I can haz amateur historiez writingz?
May 3, 2009 6:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in writing one history book in my life, over a long period of time. I'm not, and most likely will not be getting, any sort of degree in history. I'm currently pursuing another career, and would like to research this over a long period, on the side. What would I be doing now to make this happen?

I'm interested in writing a history of fiddle music. My interest is how the violin evolved in Italy and then through cheaper reproductions from Germany, and local makers, was copied and adapted for music all over the world.

I'm a fiddle player and I have some fairly minor experience in journalism. I've written a fair amount of fiction and non-fiction in the past. I'm not that worried about my writing ability.

However, this would obviously involve vast quantities of research, something that I've never really done a lot of. I know a lot about the subject just from reading and being around fiddle players and doing my own sort of interviewing, but have never really written anything down. And never done any kind of historical research.

I'm going to nursing school currently because, well...I wanted a stable job.

So can you humor me here? Say I was interested in working on this project for 10 or 15 years. What would I be reading and doing in the meantime? Would there be classes that it would be beneficial for me to take? (I live in Boston for the time being) What kind of records and notes would I keep? What do you call this process? Where would I meet people who were interested in doing this kind of work?

I have had this idea in my head for a long time so I appreciate any input you have.

posted by sully75 to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
The answer here really depends on what kind of book you want to write. Who is your audience? Do you want to write a scholarly book with references or is it going to be a coffee-table-type book for people who are interested in fiddles? The requirements for research and documentation are very different in each case.

Either way, I would begin the way historians begin, which is by reading everything already written on the subject. This will help you figure out whether another books is necessary, and how your book is going to be different from all the others.

But this is where you are going to run into your first problem: unless you have an academic affiliation, it will be difficult go gain access to an academic library that has the resources you need, and, more importantly, access to databases that list journal articles, etc. (I don't know how familiar you are with historical research, but if the answer is "not very" you might want to consider taking a research-focused history course at local university; this will teach you how to do historical research and will also give you library privileges for the semester. The specific sub-field of the course is not as important as it being a research and writing focused course.) If you're in New York, the New York Public Library is a very good research library.

There are many, many more steps to this process, especially if you want to publish this book, but the steps above are essential to starting.
posted by agent99 at 7:01 AM on May 3, 2009

For starters, most of the history profession uses the Chicago Style of notation. This is the style of notation you would be expected to use for when you cite your sources.

All history students are required to take a class called Historical Methods. This class, depending on the level (undergraduate / graduate), generally teaches how and where to do research, but also, the different types of approaches to take when writing history. If you're interested in this, you could probably find a book that conveys the same information, though I doubt that it's a class you could pick up anywhere but a 4 year institution.

Going more directly to your question. in terms of notes and records, any book you read and want to cite, you need to take down the author's name, title, publishing information (where, who, and year), and the page number. Of course, if the text if you wish to quote directly. Essentially, the notation style above will tell you what information you need depending on what the source is, such as a book or material at an archive.

Depending on what type of history, technical or popular, your sources will vary. Primary documents are considered the best sources to base and begin your research (such as the writings of the original Germans you mentioned above - or commentary on them by peers of the time). In some cases, you have to use secondary sources for lack of primary sources, and that can include a whole slew of other material. To better explain, here are the wiki articles on Primary Sources and Secondary Sources.

For a starting point, I'd find books or journal articles on fiddles, and see what has already been written, as well as what sources they used. Perhaps contact professors of music who specialize in fiddles, and ask them for good starting points, as well.
posted by Atreides at 7:07 AM on May 3, 2009

Barbara Tuchman was a self-trained and very successful historian; you might find her essays collected in Practicing History quite helpful.
posted by liketitanic at 7:51 AM on May 3, 2009

Given the very large geographic and chronological scope of the topic, most of your research will probably be from secondary sources, mostly scholarly books and articles. So the most useful thing would be access to a university library (or public library of similar size and quality, like the New York Public Library or the British Library). Most archival projects are quite narrow in scope - either geographically or chronologically or both (one town over hundreds of years, politics over 20 years, etc). But if you would like to look specifically at the papers of an organisation or individual - like a fiddling club you know, or a fiddling teacher - then you might find some of your project going archival.

