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Writing for The Past Imperfect series: A How-To Guide to the Easy Life

How did you figure out the format of a 30,000-word book?

So I had it easy. I wrote a 50,000-word book in 2014 and discovered that I really loved focusing in and writing an introduction and three chapters.  It seemed to me that the field of medieval studies really needed to get on board with shorter and edgier books, and I went to Leeds to pitch the idea.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that Simon Forde had already set up such a series and given it the brilliant title of The Past Imperfect.  So instead of trying to argue for a series with shorter books I found myself being asked what ideas I had for a book in the series.

Okay, so how did you figure out the topic?

That was the second way I had it easy.  I’ve been teaching a first-year introduction to medieval studies at University of Western Ontario for the past five years, and it’s been a tricky experience.  All the introductory texts available to me and written in the last couple of decades have a real lurch towards history, and our program at Western is explicitly interdisciplinary.  From the beginning I wanted to look at institutions, culture, ideas, art, literature, and especially religion, in addition to history.  So, the only solution that I could think of was to use freely available online websites.  This proved easy for some topics, such as manuscripts and their making, and tricky for others.  Websites for the crusades are too detailed or too polemic, and those for the early history of Islam are too polemic or too general, or both.  As a result I found myself digging into various older textbooks and scholarly works, and uploading single chapters here and there. I did a lot of scanning.

I felt strongly that one topic I should cover was the start of universities, which turned out to be rather tricky.  If you are avoiding Wikipedia, and I am, you have to pick individual universities to get a few squibs of information about their foundations.  The wonderful Fordham website put together over twenty years ago and still useful though gradually decaying, has some useful early statutes.  But the story of the founding of the universities has to be teased out, or I have to assign the whole class Charles Homer Haskins’ brilliant little book The Rise of the Universities from a wonky online scan that they won’t like at all, just for three hours of class discussion.  I had a similar problem with medievalism, which has a lot of fairly detailed analyses of specific texts but not so much in terms of introductory explanations and simple applications.  As a result, it occurred to me that combining the two, and researching the modern incarnation of the medieval university would be a good idea.  And it was.

What advice do you have for the actual research and writing of a Past Imperfect volume?

On the specifics of producing a provocative and edgy short-form publication I have the following pieces of advice:

look aslant at our subject, and think about some simple and provocative questions to set you off.  What was childhood really like?  (There was an article in a national Canadian newspaper in February that actually spent the first half on Philippe Ariès’ completely discredited theories about how parents did not love their children.)  Did Robin Hood exist?  There are lots of solid scholarly works on this now, but the last helpful general study was a long time ago.  Why are medieval numismatics important?  My students spent an avid hour in January this year investigating medieval coins, and thinking about how coinage would work in the multi-coinage world of the Middle Ages;

Write for an audience that is not scholarly: your grandmother, your first-year student, your brother-in-law, the general and engaged public that we all think we usually write for but really do not;

Figure out how to keep your focus very very tight on this project.  I did it by working and writing only on this project for a set period of time, and pushing everything (and I do mean everything) aside until it was done;

Don’t give too many papers on the project, as you will have too much material; I gave one paper at a very preliminary stage, when it was most useful to me, and after the book was submitted I gave a public talk on the subject and realized how much fun it was to talk about, which confirmed my sense that this kind of project is genuinely a public good;

Keep writing.  Don’t stop.  You need to break through the desire to be a graduate student and write a footnote once every fifty words or so.  Have faith that you know what you’re talking about and just talk about it.  You can put in very occasional footnotes, but if your prose normally bristles with annotations, you may have to take heroic measures or you may not be suited to doing this.  Which brings up the next point:

The tough one: think hard about whether you are really suited to kind of project.  I have a colleague who agreed in December to write four thousand words on one text he has known and loved for thirty years, for an encyclopedia-style volume.  Had he sat down on the day he agreed and written four thousand words (okay, maybe over the weekend), he would have had the job done, and he would have had the references he needed for the job at the tip of his brain.  However, he decided the only way to do the project was to work at the text for several weeks, then to read and reread every piece of criticism that had ever been written about the text, and then to read all the theoretical models that might be important for thinking about this text.  By the time he had done all that, he was prepped for fifty or ninety thousand words, but four thousand was completely impossible for him.  It took him several more months to shed all that extra knowledge and write the short piece as requested.  If you would experience the same urge to read and reread everything, the likelihood that you would be similarly paralyzed would be high.  If you could survive experiencing the urge to do all that and manage to curtail your scholarly desires, then perhaps you could do this project.

Any concluding thoughts?

I really had it easy on this project.  I picked a topic that we all know about, but that we do not necessarily really know about, and I got to investigate it from the lens of medievalism, which gave me a line to drive right through the argument. This allowed my focus to be fierce and clear.  And I produced the first book that my mother and my brothers and my aunts have read, and even my sister-in-law’s mother demanded a copy.  Since my previous total of books that I have written that were read by my family was zero, zilch, and bupkus, this is already a win.  Sadly, I do have to report that they tell me that this looks kind of easy and they could do it too.  So I had it easy, but apparently I made it look easy too.

by M.J. Toswell, University of Western Ontario, Canada