “American Rifle” is a highly inventive approach to an important topic.

    Literary agents and editors at trade presses are aware of these problems. These individuals regularly assume that most academic historians cannot write and 80 percent of the time they are correct. The problem is that the average academic historian can only do about 75 percent of what is required to produce that type of book. The trick is to find the 20 percent that can go that last fourth of the way down the road.

    On the other hand, it is much easier for a writer with a background in journalism to do the serious research and write well. Journalists do research for their stories regularly and write on a daily basis. This frequency gives them more experience in actual composition. The problem they face is that beat or even feature journalism is a quick dash of a race, while writing a book is a marathon. These durations require different types of writing skills. The adjustment is not always easy, and, yes, it is a lot more difficult than it looks. Finally, this blog entry really makes a good job of supporting all three of the concluding points.

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