Planning a research trip

I’m just into Week 6 of an eight-week research trip to Italy, funded by the great folks at the Arms and Armour Heritage Trust. I’ve been gathering lots of material to explore the history of the handgun in sixteenth-century Italy (when it was a new technology). This has been my first long archive trip in some time, so I thought it might be useful to share some tips for those of you new to the business. They’re somewhat biased towards how things work in Italy (where the state archives were, charmingly, never centralised after unification which has the unfortunate effect of making it look like I’m on some sort of modern Grand Tour. Oh well). But I hope there’s something in here for everyone.

  1. Do your preparation. This might seem obvious, but there’s limited point in turning up to an archive to gather loads of material only to discover much of it was published in an obscure nineteenth-century tome (though everyone has done this once, so don’t be despondent if it happens!) It’s also unhelpful to turn up and find that the stuff you want was burnt in a fire (Venice) or bombed by the Allies (Naples). For Italy, the Guida Generale is your bible and many of the state archives are putting more detailed inventories online. But the state archives are only part of the story: there are many other private and local archives that may turn out to be useful. Ask colleagues for advice; ask the archivists for advice when you get there (or email queries in advance); see if there’s someone at the local university who might help.
  2. Decide how you’re going to approach your research. Does it make more sense to go to just one archive and mine it thoroughly? Or skip round several? Different research questions will need different strategies but it does take time to get to know the structure of any given archive, so a multiple-archive project will need extra preparation.
  3. Assuming you’re picking one or two main archives to work with, then (time allowing) it’s still worth taking the opportunity to visit other archives within commuting distance and scope out what they’ve got. From Bologna I’ve done day trips to Modena and Parma to look for a couple of specific types of source, which means I now have material for comparison across four different states rather than just two.
  4. Make your choices about timing. There are definite economies of scale on longer research trips. Apartment rental prices drop significantly once you hit a full month, and if you find something interesting but unexpected you can take the time to hit the library for background information and/or call up contextual material. Plus you can do the side trips in point 3. But for multiple reasons long trips aren’t feasible for everyone/all the time and you may have to do a ‘smash and grab’: turn up and photograph as much as you can in a short space of time.
  5. If you are doing a quick trip, planning is doubly important. For example, the Florence state archive restricts users to three items a day: Bologna allows eight. The latter is, therefore, a much brighter prospect for research methodologies that need large samples. If you do have to work with tight limits, think carefully about what to call each day and in what order so as to best fill your time. Two solid prospects and one more speculative request, for example. Or get it wrong and be forced to take the afternoon off to eat ice-cream and see art. What the hell: you’re in Florence and you only live once.
  6. At the risk of sounding obvious again, back up your work/photos as you go, and make sure your notes are sufficiently detailed/ordered to know which photos are of which documents. Photographing the archive label first, before you photograph anything in the file, helps a lot. I file my images into Google Photos albums every night or two.
  7. Even on a short trip, try and factor in some thinking time midway about what you’ve got so far and whether you might need to rework your plans to make sense of it. For example, if you were planning on a large sample of material from multiple decades but you turn up something with fabulous microhistory potential in 1577 then you need to make a call about whether to continue as planned (and leave 1577 for the future) or whether to gather a load of different contextual sources from 1577 to give yourself the basis for a chapter/article on that. (If you’re a PhD student and find yourself in this scenario I suggest you email your supervisor!)
  8. There’s nothing wrong with changing your strategy in light of what you find. I’ve ended up using military sources a lot more than I’d planned, and that’s been very fruitful. I also had to ditch a vague hope of doing quantitative research when I saw that there was no way to get a usable sample of the relevant sources in the time available. You can never finish everything on an archive trip, but it’s always nice to come back with some things you didn’t predict.
  9. Finally, as we’re here on the internet, social media. Should you tweet/blog/otherwise share your findings? I’ve made some good academic contacts on social media, so it’s worth doing. On this trip alone two different colleagues have asked for more information about stories I tweeted, and I’ve been able to take photos and share them. My general rule is that I tweet quirky fun stuff that I happen across, but I don’t tweet the main arguments of my research (I save those for conference papers and then articles). Nor do I tweet really outstanding individual findings, whether central or not, that might make the press/radio/TV (I save those to press release properly). In fact, the tweets that have got the most attention on this trip have been the ones from my museum visits, not the research, so there you go. Turns out that what Academic Twitter likes best is tweets about itself.