(Just to differentiate: primary sources are produced at the time you are writing about, or not long after; secondary sources are the books and articles based on historical research into primary sources. Secondary sources can themselves also be primary sources, but would be the primary source for the period they are produced in: thus Marx's Das Capital is secondary for talking about the middle ages - and somewhat out of date - but an important primary source for researching intellectual movements of the 19th century).

To this, you could add oral histories which would be extremely interesting and valuable - such as how fiddling is taught, how techniques are passed on, etc. Oral history is its own discipline that not that many historians do - you may be able to find books or articles on good practice in oral history.

As for classes to take: that depends on your own historical background. If you haven't done that much European history, take all the basic classes. It's so much easier to talk about history if you have the chronology of the basic history in your head. More specifically, you would probably benefit greatly from history of music classes no matter what the topic: you'll learn more about not just the music, but also the kinds of questions that historians of music are asking. I would check out both the history department and the music/musicology departments of local universities; you might be particularly interested in courses in ethnomusicology as well.

As for techniques of research: well, historians are notoriously lacking in any disciplinary discipline - we don't have a given method. I like to take notes on computer, because I am less likely to lose them. Some notes I take into a spreadsheet (when I want to essentially database them - they are short items attached to a date and reference), but most I take into notepad or a word processor. I also use paper, though, when it's more comfortable when taking notes from books. Book stands are great, though, for the two handed typing while taking notes.

Obviously, for people who are committed to taking notes and organising them all on the computer, a laptop/portable computer is a necessity. Even if you get borrowing priviledges, many books are non-circulating, especially important reference books. But you don't need a very smart computer. I was doing archival research in 2002 on a laptop that ran Windows 3.1 - all I needed was a word processor and a spreadsheet. Some of the new netbooks available (like the Asus Eee PC) are great - their small size is an asset, as you can more easily fit into a carrell with books, etc. Think about battery life, and whether the libraries you might be working in

How notes are organised is also up to the individual historian - I tend to group mine by topic and/or location of source. So I have folders for "Enclosures" and for "Population" and "Probate"; I also have folder for "British Library" - and when I'm writing, I'm like - okay, I know that those land assessments were in the British library stuff, so look there. But I think topic/chronological is more efficient - I only started the archive-based thing when I was taking notes from manuscripts and had no idea what they might say (they could be all over). I have one folder for secondary, with each file named with the family name of the author and date and a short title, but you'll be using more secondary than I am and will want to sort otherwise.

Considering the nature of the project, you might find it useful to do what my advisor does - keep your notes on index cards. The computer equivalent would be short files. For example, if you were reading a book on Italian fiddles, and you had bits about the techniques of construction, and other notes on the passing on of dance songs, you might have two different files - one to keep in your folder on construction, another on the passing of songs. Both word processor files could have the bibliographic information - the benefit of computer based notes is that you can just copy and paste.

One thing I do do religiously is to keep full reference material with all of my notes - so every file, whether spreadsheet, simple text file or word processor, etc, has the full bibliographic or archival information somewhere - usually right at the top. Then I tend to only cite the page or folio in parenthesis after the relevant note - so like 'Mr Newbold representing 18 towns to complain about the project (10).' I put quotations in double quotation marks (because I am North American), and leave all paraphrasing (the majority of notes, whether from secondary or primary) not, but still the page. If you are taking very detailed notes, you could just put a "Page 10" at the beginning of the section, and then draw a line when you switch to page 11. But it really helps to have unambiguous referencinig in your notes, so that there is no wondering when you go to do your citation later. (This is also all true for nursing research, so please forgive me if I sound patronising. I've been recently teaching a 12-year old how to cite, and thus I'm back to basics. But now he's better at citation than some of the undergraduates I have taught.)

Okay, that's a lot to start. But it's simpler than it sounds. The challenge of history is less in methodology than it is in mastery of information and data management; here we do share methods, but are usually quite idiosyncratic about how we do it. Like I said, my advisor is committed to index files or actually quarter-sheets (thinner than index cards, slightly larger while still easily shuffled and moved around). But I'm more of a computer notes type. Spreadsheets are useful if you have large amounts of data, or want to sort your notes by something specific like date, but it sounds like most of your work would be more general and not quantitative.

