The many stages of writing: a personal take

Laura Sangha

For the past few years, I have been asked to contribute to a postgraduate training session on ‘Preparing to write’ which I deliver jointly with a professor in the English department. It is something that I really enjoy doing, because it is a chance to compare my own experiences and practice with other researchers. And each year I am struck anew by the similarities in the way that we approach our research, as well the fact that there are always new techniques and ways of working out there that I haven’t considered. Whilst the English professor has a complicated system of index cards and quotations, I tend towards colour-coded excel spreadsheets, both of which methods have something in common with Keith Thomas’ labour (and envelop) intensive working practices. The informal and inclusive nature of the discussion of the training sessions are a great way to encourage reflection on our working practice, many of which seem to organically emerge and ossify throughout our training and early career.

Excel is currently my favourite note taking tool.

Excel is currently my favourite note taking tool.

Alongside thinking about preparing for writing, I have just bashed out my first paper on my new research into Ralph Thoresby, and found this blog post on what we might mean by ‘pace’ in writing incredibly useful for thinking about the processes involved. Recently Matt Houlbrook’s lyrical photo essay/ biography of a book chapter had also set me wondering just how similar our experiences are when it comes to writing. Does everyone feel the same deep unease [terror] when you open the new document and begin to formulate that first sentence? Or derive the same small comfort from putting the title at the top of the page, formatting it nicely, and saving the (as yet still blank) document to file? Why is it that I can only write 1,000 words a day, whether I have finished them by 11am, or 9pm, and does everyone have a ‘natural’ daily word limit? Is there an optimum number of jokey asides to include in a paper? And how do you turn off autocorrect in the latest version of Word?

With all that in mind, I thought I would be therapeutic to briefly summarise the main stages that I pass through when I am writing.

The dreaded introduction.

Undoubtedly my least blank docfavourite part of writing. The uncertainty, the weight of expectation, the fear that you have forgotten how to do it. The enormously intimidating existing scholarship and the huge pile of primary material. The plan that made sense when you wrote it but which is now an undecipherable mass of crossed out paragraphs, arrows pointing to nowhere, and an obscene number of question marks. NB. This entire post could have been written just about this point.

The false start.

Continuing the theme, the false start. You finally start getting something down, you pick your way through a particularly difficult bit of historiography, and you are feeling quite pleased with yourself. You stop for a cup of tea, and when you return, realise that you have 2,000 words of a 4,000 word paper, but you haven’t even mentioned the topic in the title yet. None of your 2,000 words are essential and most will need to be cut so you can actually address some of the important things. But the great news is: a false start is infinitely better than no start, and you can just deal with the editing later. NB. Save the original file because you might be able to use it somewhere else.

The comforting middle bit.

Before this post descends into paralysing misery, I usually find that once I get going, I tend to get into a groove and progress reasonably steadily. I generally target either a certain number of words each day (c. 1,000) or completion of a particular section from my plan. Attacking longer pieces of writing in bite sized chunks is essential and helps to make me feel accomplished every day, not just at the last. That said, there will inevitably be…

Possibly blasphemously, I also fondly think of the darkest day as the Slough of Despond [William Blake, Frick Collection New York].

Possibly blasphemously, I also fondly think of the darkest day as the Slough of Despond [William Blake, Frick Collection New York].

The darkest day.

There are lots of reasons for the darkest day, that day when your muse deserts you, and writing simply does not happen, or progress is so slow that an outsider wouldn’t notice it. For me it is usually when I am tackling a bit that is tricky conceptually, or if I am trying to synthesise and reduce something rather complicated into a manageable and not too distracting size. After hours of furrowing my brows, picking up and putting down books, groaning, re-reading articles, chewing my fingernails, cutting, pasting, and standing up to look out of the window, I usually have something useable. That’s the moment I save those precious 300 words, put my whip down, and leave that dead horse alone.

The race for the finish.

Finally, your steed has miraculously revived, the wind is in your hair, and you are heading into the final straight! Everything is great. You have crossed out the majority of your plan, you have discarded all the boring and inessential parts, you have mastered that horrible bit about predestination. You are so excited about finishing you write two sections in one day. Your conclusion is so close you can smell it. Your examples are fitter, your jokey asides are funnier, your analogies more similar, and your argument more persuad-ier. It turns out that dreaded introduction was worth it after all. Now – to the pub*!

*It is important to celebrate your accomplishments, but please drink responsibly.

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Norwich Entertainments – Part VII: The science of music

Brodie Waddell

I live in Cambridge, a well-touristed little town, and when the sun is out the streets are Cambridge bin buskerawash with buskers. Some are quite good. For instance, there’s the chap who strums tunes on his guitar from inside a litter bin who always makes me chuckle even when his playing isn’t brilliant.

