Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction

I’m the kind of person who writes introductions last for pretty much everything. I always have, and I always will advise my students to do the same. It just makes sense- most of us who write, do so in order to figure out how we think about something. Only once we’ve written do we find out what our writing was about.

However, when you are trying to sell a nonfiction history book to the big four publishers, the introduction is one of the main deciding factors in whether or not it gets bought. Generally, just like with an academic book, you sell your nonfiction book based on a proposal that includes an outline and sample chapters. For a nonfiction history book, the introduction is probably the most important thing, because it does so much in so little space, therefore showcasing your skill as both a historian and a popular history writer.

A good trade history introduction will entertain, inform, and make promises, usually in equal amounts. Now, I’m lucky- my book is about pirates, and spoiler: one of them gets crucified. That practically writes itself, right?

Wrong.

Well, right and wrong.

You’d be surprised (I was) at how difficult it is to use documents created for one set of purposes (a criminal investigation, international diplomacy, taxation, etc.) and pull a narrative story that reads almost like fiction out of them.

It’s easy to summarize the documents “Well, here was the court case of the main witness against the pirate who said he bludgeoned his sloop’s entire crew. Here are the pirate’s last words before his execution.  Here are some random court documents that mention how he stole the captain’s wigs before killing him so that he could disguise his own distinctive hair. Here are some newspaper articles about other crimes that were attributed to him too.”

But that’s only really entertaining to other historians who see and immediately understand the value in having all of those documents together. See, historians tend to unconsciously process documents to get directly to the “so what?” moment. It’s rarely an explicit process, because we will read a collection of related primary sources and immediately understand why those sources are interesting and important, and how they affect what other types of things were going on at the time. Because of our training and instincts, we tend to skip the most important step of reconstructing the story, and instead link everything in our heads. So we analyze the documents, then explain how they fit into, alter, or corroborate our current understanding of history. One might argue that for academia and other related professions, that’s more than sufficient.

For a trade history audience, however, that does not work in the same way. A trade audience wants to be entertained. They don’t care how brilliant I am, and they don’t want to watch me solve the historical puzzle and explain how it affects our understanding of history. They want me to show them the puzzle, and introduce the contemporary people on the ground who were part of it. They don’t want a lecture on the 18th century Atlantic economy, they want me to drop details and pieces of the historical context only as necessary and when they first appear in the narrative arc of the story, and only as necessary to their understanding of what’s going on.  These readers are smart, and they don’t want me to explain to them, they want me to show them so that they themselves can figure it out. The whole purpose of my training as a historian is to re-arrange the evidence and the context and to figure out which historic information is relevant to the story and which isn’t, and accompany the reader along a journey like a guide who allows them to discover the historic relevance for themselves.

In other words, the entertaining part of a trade history book that many academic history books lack, is consideration for the reader’s enjoyment. My job isn’t to bombard the reader with every bit of information related to those primary sources I’m writing about. This isn’t a competition to see how much knowledge a reader can absorb. Rather, my job is to carefully curate this information into an enjoyable experience that allows the reader to become an active detective figuring out things as they go along, rather than being told these things outright. Just like in fiction, I’m showing, and not telling.

So back to the introduction of the book. It needs to promise this type of entertaining historical experience to the reader, while also assuring those who know a bit more about the business, that I know what I’m doing, and am doing it purposefully. In my book proposal, the chapter outline is where I get to show off to publishers what I know and how I’m planning on piecing it together, but my introduction is the first taste of how well I am going to do that. So it’s written like a piece of fiction, introducing characters only when they become relevant, and explaining only what needs to be explained at that moment to keep the story going. In this way, you have equal amounts of entertainment and information- the best of both worlds, at least in my opinion. Then later towards the end, you get a few pages to make some promises. Now that you’ve told the beginning of what will amount to a really bloody and captivating story, you get a very small amount of space to convince the reader that they badly want to find out what happens next.

This is similar to a film trailer- you show the highlights, and allude to how the reader will be changed at the end. For me, that means hinting at ways in which this pirate case will help illuminate a part of history (the American Revolution) that they thought they knew everything about already. I am promising that in reading this book, the reader will make some discoveries that enrich their understanding of our shared past, all while being entertained by pirates. It’s a tall order, and it takes a lot more skill to pull off than I initially thought.  Three rewrites in, and I think I’m finally beginning to get it.

