Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
At the end of September 2014 I am due to submit the completed manuscript for my book The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in Interwar Britain to the University of Chicago Press. Over the next fourteen months I am going to use this blog to share the process of writing—and hopefully finishing—a book from behind the scenes.
When I started blogging it was a way for me to get back into writing. I have talked in the past about how difficult it has been to get started with this research project. Shifting gear to write for a different audience and about different subjects was one way to take some of the pressure off and get in the habit of writing a few hundred words on a regular basis. It has worked: in the past twelve months I’ve finally been able to put together a book proposal to submit to my publishers. With the help of a summer hiding out in the woods in Massachusetts I’ve managed to pull together a first draft of a chunk of the book.
So now it’s time to crack on and get things done. Although all of the research is done (I hope) and I have a decent amount of the manuscript in draft there’s still a long way to go though. In terms of numbers I need 150,000 words all in. Given the way I work that probably means writing another 200,000 and then revising, refining, cutting and shifting about to make them half-decent words. Like Hemingway said: “The first draft of anything is shit”—and I suspect that my first drafts are shitter than most. I have been lucky enough to get a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship that will give me a year off to write, but going on past experience finishing The Prince of Tricksters will take a hell of lot more hard work.
As the blog has developed I’ve used it as a forum to reflect on the process of doing history from behind-the-scenes. I’ve tweeted fragments of writing, shared primary sources that have puzzled me and used my work on the confidence trickster Netley Lucas to reflect on our practice as historians. At different times I’ve explored using song lyrics to think about the past and the emotional work of history. As I work on the manuscript over the next fourteen months I’m going to try and do this more and more. Rather than let The Prince of Tricksters appear between hard covers fully formed and polished, I want to give you some sense of the kind of struggles and dilemmas and frustrations that go into finishing a book. As historians—whatever the level or context in which we work—the struggles we have are as much practical and personal as intellectual or historical; they are as everyday as they are theoretical; they are as much about getting organized and dealing with the rest of our lives as making sense of British society and culture between the wars. I hope that all of this will become clear over the next few months.
There are a few reasons why I think it is worthwhile to reflect openly on the process of writing and finishing a book. One of these reasons is selfish: writing about my difficulties has proven to be one way of working through them. Even the act of putting a problem in words can help—but I have also never ceased to be amazed about the ways in which support and advice and comments from other people (often people I have never met) have sustained and stimulated me. More importantly: sharing struggles that historians often prefer to keep private demystifies what we do to those who might our work and encourages them to think about how history is worked on and written. It can be reassuring to know that others share our anxieties and struggles. In the past I have found that that is especially the case when the scholar doing the sharing is more senior than I am. At different times I have learned that even those we admire or respect the most struggle with their own demons. Those moments of recognition have comforted and inspired me on numerous occasions. I hope that sharing the process of writing history from behind the scenes might be a useful training exercise for younger scholars—a way of prompting them to think about what we do and how we do it. These are the kind of reflections I wish I’d been able to read when I was starting my academic career almost fifteen years ago now.
So watch this space. The random photographs of 1920s Britain will continue; I’ll still throw in random posts and picture essays about cycling of various kinds. But over the next fourteen months I want to share the process of writing The Prince of Tricksters from behind the scenes. I hope at least some of you find it useful.