But there are also some that are decidedly displeasing to the ear. If only – I find myself muttering – these unmusical musicians had been sufficiently trained in the science of music. Continue reading

Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part I: Not such a Virgin Queen; or, that’s one DNA test I’d like to see the results of!

Jonathan Willis

This post is the first in what may (or may not) become an occasional series about the ravings of assorted Elizabethan ‘madmen’.  This is a topic I’ve become quite interested in recently, after stumbling over some fascinating letters in the state papers.  This has nothing to do with a desire to procrastinate because I need to start writing up my monograph on the Ten Commandments.  Nothing at all…

Anyway, the letter I want to talk about today is one I came across quite accidentally because of its proximity to another letter which I have been using in my teaching and research.  The calendar entry for said letter reads as follows:

Miles Fry, a madman (who calls himself Emanuel Plantagenet), to Lord Burghley; saying he has an embassage from God to the Queen his (Fry’s) mother, he himself being the son of God and Queen Elizabeth, but was taken from her by the angel Gabriel and carried to one Mrs. Fry to be kept by her for a time, June 28, 1587.

A small amount of digging confirms that the letter is certainly not unknown to history or historians: other than its presence in the catalogue of the Lansdowne MSS, it also features in Henry Ellis’ nineteenth century edition of Original Letters, Illustrative of English History, and it merits a (very) brief mention in Christopher Haigh’s important biography of Elizabeth I.  Still, the letter was new to me, and I expect that the contents are unfamiliar to all but the geekiest Tudorphiles.

Miles Fry's mother?

Miles Fry’s mother?

The letter itself is relatively brief – just over half a single side – and, for a ‘madman’, Fry has a style which is lucid and concise, and a hand which is surprisingly legible to the modern reader (it beats most Tudor churchwardens’ accounts, that’s for sure!).  The concision and neat appearance of the letter, however, belie its extraordinary contents.  Addressed ‘To the right honourable the lord burley, lord tresorar of the queen of england’, it begins:

My lord I am sent an embassador from god the father unto the quenes highness to declare unto her that I am the sonne of the both…

Now that is an episode of Jerry Springer I would actually want to watch!  Fry explained to Burghley that, after his birth he was taken from Elizabeth to ‘one mistres ffry’ by the angel Gabriel ‘for to be kept’; but that ‘the time of this keeping is ended’, and that Fry had been sent by God to reveal himself to his mother.  His true name revealed both his royal and divine origins, for he signed his letter off, ‘your honors to use emanuel plantagenet’.  For Christopher Haigh, the significance of this event lay in the fact that ‘the official image of Elizabeth as virgin mother of her people … seems to have been effective – even if it was taken too literally by some’.[1]  That is certainly true.  Fry explains that he writes his letter because he is ‘in great extremity and redi to perish for lak of helpe’.

Definitely a case for Jerry Springer...

Definitely a case for Jerry Springer…

His divine ‘embasage’ and royal birth, however, mean that Fry also demanded a personal audience with the Queen.  He was nothing if not persistent.  In his letter to Burghley, he explained that he had made first made a similar plea to Sir Francis Walsingham some four years previously, and that Walsingham had ‘promised to helpe me unto the queen but did it not’.  In the intervening time, Fry wrote letters to the queen herself, assorted members of her counsel, and again to Walsingham, with whom he even claimed he had spoken ‘at divers times’.  Leaving aside the contents of his communications, this tale highlights the extraordinary ease which ordinary people could speak to the powers-that-were in Tudor England, even if they could not necessarily expect a response.

And not that his letters did Miles Fry much good.  As he lamented, ‘I am so far from helpe of my ladi that I have not the favour of a subiect in her relme thou I be her sonne: and during this sute I have bin hardli used’.  This, he explained to Burghley, was his last attempt to force the Queen ‘to accept me for her sonne’.  Thirty-five year old Miles was the (adopted?) son of John and Jone Fry, and he claimed that Burghley knew John Fry ‘wel’.  The Fry clan lived near Axminster in Devon, and Fry (writing from ‘the signe of the rose and crowne in Saint Johns street beyond smithfelde in london’) explained that it was not convenient (and it was too expensive) for him to remain in the capital for long.  The consequences of refusing to help him, Fry threatened, were not only that ‘immediatli upon my returne thither I shal end my life’ but that, as a consequence, god would ‘punish this land’.

