Writing retreat

Last weekend I went to a cottage in Somerset with two friends in my writing group. We met two years ago, when we all took a non-fiction writing short course at City University (it’s taught by Peter Forbes and is excellent), and one of us who is much more organised than I am took the initiative to start monthly meetings. All of us have time-eating things going on in our real lives – combinations of work, grad school, a toddler – and the idea of the weekend was to clear some space and let ourselves think fully about our writing projects.

It went GREAT! At the end everyone said they were pleased at how productive we were, despite also getting a fair bit of walking and sight-seeing (and board games, and drinking…) in on the sides. Here are the things I think helped, and which I’m going to try to do in real life as well as idyllic rural weekend life:

Goals: We took a small amount of time on Saturday morning to think about what we wanted to do over the weekend. My goal was to look at my chapter ideas from fresh: the structure of the book has changed a lot since I first talked about the proposal with Lydia, my agent, and I wanted to set aside the accumulated version and “tell myself the story” from the beginning. I also wanted to think about what research exactly was needed for each chapter, and where I would go to do it. Read more...

Lessons from grad school: primary sources!!

I think a lot about this post by Mary Beard, about how important it is to go back to primary sources, and a good thing as my first piece of proper graduate work turned up a solid first-hand example!

I was writing a paper looking at 15th-century versions of Judith, the biblical-apocryphal heroine who saved Israel by duping the enemy general Holofernes and cutting off his head. In France, Judith became connected with Joan of Arc, in the theme of sword-wielding female national liberators, and I wanted to look at whether that carried over to versions of Judith’s story in England.

A 2010 book on “Judith studies”, The Sword of Judith, pointed me to The Story of Judith in German and English Literature, a 1927 book-length bibliography of Judith adaptations. (In the olden days you had to do that sort of thing by hand…) That bibliography lists a lost play called Holophernes that was supposedly performed in 1556 for Princess Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I) when she was under house arrest during her sister Mary I’s reign. The source quoted is a c. 1560s manuscript that describes Elizabeth’s guardian, the minor Catholic nobleman Sir Thomas Pope, paying for the play to be performed for her. Read more...

Creative Histories conference, Bristol (July 19-21, 2017)

Last month I went to a three-day conference organised by the University of Bristol, on “Creative Histories”. I signed up basically as soon as registrations were open, and it was exciting to go hang out with people for three days and talk about history-stories.

Sometimes public history can feel like a corrective, like: here is a thing people commonly think, but actually, here is how that is WRONG WRONG WRONG! Often that corrective is needed – like evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain, or of 17th-century women knowing what swears were – but it’s also the sad thing that happens when a tour guide tells a lively story and adds, “of course, the real history is a little bit different [more dull].” There’s the fun history which is light and un-rigorous, and then there’s the proper factual history which is a super buzzkill, and they are different and you can’t be both.

What was pleasing about the Creative History conference is that it is about, as it says, creating – understanding and communicating history by generating something. Presenters and attendees were novelists, artists, a theatre group, a storyteller-dramaturg (I know!), and even the people who have ‘traditional’ historian jobs were doing creative work: making films, commissioning theatre, making comics as part of their PhDs on history-in-comics (I know!). Making something is more fun than cutting off or corralling something, and people who make things are generally pretty great people to spend time with. Read more...

Book proposal: it’s out!

Book proposal

I’m excited to say my book proposal is now out on submission! This means it’s in as good shape as I (and, crucially, my agent Lydia, who knows What Book People Like) could get it, and now she’s sent it out to editors to see if any of them want to buy it. Some of them might be reading this RIGHT NOW which is quite nerve-wracking!

The book is about Shakespeare and the settings of his plays: what they’re like today, what Shakespeare would have known about them, and how stories can change the meaning and even the physical shape of places, and vice versa. Book lengths being what they are, instead of trying to write a very small bit about all 36(ish) plays, we went through and narrowed it down to the 12 plays and places where I felt there was a lot to say, and which make sense together. It includes the obvious biggies like Verona and Elsinore castle, but also some surprisingly rewarding ones like Navarre (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Inverness and Cawdor Castle (Macbeth). I’m excited to be exploring all of them. People in publishing say that early book titles are very likely to change, but I really like our draft title: Kingdoms for Stages, named after the Chorus in Henry V’s wish for “a muse of fire…A kingdom for a stage, princes to act”. Read more...