 

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Getting started on a non-fiction book

So, you’ve decided to write a non-fiction book and you have a topic in mind. An important question to ask is: where am I starting from? You’re almost certainly not starting from nowhere. You know enough to think that the topic’s of interest: you may well have already done some work, perhaps quite a lot of work, on the project. Having a clear idea of where you are now in relation to the end point (finished book) helps identify where you need to go next.

The most common type of first academic book (in the UK at least) is the ‘book of the PhD thesis’. Here you’re likely to be starting with a lot of the research already done, and an idea of what you want to argue, so the key thing is to think through what needs to change for the book, and to understand why those things need to change. Your examiners are a valuable resource here: ask them what they’d want to see more (or less) of in a book on the same topic.

Some books draw on academic research but take it in quite a different direction. My first book, Our Man in Rome/The Divorce of Henry VIII, was one of these. I had nearly all the information I needed before I started on the project – I’d written a related PhD thesis – but I had to change the writing style dramatically to make the book accessible to general readers. That meant thinking more about narrative arc and going back to all the fun human interest details that had taken a back seat in the academic work but now came in handy to engage readers with the people featured in the book.

If you’re starting research with a wider readership in mind then you can make a point of looking for these details from the start. I looked at the Medici wardrobe accounts very early on when I was researching The Black Prince of Florence and they became a central source for the book. Details of dress and furnishings can do a lot to help establish character and to create an image of place and period in a reader’s mind. Not to mention that clothes carry a great deal of social and political significance.

I should add a caveat about how you use those details in non-fiction writing. There’s nothing worse than getting into the spectacular arrival of, say, Charles V at Aachen, only for the writer to stop and give you the entire history of Aachen from the year dot. Detail should help you make a narrative point. It may be that an incident from twelfth-century Aachen handily foreshadows something that’s about to happen, in which case go for it. But if it doesn’t, think carefully about how much of the background your reader needs to know.

Finally, knowing when to stop researching is an important skill if you’re ever going to finish a book. My current project is a book for a general readership on sixteenth-century Italy, a place and period that I’ve taught at university level. So I’ve already read a fair amount of material on the subject; I have an idea of what people find fascinating and which bits are hard work. I began this project with a rough idea of what I wanted to say, which has been refined as I’ve done more reading in the areas that are newer to me. But the biggest challenge has been deciding what to leave out as much as what to leave in, and acknowledging that I need to prioritise.

So, some questions to ask as you start a non-fiction project:

  • Who’s this book for, and how does that affect the style and content?
  • What do I already know, and what extra research do I need to do?
  • What’s the priority for that extra research? Getting a larger range of data to support an argument? Finding some local colour against which the protagonists’ lives will play out?
  • What am I going to have to leave out? Can I decide that now and avoid doing a load of work that will later get cut?

“Dethroning historical reputations”: some questions

Last Thursday I read that the Institute for Historical Research was to publish a collection reflecting on the recent controversies over the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston. I discuss these debates with my second-year students in an introductory module on heritage. Because they are relatively recent there is a lack of fully-cited and/or peer-reviewed work on which students can draw if they choose to write assignments on this topic. I was pleased to see that the IHR (publishing via the in-house School of Advanced Studies imprint, SAS Publications) had decided to address this gap.

I flicked through the table of contents. The editors had evidently decided to reach out beyond academia for contributions, and included ‘fundraisers, a sociologist and a museum director’ to (I quote the blurb here) ‘examine these current issues from different perspectives’.

