Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models

lauramaryattic

Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Book collections: his, mine, and yours? Also, my plans for a home office rethink.

1819INtownsOver at Chancery Hill Books, Tom Bredehoft wrote a few posts this week about collecting books and the ways in which his book collection has shaped his scholarship.  He wonders, “Why aren’t literature professors also book collectors?,” when his research has been immeasurably enriched by his book collecting and bibliographic interests:

Being a book collector has given me a far broader experience of books and their texts than my academic training or my academic pursuits alone could have done. Of course not every book I’ve collected will end up playing a role in the academic arguments I make, but that’s precisely the point: I do not know which books I will use until I use them. But I do know that I will probably not use a book I am not at least somewhat familiar with.

Do some of you collect books?  If so, what role (if any) have they played in the rest of your work or professional life?  I confess that I buy old books, but only if they’re of personal or professional interest.  I’m not into book collecting for the sake of collecting rare or important books, but I like to think that my purchases and careful stewardship of my books may someday be appreciated by antiquarians, bibliophiles, or even historians in the future.

I was particularly interested in Tom’s report on Victorianus Clark’s A Rhyming Geography; Or, a Poetical Description of the United States of America, &c. (Hartford: Peter B. Gleason & Co., 1819,) which looks like a fascinating document.  It recalled in my mind Kariann Yokota’s fascinating discussion of early American maps and geographies, which continued to plagiarize and reflect British referents and sensibilities for decades after the American Revolution.  Clark’s pedagogically innovative Rhyming Geography appears to flow from this vein as well–check out this discussion of Vincennes, Indiana:  Continue reading

Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book?

Do I feel lucky?

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

Crossing over, part I: What is my book about?

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

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

Writers, readers, publishers, and money

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

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

End of the line

End of the cog railway on Pike's Peak in Colorado

End of the cog railway on Pike’s Peak in Colorado

I’m in the last six weeks of completing my second book (and third monograph!) and the end of my last research trip to Québec, so it’s the end of the line for me.  As much as I’ve been itching to get this book done, it’s a little sad now to think of not returning to Québec.  It’s too bad, because I’ve got the condo situation sussed out, my favorite épiceries and boulangeries figured out, the vagaries of seventeenth and eighteenth-century French navigated, and now this information will become irrelevant to anyone (including me) in the next few years.  Isn’t it always the case that just as we get good at something, it’s time to wrap it up and move along?

I guess the only way to avoid this feeling is never to finish a project, which is just a bridge too far for me.  I take pride on being the kind of historian who can get stuff done, get it out, and move along.  I’m a perfectionist, but I also recognize that there is such a thing as the best book I can write right now.  I just can’t nibble a project to death.

All this week, I’ve had two alternating thoughts as I’ve reviewed some of the archival material I’ve taken notes on already, as well as a few new items:  first, omigod, how did I miss this the first time around??? and next, OK, this helps you and merely adds a few choice details to the story you’re already telling.  Still, don’t most of us wonder how many wonderful, awful stories we’ve missed? Continue reading