The oral history stuff sounds really good - and it may be worth thinking about concentrating on that with only a bit of historical research as a background, because while anyone could sit in a library and summarise the history, only you could do the oral history and write about the living community of fiddlers, and how they pass on their music, what it means to them, etc.
posted by jb at 7:52 AM on May 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

Sorry - cut off one of my own sentences. I was writing about batteries, and just wanted to note that when using a computer for research, you want to know whether you'll have electrical outlets. Some libraries don't have them in the reading rooms, shockingly enough (UL, I'm looking at you!).
posted by jb at 7:57 AM on May 3, 2009

Oh - about the part-time thing: that is totally possible. Not easy (I admire your dedication), but definitely possible. The best PhD I have read was written by a part-time history student who was employed full-time while researching and writing; she took twice as long as full-time students, but produced work just as good (better, I think).
posted by jb at 8:05 AM on May 3, 2009

I am a historian, and have written books, but I've found no subject can interest me more than two or three years. Though that is not completely true. Put together, all the books, papers, and pieces I've published do show my interest in one topic; be it a large one.

Now, every person is different, of course. But, I reckon it is safe to say that the journey has to be at least as rewarding as the goal. Especially since you want to embark on a long journey. And courses or reference books may teach you some tricks, but those tricks can easily be learned when you feel you need more experience in something at some point.

Just try to have fun, would be my only advice. Build your own fiddle, for instance. Set up a website about fiddling, with audio and video. Find others to do such projects collaboratively. Make notes while you're experimenting. And as soon as you've found what you want to say, things will fall in place.

But, just don't gamble on that one big thing to be a success; have some successes beforehand.
posted by ijsbrand at 8:12 AM on May 3, 2009

I love your idea. I agree that taking a course or two, perhaps at night, on the nuts and bolts of historical research and writing will help you out a lot.

As for what to do... start taking notes. A lot of notes. ijsbrand's idea of using a blog as your learning tool and notepad is brilliant. You can write a million short pieces, get a handle on it, and your entire blog is there later for you as a resource.

Actually, a wiki might be even better since it can take smaller loose ideas more easily and you don't need to write "to" an audience yet. It'll grow and improve organically over many years, and after a few (maybe five?) it will probably help your idea 'gel' into one focus. After from there on it can keep growing and spidering as your reference material / notebook. What you add in the book is organization and the strong narrative strands that tie it all together.
posted by rokusan at 8:28 AM on May 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

First of all, if you want to use primary sources from Italy or Germany, then your proficiency at reading those languages will be an issue. It's worth thinking about this while you still have lots of time to learn new languages.

Secondly, I think it's a good idea to spend some time investigating what primary and secondary sources are available before you dive into reading. You can start this immediately by using free websites such as Google Scholar and Google Books, and just by searching the internet generally. You can also try searching lots of library (university and public) and museum catalogues: be as circumspect as possible, and also consider images and objects as well as printed texts. Use something like Zotero to create a big bibliography of potentially interesting material. At first, collect everything.

This will mean that when you start doing proper research, you will have at least a rough idea of what the most important books are, where the useful sources are located, what you will need to do to access them, and how you might be able to write something that is new and interesting.
posted by mattn at 9:18 AM on May 3, 2009

I know little about the History game, and less about fiddles. That being said, I'd imagine that if you could interview some key figures in the fiddle community (players, makers, etc), you'd have some pretty unique perspectives to include in a book.

An interview or two each year for the 10 or 15 years of the project would probably result in a pretty interesting archive.
posted by i love cheese at 10:20 AM on May 3, 2009

Some good advice here, but also some advice that I (respectfully) disagree with.

It seems as if you want to produce a historical narrative (the movement of the fiddle from Italy through Germany and then into worldwide mass production), while many people are pushing you into working on an oral history about the modern fiddling community. Unfortunately, you can't have it both ways, and it seems as if you want to do the former.

Your narrative is a good one - focusing on a single object as it makes it way through various historical epochs, and evolves along the way. Mark Kurlansky has made a fortune writing popular histories of this sort, and more serious academics also do similar work. I'd suggest you read The Coming of the Book, which was a pioneering work in this genre. If this is the kind of work you want to do, I'd skip the oral history aspect, as you'd be going off in too many directions.