On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics

I have just returned from Charleston, juiced up from one of the most thoughtfully constructed conferences I’ve attended in a long while. It was one of those conferences that attracts both academics and people with a wider range of career experience: I met clergy, museum workers and historic interpreters, archivists, librarians, web developers, K-12 teachers, project managers, both fiction and non-fiction writers, community organizers, and probably more I can’t recall just now. We were all there in our shared interest of the ways in which the history of African-Americans is constructed, presented, preserved, and consumed.

Many things stuck out for me in the duration of this conference as extraordinary. We got to hear from Rex Ellis, one of the curators at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his thoughts on the person who left that noose in the exhibit on segregation last month. We got to attend a welcoming talk at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, whose congregation lost 9 members two years ago this week in a white supremacist domestic terrorist attack. It was humbling beyond belief to see some of their family members greet and welcome us at the door. Afterward, we moved to a reception (catered by one of Charleston’s Top Chef contestants) and participated in a vodun ceremony for the ancestors, and then heard from intrepid park rangers about the ways in which they help Charleston fight the hoopskirts narrative in order to come to terms with its history as America’s largest import-city of enslaved Africans.

The next day, a panel about teaching African-American history in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the current POTUS got incredibly real as black public historians and activists did the emotional labor of sharing some of the most humiliating and painful stories of degradation they had experienced in their careers, and the ways in which they work to support others with the same experiences. The emotional power and conviction of everyone at this conference floored me, because I too am passionate about history specifically because of how it can illuminate the injustices of the past and transform the present.

Something that really struck me in this type of intimate space, was the ways in which attendees approached networking. If you asked them, I doubt anyone would have used that word to describe what was going on. You see, the people at this conference were each passionate beyond belief about finding ways for public history to affirm the humanity of black people, both of the past and in the present. All of the conversations around panels and receptions and plenary talks were held with utmost enthusiasm and the spirit of “What you are doing is so incredibly awesome, how can I help or be part of it?” People forged connections, planned collaborations, and shared skills organically, all coming from the same desire and passion.

So what does that tell me about networking? Continue reading “On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics”

Writing Structure in the Summer

The semester is over! It’s officially summer!

So many of us smart women writers tend to have more unstructured time in the summers.  I work at a University, so while the undergrads are gone, and my colleagues away to do research in far-flung locales, I find that there’s a bit more downtime and flexibility in my schedule, and I think of it as my writing season.

Continue reading “Writing Structure in the Summer”

Thought Distortion and Writing: On Showing Your Work

Do you remember being in math class when you were little, and getting points taken off your homework because you didn’t show your work? Repeatedly, teachers drilled into our heads how important it was to take the time to write out all of the steps that got you from point A, the problem, to point Z, the solution. At the time, you could sort of see the logic. Sure, a lot of those steps you could combine, or do in your head, but if you wrote them all out, it prevented a lot of confusion, and made it easier for the teacher to follow how you solved it. It also made you less likely to get stuck on a problem, and if you got the wrong answer, it helped those assisting you figure out where you went wrong.

That last point I think is just as crucial when it comes to writing.

Often when I write, I assume that my audience understands where I am coming from. If they have made it onto Smart Women Write, then I assume they are a smart woman writer, or someone who loves smart women who write. If they pick up my specialized academic articles, I assume they have a baseline of knowledge and a shared understanding of the basic historiography, etc.

Often though, those assumptions can cause me to take shortcuts, just like in math class, where in my haste to get it all out, I forget to show my work.  Just like in math class, that can come back to bite me. Or at the very least, it can cause my writing to be less than it should.

That is because things are not as self-evident as they seem. Making those things that are obvious to me more explicit has some rewarding effects when it comes to my writing:  If I examine the thought process that got me from point A to point Z, it is possible I’ll discover some thought distortion– some beliefs that are not accurate or true, or consistent with one another.