I think it is commendable to include different perspectives on a topic such as this. So does the IHR. In its own diversity statement, it notes

Part of the focus of the IHR is enabling the exchange of ideas: we believe that the more voices that are represented, the richer this exchange will be.

It was therefore disappointing to note that despite this effort to include ‘different perspectives’ all the volume’s contributors were, as far as I could tell, white. (This was based on publicly-available images; if anyone has better information I am happy to correct.) I therefore asked a question:

Black students in both Cape Town and Oxford played central roles in the campaigns around the Rhodes statues: given that the volume claimed to be exploring ‘different perspectives’ it seemed very odd that it had not included theirs.

The IHR responded the following day with this statement:

This does not answer the question of whether it occurred to anybody that the absence of any non-white contributors might be a problem. Moreover:

I’m glad the IHR is welcoming further proposals but that in itself does not address the structural issues here. These are well-illustrated by the fact that the proceedings of this IHR conference have been produced as a book, but the ‘What’s Happening in Black British History?’ conference series (supported by sister SAS member the Institute for Commonwealth Studies), which has an excellent record of involving Black historians, is now seeking papers for its ninth event without a published proceedings of any of the eight previous meetings in sight.

As Patrick Vernon has pointed out, the large majority of Black historians in the UK work outside universities. As a consequence, they are excluded from the salaried research time that enables some people within the academic system to publish widely. A serious initiative to diversify historical scholarship might, as a first step, work out a way to compensate contributors for their time. The IHR, which already gives publication grants, is in a good place to take a lead on that. I hope the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity and Equality working group will look further at these issues.

As the recent CLPE report on ethnic diversity in children’s books noted, 32% of pupils of compulsory school age in England were of minority ethnic origins on 2017. Even the most hardened free marketeer of the university sector might note that those are our potential future students. If they think their voices are not of interest to historians, why on earth would they come and study with us?

Photo: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, 9 April 2015. Credit: Tony Carr under a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

Out of the comfort zone

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TV and radio history presenters often find themselves discussing subjects quite some distance from their specialist research. This can be contentious in the academic sphere, where colleagues often ask why a specialist hasn’t been commissioned, and it’s something I’ve been reflecting on as I approach the second anniversary of becoming a BBC New Generation Thinker. Very often, I’m finding that broadcasting has closer links to teaching than to research, despite the fact that the NGT scheme highlights the link with the latter.

Wonderful though your work may be, the fact is that a focused piece of academic research probably won’t make for more than a couple of radio or TV programmes. My most recent book, for example, was the basis for a Radio 3 Essay, an appearance on Radio 4’s Start the Week and a short BBC Arts film. I’ve drawn on sections of the research in other places too, but there’s only so far one project will take you.

However, I do enjoy broadcasting and, as you can see from my media page, since those early pieces I’ve broadcast on a much wider range of topics. I’ve reviewed art exhibitions – one directly connected to my research on early modern Italy, one not. I’ve done one radio Essay drawing on material from a new research project, and one about my family history. The latter isn’t in my research area, but it does connect to a topic – the representation of imperial history – that I teach on a second year heritage module. And my criterion for what I’m happy to do tends now to be: “does this connect to my teaching?” rather than “does this relate to my research?”

A step beyond again is presenting. This month I’m presenting two programmes for Radio 3: a Sunday Feature and an edition of Free Thinking, which we’re recording at the Hay Festival. The Sunday Feature is part of Radio 3’s Monteverdi 450 season and focuses on the women who worked with the composer. We’re in early seventeenth-century Italy, which is within my teaching interests, but dealing extensively with music, which isn’t really. However, in this format my job is to use my knowledge of the period to pose thoughtful questions to the experts, rather than to be the expert myself.

Free Thinking – a discussion on women’s voices in the classical world – is even further away from my research interests. I guess the academic parallel there is being chair of a round table at a departmental seminar, where my job is to make sure the guests have an interesting conversation that the audience can follow. (As a side note, I’m also learning a lot by reading books that in a more conventional academic world wouldn’t be a priority.)

