Publication Date

January 1, 2009

Today, you are going to write. You sit at your desk, surrounded by stacks of books, piles of index cards, an outline for chapter one that came to you in Starbucks and is written on a napkin, sharp #2 pencils, different colors of post-its, one blank yellow notepad, a steaming cup of coffee, and your computer. Two hours later you are sitting exactly where you began. The only thing that has changed is that the coffee is gone. Not a single sentence made its way from your brain to your fingers in 120 minutes, you have had no paradigmatic breakthroughs, and you certainly cannot proclaim the morning’s exercise in “writing” a success. You turn off your computer and leave the scene. It will be weeks before you write again.

Every historian has days like this, even the most productive. Sometimes the words do not come easily or at all. What you need to do in these cases is to reconnect to the story that you want to tell. In 1895 the French author Jules Renard jotted down the following in his diary: “The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it.” In this essay, I am going to talk about how to move from the notes you have taken and theplans you have made to write and begin to actually write by finding the story that is lurking somewhere between your research, argument, historiography, and bibliography. It may seem to some that I am focusing too much on the work of the writer—and perhaps worse, the work of a writer of fiction—but I believe that the work of the historian and the writer are intertwined.

The reason why history and writing are tangled together is because, at the most basic level, all historians are storytellers. We come from a long lineage of epic poets, chroniclers, and bards. Despite this illustrious family tree it is all too easy, when faced with considerable professional pressures, to focus all our energy on research, argumentation, and historiography. It is true that no excellent work of history can fall short in any of these areas. At the same time, however, no excellent work of history can simply report findings, recount the arguments made by others, and add a unique contribution to the mix. What distinguishes a good work of history from a great work are the stories a historian pieces together. Without a story, your writing experience can become mechanical and heavy, without human warmth or interesting plot twists and turns.Such writing can make the task of reading dull and uninspiring.

This is not what any of us wishes for when we set out to write. With so many other matters of concern on a historian’s mind—accuracy, originality, and clarity, to name a few—perhaps failing to tell a good story can be considered a forgivable oversight. Nathaniel Hawthorne is reputed to have said that “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” But it is only through the act of hard writing that we truly come to terms with the marvelous complexity of history, and are forced to see the nuances in our evidence.

There is help for those of us interested in damn hard writing, and much of it comes from other writers—particularly writers of fiction. I particularly recommend Ann Lamott’s best-selling Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, an inspiring book about the process of writing. Lamott gives struggling writers no magical cure-alls or false promises that everything is going to be easy and all right. She acknowledges that writing consumes your life, and that writing is never smooth but full of false starts and dead ends. And she talks openly and honestly about just how hard it is to find the story and tell it well.

When setting out to write, think like awriter and begin paying attention to two basic, yet crucial, elements: characters and plot. It is going to feel strange to suspend your concerns for evidence, argument, and accuracy and to instead focus on character and plot. But the most vital elements of any story well told are the characters. When you have a moment, jot down at least one central character in your dissertation or book. One day when you are stuck, go ahead and list them all, and keep updating the list as you find new characters and abandon old ones. Whenever you are mired down in your work you can always turn your attention away from the accusatory blinking cursor and toward writing up brief, one- or two-paragraph biographical sketches for each of them. At first, the sketches will read like bad entries in Who’s Who, full of names and dates and places. But as you come to learn about your characters, you will be able to breathe more life into them. Knowing what someone liked for breakfast, who their neighbors were, and what books they owned, will lead in ways you cannot predict to a multi-dimensional sense of your research subjects. The final goal of collecting this information and writing up character sketches is to reach a point in writing where the historian stops telling her readers about a character in pages upon pages of descriptive prose and begins showing them instead using powerful images and the insights that come only after years of close companionship with your subjects.

Getting to know your characters depends on deep research in a wide variety of sources; it also depends on listening to them and asking the right kinds of questions. The most important thing to know about any character—and the hardest to figure out—is what matters most to them. Lamott again offers help to historians by asking writers to uncover and then articulate “what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake” in the story that you are trying to tell.1 The question of what is at stake is the great bugaboo of historical writing and argumentation. Figuring out what’s most important to one or all of your main characters brings clarity to your argument, gives structure to your book, and helps you to find the story.