Fry’s embassy was not only one of family reunion and material aid, however.  He explained:

My calling is not to redeme the worde but to shewe the end of generation and the love between christ and his church: which Salomon began to do and did it amisse…

History does not record the fate of Miles Fry, a.k.a. Emanuel Plantagenet.  Dismissed by the state papers as a ‘madman’ and ‘distempred in his wytts’, we can be fairly confident that his plea was also dismissed by Burghley, and it seems unlikely that a story with such a sad beginning can have had a very happy ending.  Fry was clearly a somewhat disturbed character, but it seems likely that the fiction he created was, in part at least, a response to an extremely difficult reality.  His misguided insistence that he was the queen’s son was juxtaposed several times with the desperate plea that he was not even being treated as favourably as ‘the quenes pore subiects’.  Perhaps because of the realisation that his life was of such little value that the threat of suicide was no threat at all, Fry attempted to gain greater leverage by appealing to a providential framework, in which a failure to treat him with charity would bring down the wrathful judgement of his divine progenitor.  In many respects Fry had a lot going for him: he was literate, educated, and possessed the wherewithal to make the one-hundred-and-fifty mile trip from his home to London (indeed, it seems likely that he had made the 300 mile round trip several times before).  He knew not only how to write, but also who to write to, even if his attempts to persuade were clumsy and heavy-handed.  Goodness only knows what his elderly parents made of their son’s delusions, but if we ever needed more evidence that ordinary people in Tudor England could be just as troubled, complex, thoughtful and pathetic (in the sense of arousing compassion) as in society today, then we have it in Miles Fry.


[1] Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth I (London: Pearson, 1998), p. 161.

The 100th Post

You are currently reading post number 100 on the many-headed monster. On realising this (statistically) significant event was approaching, we monster heads decided it would be worth marking in some way. The blog has been enormously rewarding as an arena to think through our ideas and to share our archival discoveries, but also as a way to connect with you, the reader. Since our first post in July 2012, we have had more than 40,000 views and 541 comments, and we are enormously grateful that so many people have read our musings and engaged with us on the blog. Thus, this is a round-up of some pearls from the blog archive: our most popular posts, collectively and individually,  alongside a nominated personal favourite from each contributor. Enjoy, and we look forward to continuing to work with you in the future!

Our heaviest traffic on the ‘monster comes from the ‘The Future of History From Below Online Symposium’, a collection of multi-authored papers based on two conferences on the topic. For the heads, this has become an important resource for research and teaching, and was also responsible for our busiest day in July 2013 when we received a spectacular 481 views.

Mark Hailwood

Most popular post: The Immersive Turn: Or, what did a seventeenth-century drinking song sound like? (Nov. 2013)

Nominated post: “many of my favourite ‘monster posts are those that have generated a lot of debate about aspects of ‘the craft’ – digital v archival sources; the use of jargon etc – but the post I would like to nominate here does something rather different: it’s one of Brodie’s ‘Norwich Entertainments’ series, ‘Ballad-singers and dangerous news, with coffee‘ (Nov. 2012). Historians of early modern England now make a lot of use of printed materials like ballads and pamphlets, but we know less than we would like about their dissemination and consumption. This fascinating little post provides us with some valuable insight into the social history of print in an early modern city.”

Laura Sangha

Holy TableMost popular post: John Dee’s conversations with Angels (Nov. 2012)

Nominated post: “Jonathan’s Idols of the mind, or What does God look like? (June 2013) tackles a ticklish question: how did people in the past visualise God? The delightful post explores this central and controversial aspect of the early modern mentality, taking in some wonderful illustrations along the way.”

Brodie WaddellDante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Fair_Rosamund

Most popular post: Norwich Entertainments – Part III: A medieval royal mistress in the 17th century and beyond (Aug. 2012)

Nominated post: “Laura’s two History and Analogy posts (Sept. 2013). A light-hearted look at one of the least-discussed but most-important aspects of historical writing and teaching. Some of the examples, including some offered in the comments, got me chuckling.”

Jonathan Willis

david-starkey_2622826bMost popular post: Tudor history on TV, and a partial review of David Starkey’s ‘Music and Monarchy’ (Aug. 2013)

Nominated post: “Mark’s three-part ‘Workers Representation’ series. As someone who’s worked on ballads primarily as musical and textual artefacts (and for the evidence they provide about religious identity), the use of ballad images for information about occupational identity had never really occurred to me and these are a fascinating series of discussions. If I had to pick just one of the three, I think I’d go for ‘spinning a yarn’ (Sept. 2012): one of my favourite quotes has to be ‘a woman of lower or middling status didn’t need to wear the highest quality clothing to win a man’s heart – she needed to be able to make it’.”