As others have said, you'll want to decide if this is going to be a serious, academic work, or a more accessible popular work. Really, it can be both if you want it to be, but you have to finesse the writing a bit. You might want to check out Robert Bartlett's The Making of Europe. It's nor in your field, but it's a very readable work that works closely with primary sources, which is a tricky thing to do...it will probably teach you a lot about how you want to write.

Again, as others have said, you'll want to learn a bit about historiography, if only so you understand how and why various historians write the way they go. Specifically, you'll want to learn about the evolution of social history, cultural history, and post-modern history, among other issues. If you can speak with confidence about the Annales school and "mentalities", you're on your way. You don't have to apply a specific methodology to your writing, but it helps to know about them.

Languages will also be a barrier if you want to work with Italian and German sources, but no overly so, depending on your skill with languages (it's not as if you're trying to learn Arabic here). Things will get harder for you if you want to include images (of sheet music, or various instruments), as you'll have to track them down and secure rights if you plan on publishing the work. But these obstacles shouldn't overwhelm you if you're determined to do this, as it sounds like you are.
posted by hiteleven at 10:50 AM on May 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Whatever you do, start managing your sources with zotero from the start. No notecards necessary, and it spits professional bibliographies out in seconds.
posted by The White Hat at 10:59 AM on May 3, 2009

Seconding Zotero--and back up those files in multiple locations.

Go ahead and start reading, writing, and taking notes. At the same time you might want to review basic principles of historiography--try googling "historiography syllabus" to see what professors assign.

A ton of excellent historical work has been done by self-trained historians. Go for it.
posted by LarryC at 12:10 PM on May 3, 2009

We are suggesting an oral history of the modern fiddling community because this is a unique thing that the original poster can do, that would really set their work apart from other non-scholarly histories of the topic. Another source my husband just thought of: violin appraisers, who have to know a great deal about the history of the instrument and the techniques of construction.

I imagine that since the poster is not interested in pursuing a history degree at any level, that they are not interested in scholarly history. Which means that they do not need to know about cultural history, social history, post-modern history, mentalities or even the Annales (though I'm a big fan of the later). Not even all academic historians need to know that stuff, unless of course you are suggesting that all academic historians must also master demographic history, economic history, military and technology history - basically, the history of everything. What they might want to know is some more music history or ethnomusicology, which would be relevant to the history of a particular folk instrument and art form.

As for a primary source based narrative that covers hundreds of years: the only people who I imagine would be capable of such a thing either work in the distant past for which there are very few sources (classical, early medieval), or are at the end of a career in archival history and thus have a life-time worth of research to draw on. There is a very serious and practical reason that PhDs in history are not large sweeping projects like this one; "history of the fiddle" might sound narrow, but the sources are scattered across hundreds of archives, thousands of old publications. In fact, one shouldn't even begin a PhD without having identified the archival sources - and only a few archives at that. A practical primary source research project would probably like "the introduction of the fiddle from Italy to Germany" covering a few decades, maybe a century or two, and you stop there. As an archival historian, I am hard-pressed to even think about where to begin on such a topic: unlike high political history or the history of the book, there aren't immediately obvious sources to go to. When I first read this question, I immediately thought of David Underdown's book on the history of cricket, but when I looked more closely at it, I realised that it was a book not on the history of cricket, but on cricket in one area of England in the 18th century. And Underdown is a retired professional historian with decades of research experience.

That said, printed primary sources would be a valuable addition, and are much easier to find and to work with than archival sources. If you are working in the history of fiddling in the New World, a lot of that is coming through the British Isles and thus there may be printed sources (song or ballad sheets) available in English. But from what little I know of fiddling, it's a very oral art without much more publication, and historic songsheets are mostly about the lyrics.

But most popular histories such as are in fact written based on secondary sources, and serve a very valuable purpose: to take narrow, focused and often very dry and technical histories of only small aspects of the topic, and to synthesize them into something both more readable and more informative because it looks at the larger picture.
posted by jb at 12:19 PM on May 3, 2009

We are suggesting an oral history of the modern fiddling community because this is a unique thing that the original poster can do, that would really set their work apart from other non-scholarly histories of the topic. Another source my husband just thought of: violin appraisers, who have to know a great deal about the history of the instrument and the techniques of construction.

But that's not what the OP wants to do. I could suggest they write a kid's book about a magic talking fiddle, but that's not what they wanted, either.

