More on the Writing Life of a Historian

For historians who research, write, and publish, the entire process can take years. First you think of a topic. Then you poke around to find out what’s been done and what’s still left to do. You figure out what you can bring to it that will be fresh and interesting and that will matter.

Image result for thinking person painting

Then you research and you start writing. Somewhere along the way you start talking to people about what you’re working on. You get advice (some good, some not so much), you get encouragement (some enthusiastic, some not so much).

You keep writing. Then you ask people you know and trust for feedback. You rethink, you revise.

You keep writing. Then you have a finished manuscript and it’s time to find a publisher.

I love success stories. My current favorite is Megan Kate Nelson’s. You should read her wonderful article about how she secured her book contract. And not to take any drama away from her story, there was bidding involved. Bidding! That’s one of the things that puts the cherry on the top of the years-long effort to write a book–more than one publisher wants the book and they are willing to pay a steep price to get it.

Image result for people bidding at an auction painting

So, with eyes on the prize, I continue to work on my book proposal.



Launching a New Book Project

I’m not a fast writer. When I hear authors talk about how it took them two or three long years to write a book, I struggle to hide my reaction.

I can take two or three years to research a book. Even then, research continues as I start writing.

Since Angels of the Underground was published last December, I’ve been casting about for a new project. I really wanted to return to one I’d started before Angels, but every time I raised the subject with my agent, she was skeptical. I was amazed at how quickly she could run down a list of concerns about the commercial viability of the project.

Although my day job is as an academic historian, I want to write books that will sell well. I figure if I invest so much in creating them, I’d like to see a material return on that investment.

I spent the early part of the summer working on an abbreviated book proposal, to clearly map out for my agent my vision for the project she was skeptical about. And she still wasn’t convinced.

So it wasn’t until this month that I started pitching other projects.

And one stuck. A very good one, we both believe. It’s another story of a group of “ordinary” American women who make an extraordinary contribution to a U.S. war effort. (No more details at this point. I don’t want to jinx it.)

I’ve started work on the book proposal, which will end up at around 50 pages of overview, market analysis, and chapter synopses. Then it will go out on submission in hopes of finding an editor who thinks the book is as exciting as we do.

Stay tuned. It may be a long haul.

At the Point of No Return

A really good story has to be under a cover this great

Angels cover

and today my page proofs arrived. It’s my last look at the manuscript, the last chance to catch any mistakes and hope there aren’t many. Changes now are expensive. But I’m a perfectionist. So we’ll see how this goes.

The Public Side of an Author’s Life and Being a Historian in Public

Meghan Tifft’s article for The Atlantic, “An Introverted Writer’s Lament,” conjures up memories of school dances in the streamer-decorated gymnasium, with the popular kids out on the dance floor, carefree and having lots of fun, while the rest of the attendees hang around on the bleachers, trying to look like they’re enjoying themselves but wishing they’d stayed home to watch “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat.” The large mass of the regular kids do well in the classroom, feel comfortable there, and may even excel. But not at the dance. Never at the dance.

Here’s Tifft’s full article:

I don’t agree with everything Tifft says, but she asks a question that each writer these days must answer for herself: “What if I just want to make something? What if all this communing actually hurts the primary means by which I set out to participate and communicate–my writing itself?”

I can almost hear the strangled screams of publishing marketing and publicity people. How can an author hope to sell a book if she’s not OUT THERE promoting it?

Still, the article made me wonder about historians who write for a general reading audience. Once they’ve written a “popular” history book, how public do they have to be, personally? Is it any different from what any other writers experience? Do some of these historians dread the prospect of public readings and/or of becoming the public “expert” on their topic? Or would most be at ease with these roles, given the other duties of their academic lives? What kinds of opportunities do historians have to promote their work when they have classroom obligations from August until May? Is it appropriate to talk up their book in their own classes?

Would love to know your thoughts.

How scholarly work translates to the mainstream market.

This article presents an interesting take on how mainstream publishing is viewed within some academic circles:

The author’s experiences mirror some of my own. I especially remember way back in graduate school, professors responded to anything that smacked of outreach to a general readership or audience like this:


That’s a bit how I feel now, as I continue working on my copyedits, and I’m nearly halfway through the manuscript. Have I hit the right balance between historian and storyteller?