Thought distortion happens to every writer, no matter how clear their mind, no matter how mentally well they are. The way someone thinks through an issue has a lot to do with habit and environment, and often as we grow, we discard some habits, while others persist until we excise them. And it’s worth writing out your thought process because these beliefs you’ll find embedded in them, whether they are clear and consistent or not, shape how you feel about something.

I find I am a lot happier, and my writing a lot more authentic, when the beliefs that shape my emotions are rational, logical, consistent, and true to who I am at my core, rather than originating in habit or from my environment.

So the next time you tackle a writing project, give this a try- show some more of your work and look over it. Is there anywhere you went wrong?

To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?

Picture the scene: I am eight years old. I have a mullet (I have a German mother, and it was the early 90s, so I refuse to be ashamed of this). I am on the playground during recess with my best friend, whose parents made better hair choices for her. Another kid approaches the teal-colored plastic picnic table and asks if he can sit with us.  My friend pushes colored pencils and construction paper at him while I tell him sure- as long as he will help us write an encyclopedia. He wants to write about GI Joes, but that day we were doing geology, so we put him on igneous rock duty instead. Two minutes later, he’s playing red-rover with the other kids. We shrug and page through the National Geographic my friend swiped from her pediatrician’s waiting room.  We debate whether the next day’s topic should be shipwrecks (me) or cloning (her).

It would be a few more years before I learned that this was a bizarre way for a child to be. But even my 8 year old self knew that anything worth learning about was *really* worth learning about. And she learned through writing.

Little has changed since then in that regard. Sure, reading is great for learning, but to really get something at the visceral level, I have to write about it. Writing is the best way for me to figure out how I think and feel about something, and if there is a disagreement between my heart and my head. It’s not until I write something that all the connections between my subject and the rest of what I know are forged.

Now why am I telling this story, besides outing myself as a bemulleted child? It’s because the semester is almost over, and summer approaches. Summer is the season in which grad student and junior faculty get approached by educational tools companies and specialized encyclopedia publishers seeking to find qualified content creators.

I’ve written several of these pieces in the past, and here’s why:

  1. If there is ever some weird time-travel situation and I get to meet my hyper-critical perpetually squinting 8 year old self, this is totally going to break the ice.
  2. Getting back to the basics of the subjects that pretty much make up the cornerstone of my research can be really helpful. Writing an encyclopedia article or study guide designed for undergraduates first learning about a subject is a lot like teaching. It helps to pull me away from the narrow periscope-view I can sometimes develop when writing a book and help me remember the different aspects that are there and that I have to keep in mind while writing. For example, when I am writing about the deals between the Swedish and Fetu on the 17th century Gold Coast, it’s helpful to have in mind the latest big picture of the Atlantic slave trade, of early Swedish imperialism, and of precolonial West African history, because that shapes how I pull the narrative out of the sources. Writing these encyclopedia articles was a good exercise for me in reminding myself of the most recent scholarship (and reminding myself to always be reading the most recent scholarship), and in critically evaluating which sources and viewpoints provide students with the most fair yet nuanced understanding of the subject.
  3. Speaking of students and a fair yet nuanced understanding, creating high-quality materials like this is an important service to them and to the field. The way I write one of these introductory overviews of the field shapes the way students think about it, and the sources I suggest will color their view also. It becomes an exercise in thinking through the political and socio-cultural implications of privileging points of view. For example, when writing about Timbuktu, I thought about how residents of city experienced the many changes it underwent.  Which people and events shaped the city in ways that are still felt now? A big theme in the history of Timbuktu is the position of the Tuareg peoples in relation to that city, and there is a cyclical sense of history repeating itself each time they staked their claims upon it. I think about this in my writing always, but am hyper aware when creating something that requires as much objectivity as is possible in order to fairly represent the past in a way that is still easy to understand.  It feels good to do a good job with these, because of how important a solid foundation in a historic subject really is.
  4. The pay- I’m building my personal library, and academic books don’t come cheap. If you have a solid background in the subject, writing these articles doesn’t take much time, and your hourly rate is pretty good- far better than most freelance writing work.

So with that said, if you’re also interested in writing something like this, here are a few things I learned that may be helpful to keep in mind: Continue reading “To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?”

Too Many PhDs?

