It has been a busy term what with marking, exams, Leeds International Medieval Congress session to prepare for and stopping the dark ages. Significantly it also saw the publication of two books that I have been working on for a long time, the first was A Short History of the Normans for I.B.Tauris as part of the ‘Short Histories’ series. This was a new departure for me in that the book is explicitly aimed at non-specialists. What follows here is a cross between reflection on the process and what I’d wish I’d known before I started.
In contrast to other books, I did not approach a publisher; instead Tauris approached me. I confess that my first reaction was ‘which important Norman historian has said no?’ At the time I was working on a part-time contract as teaching fellow in a research intensive university, so not the obvious candidate to produce an overview of Norman scholarship and sources. However, the brief sounded interesting, Alex Wright (the editor) seemed good to work with (he was), and so I thought why not?
Things then moved a bit more quickly than I intended. It is marvellous what pressure of time and getting up unfeasibly early on a bank holiday Monday can do to concentrate the mind. There I was thinking I had plenty of time to talk to colleagues, do a bit more reading and then write a lovely synopsis, but editorial boards run to different timescales.
The next stage was relatively easy. I took off down to Cornwall over the summer of 2011 for a fortnight to write and draft out the book. This I did and it was fantastic! I got into the habit of writing for five or so hours in the morning, then taking a long walk and finishing the day by reading. The fact that I was writing for an introductory audience was extremely liberating. This was going to be fun!
Then I came home, term started with lots of new teaching and things went a bit wrong in all sorts of ways I hadn’t imagined.* By the time I could spend serious amounts of time on the book in the autumn of 2012, I was shattered and just about to start a new job. On re-reading my drafts and notes, the book seemed simplistic rather than simple and lacking in nuance. It all seemed rather impossible. I was also very conscious that time was running out as the book was due for submission in September 2013.
Starting the new job (my current one – full-time permanent lectureship) was great, but we are a small department which means that unexpected things happening can cause a knock on effect. Well, I didn’t get the book done by the September, but at least I had some chapters to keep Alex happy.
From that point on, any time spent on the book felt like it was stolen from other things. If I’m honest, the other things (mainly an excessive admin burden) were stealing time from the book. I was really struggling with getting it done and meeting other commitments and being a good colleague. In part this was because the book was, contrary to my expectations in the summer of 2011, incredibly hard to write. 75,000 words might sound a lot, but it isn’t at all when dealing with the Normans over 4 distinct geographical areas from the period 900-mid-twelfth century. I’d also sent sections out for feedback and, as ever, got contradictory responses. Like most academics, I’m also a perfectionist and this really doesn’t help when writing. Also 2014-June 2015** was pretty horrible for reasons unconnected to the book (like internal re-organisation at work), but which impacted on it greatly.
Oddly what sorted this was a lovely week of sunny weather in June 2015. I decamped to the garden and began writing again, but long-hand. Suddenly, whatever it was that had been holding my back dissipated and the words began to flow. Some of them weren’t great words, but they were words! From then on, I wrote in the day and typed in the evening. Sometimes there were few words, sometimes there were many, but the key things was I stopped worrying about it. In the introduction to the book I state that what follows is ‘a history of the Normans’. It wasn’t supposed to be definitive, but instead to offer something a bit different from what had gone before. Also I ceased worrying about what other people thought. Providing I could justify what I’d included and what I’d excluded that was fine. Also I am blessed in a supportive network of friends, family and colleagues.
I finally collapsed at the summit at the end of October 2015, gritted my teeth and sent it off riddled with typos (for which, Alex, apologies), breathed a huge sigh of relief and got on with teaching the Normans to my third years.
Things moved very quickly after that. It is not often that a book gets turned round by the publisher within six months! All credit to I.B.Tauris on that front.
So what do I wish I’d known?
First, I should have stuck to my guns when I said that I couldn’t get the book done before mid-2015. Had things not gone a bit wrong in 2012, it might have been fine, but there was no wriggle room. Fortunately publication has coincided with the 950th anniversary of 1066.
Second, that the editor was not going to hunt me down, cut my head off and stick it on the gates of the publishing house as a warning to tardy authors.
Third, to trust my instincts. I spent an unnecessary amount of time worrying about what other people in my field might think of the book and found that I was trying to write it for their approval. Trust me, this strategy will not produce anything that anyone wants to read.
Fourth, books take as long as they need, especially when departments might not regard the project as REF-worthy (though they like the prestige that comes with something successful regardless).
Fifth, to protect my time more and to stand up and say ‘This book is important, has value and as we are out of term, that is what I am going to focus on.’
Well, the book is now out and so far, has been well received by various colleagues who have been kind enough to put it on their reading lists for students and editor Alex is happy. I’ve come round to the idea I’ve produced something worth while that will stand for a few years at least. Then it will be someone else’s turn to synthesise the field and add their voice to the history of the Normans. Should that person ask for advice, I will tell them: be your authentic self and remember it’s a history, not the history. As Elisabeth van Houts once memorably said, ‘the Gesta Normannorum ducum is a history without an end.’