Do I feel lucky?
Howdy, friends! Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016). For part I of this series, “Crossing Over: What is my book about?” click here. When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make. The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.
After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction. He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again. (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)
The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me. I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns. I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out. Continue reading
View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence
In a post last weekend, I revealed that my forthcoming book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) would be published as a crossover academic-trade title. Some of you expressed interest in how I got a contract like this, as many of the scholar-readers here are interested in writing beyond a traditional academic audience of other professors and their students. So, I’ll tell you my story and do my best to draw a few lessons out of it.
(Over the last several years, I would tell junior scholars who asked about how I got my first book published to ask the same question of a lot of other people, because it seems like no two journeys to a publisher and to publication are the same. Maybe this is a truth universally acknowledged? Those of you with more experience, PLEASE weigh in with your ideas, advice, and experiences!) Continue reading
Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015
Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.” She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read. They’re eating our lunches!
History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.
In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.
To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling. His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points: Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively. I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working. (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)
This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two. Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading
Is age the next new category of analysis in history? I think it might be, and not just because I’m one of the contributing authors. From an email from co-editor Nicholas L. Syrett I received this weekend:
Age in America has been published (New York University Press, 2015)! I’m at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting this weekend in St. Louis and the very first two advance copies made it here just in time (and both were sold by conference’s end). The assistant editor at NYU Press will send you your copy as soon as the books stock at NYU’s warehouse (Cori and I don’t even have ours yet). I have attached a photo of the book sitting in the NYU Press booth. Within a couple weeks it should be available to order through bookstores, etc.
The co-editors of the volume, Nick Syrett and Corinne T. Field, worked hard with contributors to get a good mix of established and emerging scholars and to cover a pretty broad swath of American history (table of contents here.) My essay, “‘Keep me With You, So That I Might Not Be Damned:’ Age and Captivity in Colonial Borderlands Warfare,” is the first essay in the collection after Field’s and Syrett’s introduction. There are thirteen other essays in the volume, which covers not just the expected modern markers of age and how they came to be (age of suffrage, the drinking age, the age of retirement and Social Security benefits), but also essays by Yuki Oda on age and immigration politics (“‘A Day Too Late:’ Age, Immigration Quotas, and Racial Exclusion,”) Stuart Schoenfield on age 13 for American Jews, and Norma E. Cantú on the quinceañera for Latin@ girls. Continue reading
Because there are so many people here in California who are as hostile to vaccinating their children as many of Cotton Mather’s neighbors in Boston at the turn of the eighteenth century were hostile to inoculation, I thought I’d do a little research on three-hundred year old measles medical management. There was no such thing as a vaccination or inoculation for measles then, so let’s see what Mather’s 1713 advice on nursing a patient through measles looks like. (You can click on the link to see the full PDF of his pamphlet–it’s only four pages long.)
Mather offers loads of natural remedies for the symptoms of measles. Above all, he is against the “pernicious Method of Over-doing and Over-heating, and giving things to force Nature out of its own orderly way of proceeding. Before we go any further, let this Advice for the Sick, be principally attended to; Don’t kill ’em! That is to say, with mischevous Kindness. Indeed, if we stopt here and said no more, this were enough to save more Lives, than our Wars have destroy’d,” 1. Continue reading
Today’s post is a query from a reader about children’s books related to one’s field of history.
I don’t know if this would interest you, but I’m stumped on my own. A colleague is having a baby, and another colleague is hosting a department shower. The host has requested that we each, in addition to any other gift, bring a book for the baby’s library. Specifically, something related to our field of history.
I think it is a lovely idea, but I have no idea if there are good, current children’s books in my field, which, broadly construed, is American Women’s History. Do you think your blog readers would have ideas?
Would this interest me? It’s been a subject that, for a number of mundane reasons, has been at the front of my mind for at least the last decade. Continue reading
It looks like I completely failed to blog a single word last week. Once this blog starts to feel like another job, I’ll pull the plug, so in the meantime I’ll enjoy my off-line life when I will! I hope you’re all having lovely winter breaks/holiday seasons/time away from the classroom/unstressful time with family and friends.
Two weeks ago, I sent my book off to begin its long and winding journey to eventual publication. So now what do I do with the rest of my sabbatical? I’ve got some fun ideas that I want to explore that have to do with women’s bodies, material culture, fashion, and citizenship in the Early U.S. Republic, and there are more sources at the Huntington Library than I can probably process in the next five and a half months. But I can dream, can’t I?
While it may seem perverse, I hope that I don’t see any readers’ reports for at least a few months, because then I won’t feel obligated to respond to them and make a plan with an editor. I want some time to dream and play, and to think about the second half of my scholarly career. Tempus Fugit, my friends. I’ve now written two books that several people told me I couldn’t write, shouldn’t write, and/or was stupid to write because everybody already knows that, nobody cares, and I should just stop talking about my ideas. Continue reading