We don’t have any right admitting PhD candidates when there aren’t any jobs for them.

In the past month, I’ve been in this conversation at least four times. It’s a little funny to hear it now, in 2017, when the academic job market has been failing since the late 1970s.  The job market for academic tenure-track jobs is so terrible there is no need to go into it here because it has been written about ad nauseam. I’m only half-joking when I say that after porn, it’s probably the most commonly searched topic on google.

Still, I don’t think that producing fewer Phds is the answer. We want a less educated populace why?

If you think about our nation, or even our planet as a collective, it is in all of our best interests to educate people who are capable of and who want to be educated. The public can only benefit from having non-academic PhDs among its ranks, in every possible sector of work. In my opinion, the more PhDs in the world, the better. It doesn’t matter what the degree is in, only that we produce people who are able to more easily see through bullshit, think critically, excel in analysis, examine the providence of a source,  and create reasonable, thoughtful arguments. These skills are something every workplace could benefit from. So no, I don’t think universities have an obligation to scale down how many PhDs they produce.

HOWEVER, and this is a pretty big however,  I’m not saying that you, yourself, personally should be in the PhD program. It is important to weigh out the benefits of society against the benefits of the individual. And of course, in this situation you get to put yourself first.

As an individual, it may not be in your best interest, financial or otherwise, to do a PhD. There are so many reasons to not do a PhD  that I could never list them all, and for many,  spending time in grad school could be disastrous.

For others though, the PhD can open doors that weren’t previously open.

Although the odds of getting a tenure-track academic job are not in my favor, I don’t regret doing the PhD at all.  It was the best possible way for me to spend my 20s. I got paid a decent stipend to read and write about topics that I’m deeply passionate about (pirates, mainly), and for the first time in my life, became eligible for grants that allowed me to see the world: I did all-expenses-paid research in Ghana, the Netherlands, Germany,  Sweden, and England, and presented my findings at conferences in places like Barbados and Curaҫao. I analyzed historic documents that had been untouched for centuries. I was the first living person to know things. Nothing compares to that rush.

And now? Now I am credentialed. I have a PhD in history from a top-20 University. That has allowed me to have a super-engaging job working with a digital archive, and to do really fun side projects as a historical consultant. I’ve worked on films and now, a pirate-themed tabletop role-playing game. I’m also writing trade history books- the kind filled with pirate battles and blood that you give to your dad on his birthday. I’ve been invited to really fun speaking engagements, both academic and not, and I love getting my pirate on in all of these diverse ways.

So maybe I’m lucky, but I think if you have a passion and can take the possible hit in earning potential, then go for it. If you think about doing the PhD as a necessary step on the road to getting a job as a professor, you are going to have a miserable time of it. But if you think of doing the PhD itself as the prize at the end of the rainbow, it will yield some unexpectedly cool outcomes. No, there are no guarantees, but how many people in this world get to spend half a decade or more doing exactly what they want and love? And then how many more get to take away all of those experiences and find real-life applications for them?

This might be the millennial within talking, but there’s something to be said for following your passion, and I think sometimes in academia we can feel peer pressure that discourages us from doing that. But life is short and uncertain, and it’s just not worthwhile to ignore your heart.

The Art of Recommendation

I’ve just finished writing college letters of recommendation for former students of mine, and that got me thinking of the mechanics of writing these letters. Recommendation letters are a writing genre unto themselves. Just like with any good piece of writing, there’s a convention or formula people tend to use, but the very best pieces flout the convention successfully (the very worst flout it poorly, but that’s another post).

Writing a stellar letter is important to me. I want a letter that conveys exactly what I mean, to someone I may never meet. Studies have shown that letters that are more personal and show how well the recommender knows the student tend to hold more weight. Anyone can compose a generic letter, but I want to write the letter that best shows off just how hard the student has worked in my class, and how much they deserve a chance to make something of themselves.

So I do think about all those things that make a good recommendation: understanding a student’s goals, personality match, traits that will serve them well in a university setting, examples, things from personal life that give weight, specific language, evidence of growth and potential for further growth, etc.

Then I approach it the way I would when writing history: It’s all about the story. Continue reading “The Art of Recommendation”