When I started out doing media work as an academic, I tended to think of it in relation to research impact and the demands of the REF. The more I do, the more I think that’s a very narrow way of looking at it. Perhaps we should focus instead on the long-term benefits to research from thinking about topics outside one’s discipline, and the synergies with teaching besides.

 

2017: New Year, new projects

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2017 will feature some family history

Happy New Year! (You can insert the obligatory “wasn’t 2016 awful” line here.) I’m now a year and four months into working at Swansea University and have some big new projects for the coming year. (And, below, a few thoughts on managing workload and the REF.)

More Radio 3 Essays: In January you’ll be able to hear some very early findings from my new research project on the history of handguns as part of a Radio 3 Essay series on gun culture. And in March there’s a very new historical departure for me: I’ll be at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead with an Essay about my grandparents, who were missionaries in Dhaka and Kolkata from the 1940s to the 60s. This is some way out of my historical comfort zone, but I have done a fair bit of teaching on public perceptions of Britain’s imperial past. A few years into lecturing I’m finding new topics emerging from the teaching side of the job.

New research: There will be more research on that handguns project, which focuses on Italy c. 1500-1550, with a first paper at the Renaissance Society of America conference this spring. And some (more) grant applications in the hope of getting funding for the archive research I really need to do to get this up and running in a bigger way. Fingers crossed. I also have a couple of outstanding articles/chapters from previous projects to write up.

Fiction: For a while now I’ve been playing at writing a novel that’s a spin-off from The Black Prince of Florence. I’m going to finish it in 2017. I have no idea whether it’ll be publishable quality but the process is raising some interesting methodological issues for me about writing history so at the very least I’m hoping for a theory article.

Non-fiction: Yes. I hope to have news about a new non-fiction book project soon… and various other things that are at different stages of development… stay tuned…

Lectures: Besides those for my students, I have public lectures coming up at the British School at Rome (January), in Swansea (March) and in Leeds (September). I list these on my Talks & Events page, so keep an eye out there for details.

Is this an unfeasible workload? I agree it’s an ambitious one. But I’m not planning to finish all the big projects in 2017. And in the past few years I’ve got a lot better at breaking down larger writing tasks into tiny pieces. If I write 200 words a day every day for a year, for example (the equivalent of ten or eleven tweets a day), that’s a full draft (73,000 words) of an academic monograph. And with a 200-word daily target on a project it’s also possible to get ahead of the game by writing more some days, which is psychologically a lot more comforting than setting higher targets and then stressing about getting behind.

Academics reading this post may be wondering about how this pattern of work connects to the demands of the REF. One of the consequences of the huge uncertainty about the rules at the moment (to port or not to port, how many outputs per person, will impact be less linked to outputs, etc.) is that it’s basically impossible to plan. So I decided to stop worrying and work on things that interest me, which is probably, to be honest, the best route to turning out good publications.

 

Money-saving tips for academics

pound-414418_1280I was about to post my annual reminder of the deadline for claiming the money you’re owed for your journal articles, when Twitter sprung to life with complaints about the exorbitant cost of attending academic conferences, and the expectation that we should cover all or part of our own expenses when we do.

There are major structural issues here – partly (I suspect) fuelled by an assumption based on STEM practice that grant funding covers conference attendance, partly by an understandable desire to focus limited research funds on seedcorn and scoping work in the hope that will generate financial returns. (This ignores the fact that conferences are often the most convenient place to meet international collaborators, but there you go.)

As far as I’m concerned, Universities shouldn’t expect staff to attend conferences (and certainly shouldn’t make that part of probation/promotion criteria) without covering the full cost. However, until we get a change in the system, here are some ways I’ve managed to subsidise expenses or otherwise save/make money in academia. (I’m based in the UK – if you know equivalents for other countries, please post in the comments.)