Of course, not all historians are telling stories primarily about humans. I think that Lamott’s advice is useful even if you are working with inanimate objects and numbers—I suspect there are still some human beings wandering through the rooms full of steam engines and demographic data that you have collected. One possibility for such cases is that you can ask yourself what is most important about your steam engine? Is it where it was made? What about who made it, who owns it, or where they bought it? Knowing the answer is as important—perhaps even more important—when some of your characters are cities, steam engines, and trees as when they are poets, parlor-maids, or public librarians.

There are times when, to your horror, the main characters turn out to occupy minor roles in your story. It is easy when you begin to assume the main characters are the people you have heard of before and already know something about thanks to the work of other historians. When writing about Elizabethan natural history, for example, I naturally assumed that the period’s most famous botanist would be the main character in my story. I tried everything to keep him in the spotlight, but he kept getting upstaged by apothecaries and silk merchants no one knew much about. This is a good thing. Who wants to hear a story that only contains familiar characters? Be courageous, and if you think Hawthorne’s neighbor’s cousin’s gardener is a main character, stick with it and see what happens. You might surprise yourself—and the rest of us—by being right.

As you develop your characters, you will find connections between them that you never imagined. A fiction writer like Anne Lamott would tell you that this is the moment when you see the first glimmers of your story’s plot. The relationships among the main characters create the narrative arc or plot for a work of fiction—and it does for a work of history, too. A useful formula for developing plots and subplots is described by Anne Lamott as “setup, buildup, and payoff.” The setup that most historians use—and sometimes overuse—is the telling anecdote. In the setup we are introduced to main characters, and to the time period, place, and scope of the plot. For historians, the buildup includes the unfolding of subplots and the sub-arguments that they are associated with, the use of evidence to substantiate arguments, and the exploration of characters to show us what’s at stake. Finally, in any great work of history there is the payoff—that moment in a book when the pieces fall into place and you find yourself agreeing with the author’s claims about what is at stake. For most readers, the payoff of a great work of history is transformative, and we will never look at the major characters in the same way again.2

By getting to know your characters, and following the plot as it unfolds through relationships your characters have with each other, you will find the story that you are trying to tell. But finding the story, Anne Lamott warns us, “will often take place in fits and starts.” “Don’t worry about it,” she counsels. Just “keep trying to move the story forward. There will be time later to render it in a smooth and seamless way.” Let your characters surprise you, and let the plot unfold in ways you do not expect. To write is to accept that every word will change, that the story will be ornery, and that characters will refuse to behave.

We are all writers. Often, however, we confuse what E. L. Doctorow called “planning to write”—the “outlining … researching …talking to people about what you’re doing”—with actual writing. Doctorow clearly distinguished planning to write from writing. And it can be helpful for us to remember that distinction, too, or we are likely to remain stuck in the hunting and gathering stage of project development, endlessly returning to our notes and our archives without a word to show for it. We do so because we are frightened the enormous task before us, and we do so because the voices of our inner critics are so loud. But we also keep piling up books and filling out index cards because we have become so overwhelmed with information that we have lost the story, and can no longer find the main characters with two hands and a flashlight.

Finding the story is a challenging task, and writing that story down and doing justice to it is even more difficult. Thinking about character and plot is one way to find the story and tell it in a convincing and lively fashion. Nothing presented here is meant to substitute for the meticulous research, structured argumentation, and scrupulous reviews of the scholarly literature you have been trained to do. Instead, finding the story and then telling it well adds something to your existing, hard-won historical skills. In the very near future you will find yourself sitting in front of paper, typewriter, or computer. You will be trying to write. You may even be planning to write and thus armed with outlines, notes, and coffee. I hope that if you get that far, you will focus on your main characters, follow them as the plot unfolds, and begin to actually write.

—Deborah Harkness is a Professor of History at the University of Southern California. She specializes in the History of Early Modern Science. Her first book,John Dee’s Conversations with Angels, examined how a single Renaissance figure found answers to his questions about the natural world in his library and private study by turning to magic. Her second book, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, explores the thriving, complicated scientific culture that could be found on the streets of the city that was home to both Shakespeare and Francis Bacon. She is currently working on a new project, Living the Experimental Life in Early Modern Britain, that explores the intersection of science and domestic cultures.


1. Lamott, Bird by Bird, p. 55.

2. Lamott, Bird by Bird, pp. 58-62.

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