  1. Back to that deadline I mentioned at the start of the article. The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society collects money on behalf of authors that universities (and other institutions) pay for the right to photocopy or digitise your work. You need to register your publications with them by 30 November to get the money you’re entitled to. This can be several hundred pounds so it’s well worth doing and doesn’t cost anything upfront. Basically it’s free money.
  2. Reclaim your tax on work-related expenses. If you have to spend your own money to do your job then this is tax-deductible and you are entitled to 20% of it back if you’re a basic rate tax-payer or 40% if you pay the higher rate. A percentage of UCU subscriptions is deductible, for example, as are subscriptions to learned societies, some travel expenses and so forth. HMRC issues guidance on how this works. Do not over-egg it with the tax claims, or you risk getting in trouble with the tax office (I’m aware of a case where this happened). Reclaiming tax is for things you need to pay for to do your present job, not for your personal desire to jet out to that Hawaii conference or own all the lovely first editions of the books you teach. More seriously, the rules mean that career development you pay for yourself is not usually tax-deductible.
  3. If you’re travelling internationally for a conference, talk to your International Office. Universities do lots of international business that you might be able to help with while you’re there in return for some cash from a different budget heading. You could speak at a school overseas that’s been targeted for international recruitment, visit a university that’s a focus for building research collaborations, or do a regular due diligence visit to an overseas partner for a student exchange programme.
  4. Collect your frequent flyer miles on trips you do get paid for, and use them to subsidise the ones you don’t.
  5. Academic publishers generally offer an author discount to anyone who’s written for them. This applies for authors of chapters within books as well as whole books. If you don’t have an author discount with that publisher, ask a colleague who does.
  6. Reviewing books pre-publication brings you cash or more books. Post-publication it gets you a copy of the book (usually, though certain publishers are trying to replace this with an e-book only…) Very useful if you were going to read the book anyway, perhaps not the best use of time if it’s only tangentially relevant.
  7. External examining (which is paid separately to a main academic contract) is typically done by relatively senior academics, but there are other ‘externalling’ opportunities too. For example, I’ve been an academic reviewer for the Open University’s Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships, which validates degree programmes at institutions without independent degree-awarding powers. Again, there’s a time/money trade-off, but being asked is a marker of esteem, and it also gives you useful insight into how other institutions work.
  8. Finally, if you’re asked to give talks to external organisations, or write for non-academic publications, ask if there’s a fee. They might say no, and then you have to make a call about whether to do it without. I take the view that I should do some public engagement within my salaried role, so a few expenses-only gigs are fine. But not too many.

Other suggestions? Post them in the comments!

P. S. If you get paid for talks, external examining and so forth, and this is not taxed at source by the organisation paying you then you should declare it to HMRC.

Disclaimer: I’m not a tax professional. If you have questions on the tax side that aren’t answered on the HMRC website, call HMRC (be prepared for a call-centre queue) or speak to an accredited tax adviser.

Getting into trade history writing

After my post last week on the relationship between academic and public history, a few people asked about the practicalities of getting into writing history for a broad audience. So here are some tips. I’ve focused here on the process of writing for the large publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Faber, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster etc.) rather than for niche specialist publishers because that’s what I know about.

First, trade publishers are running a business, so you need to think about whether your topic is likely to sell to the general public. Can you see your non-academic friends buying it as a gift for a relative’s birthday (and not just because they’re your mates)? Have you got a hook that will interest a browser in a bookshop based on a few lines of cover blurb? You’ll often find trade books combining familiarity and novelty in some way, giving a new take on a well-known historical figure or event. In practice that means a lot of books with a link in to World Wars, revolutions, royalty, presidents, prime ministers, and so forth. There’s also a big market for wide-ranging general or thematic histories, as a quick look at the history shelves of a local bookshop will reveal. Again these are typically introduced as novel in some way.

Some examples:

  • My own first book, Our Man in Rome, had a new perspective on the well-known first divorce of Henry VIII by virtue of being told from the point of view of Henry’s ambassador in Rome rather than from England.
  • In Thunder At Twilight: Vienna 1913-14, Frederic Morton uses the intriguing fact that Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, Freud and Stalin were all in the same place at the same time as a starting point for his history of the city in the run-up to the First World War. Again: something you didn’t know, plus a familiar event.
  • Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class is pitched as an account of hitherto-untold lives of three-quarters of the population, and a history that the author didn’t hear in her university history classes. A familiar topic (social class) but the promise of a new take.

‘New’ to a publisher, by the way, means new to a large majority of general readers, not new to a niche of experts.

If you think you have an idea that will work for a broad audience, then the next step is to get a literary agent. The big publishers do not accept direct submissions from authors. (Some smaller niche history publishers do, but I’ll leave the advantages/disadvantages of those to someone more familiar with them.) Agencies vary considerably but as you look at lists of authors they already represent you’ll see that some have more of a track record of working in the academic-trade crossover market than others (e.g. mine, Felicity Bryan Associates). Personal recommendation from someone familiar with your work is one way to make contact with an agent (this was my route), but you can also send a proposal following the guidance for submissions on the agency’s website. Do follow the guidance.

Once you have an agent interested in your book, you then prepare a full proposal. This will typically include a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis plus a sample chapter to show your writing style. Your agent will give you feedback on the proposal, and once you’re both happy it will go out to publishers. Unlike academic publishing, where submitting to more than one publisher at a time is frowned on, your agent may well send the proposal to several publishers at the same time, with a deadline for offers, in effect an auction. Publishers may want to meet you before they make an offer, and this is your chance to see if you are happy with their understanding of your plans.

Assuming you have a publisher interested, your agent then negotiates the advance on royalties (if you’ve got more than one offer, this is an opportunity for the agent to bargain them up). As with academic publishing, the idea is that you get a share of the profits. But unlike academic publishing, with trade publishing you get a guaranteed chunk of royalties ahead of publication, and even if your book doesn’t sell as well as you might hope the advance is yours to keep. The advance is usually split into four parts: first on signature (when you sign the contract), second on delivery (when you deliver the final revised version of the book), third on hardback publication and fourth on paperback publication. Your agent gets a percentage of the royalties for her work.

At this point I should say that almost no-one makes a living exclusively from non-fiction writing. Everyone I know personally in this world combines it with an academic job, with broadcasting or TV consultancy, with journalism or some other source of income (like a partner’s salary, as this excellent post discusses).

You then go off and write the book. Unlike academic publishing, there is no peer review unless you organise it informally yourself (which I recommend!) But there is editorial review – much more so than you get in academic publishing – and you should expect detailed comments from an editor on structure, narrative style, requesting clarifications… I know some academic colleagues have been surprised by the degree of intervention from editors. You then go on to copy-editing and proof-reading (both, in my experience, to an excellent standard) and finally your book goes to press.

The next stage is the publicity, and some effort on your part here is expected. Reviews are important for sales, as are media interviews and appearances. You may be asked to write articles or blog posts linked to your book, or to travel to literary festivals. All this takes time and may require some negotiation if you also have another job to do, but doing an Elena Ferrante is really not an option unless you are, in fact, Elena Ferrante.

There’s also the possibility of further money to come, through the sale of translation rights to your book (in the initial round your agent will probably sell either World English Rights to a single publisher or split the UK and US rights and sell them to different publishers) and also through sale of rights for TV/radio adaptation. If your book does well, you may ‘earn out’ your advance and begin to receive further royalties.

Finally, once you have one book out, there’s Book Two to talk about. Both agents and publishers are looking for authors they can work with long term. And that should be a consideration, too, when you’re starting out. Expect the people around you to be interested in your future plans, and think about them yourself.

Image by Stewart Butterfield (flickr), used under a CC BY 2.0 licence via Wikimedia Commons.