Also, I am aware of how a PhD research works, thanks. In the case of the OP's subject, I'm sure they would not have to delve so deeply into the archival material. I'm not a music historian, but I know that music history is not exactly a small racket. Plenty of meta-histories have been written off of secondary sources for all sorts of topics, and music history certainly isn't an obscurantist pursuit. I'd say if you did a quick look on violins in JStor or Google Scholar, you would find plenty of hits.

And seeing as this person wants to spend 10-15 years on the project, and seems willing to learn the academic side of things, I don't think there's anything wrong with learning a little historiography.
posted by hiteleven at 4:30 PM on May 3, 2009


Thanks for all the help. I knew I'd get some good information, but this is really excellent.

For the record my undergraduate degree is in Jazz Bass Performance, so I have a music education background, a reasonable knowledge of music history and some European history knowledge.

The Fatal Shore is a history book that I thought was fairly remarkable. I don't know, perhaps it's the history writer's Alanis Morrisette but I thought it cut a good balance between being highly readable and covering the subject in depth. And moving between specifics and general themes smoothly.

I do understand and have thought a lot about the width of the subject and whether it would be possible to do any justice to any specific element within the world of fiddle playing and still be able to capture a broader picture. My primary historical knowledge is of the Anglo/Irish/Scottish fiddle traditions and their movement to the Northeast United States, with limited amounts of knowledge about Southern fiddle playing and how it interacted with African music in the South. But ideally the book I dream about starts with the pre-Cremonese (Italian) ancestors of the modern violin, goes to Cremona to see the violin perfected, follows it as it gains prominence in art music, then sees it reproduced cheaply in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia. From there you see a bursting of fiddle traditions throughout Europe, in wide variety (from Ireland to Hungary). And immediately following, the diaspora of fiddle playing that takes those traditions to North America and either a) fastidiously maintains them and avoids almost all outside influences (Cape Breton) or b) mixes them broadly with cross cultural influences (many of the southern traditions of fiddle playing). I'd probably end off with the music of Bob Wills, who brought those Southern traditions and mixed them with Jazz and Blues.

Regarding oral history, it's problematic I believe. I have spoken to a number of Cape Breton fiddle players, some quite old who will talk at great length and depth about the scottish roots of their music. But they are talking about immigrations that happened at minimum 100 years ago and many much more than that. So I'm not sure how much oral history can be valuable there. I can see that it would be good to give immediacy to text but not sure how much of that would be helpful in building a case.

But the other issue is that this is not art music and many people who played it were illiterate and most were quite poor. Most of the primary source material I've seen is from people not directly in the tradition (early musicologists and collectors) many of whom seem to have had odd opinions about what they were hearing and seeing.

So that is another question you've all brought up. Is it possible to write history about things that have limited recorded history but extensive oral records from much later in time?

Thanks again...there's a lot of really good things in here. The blog and wiki idea sounds great. Something I've thought about in the past but have the skills now to deal with.
posted by sully75 at 5:09 PM on May 3, 2009

So that is another question you've all brought up. Is it possible to write history about things that have limited recorded history but extensive oral records from much later in time?

You have to be careful, obviously, but there is something to be done. Mostly, you would think of these oral histories as oral histories, and recognise that they may not reflect perfectly the facts of the past, but certainly reflect the way that past is perceived by the current community. And the overall "story" itself can be at times quite accurate.

Robert Harms has done oral history into generations before his tellers' lives, in his book Games against Nature, if you would like to see such oral history in action.
posted by jb at 5:16 PM on May 3, 2009

So that is another question you've all brought up. Is it possible to write history about things that have limited recorded history but extensive oral records from much later in time?

Perhaps. I feel like anything that has been passed through oral tradition is valuable because it shows what the community has felt is important to remember, regardless of its accuracy (think of the Bible, for instance).

Also, look up the etymology for the words fiddle and viol/viola/violin; kind of an interesting scholarly quandary
posted by Think_Long at 5:17 PM on May 3, 2009

But the other issue is that this is not art music and many people who played it were illiterate and most were quite poor. Most of the primary source material I've seen is from people not directly in the tradition (early musicologists and collectors) many of whom seem to have had odd opinions about what they were hearing and seeing.

So that is another question you've all brought up. Is it possible to write history about things that have limited recorded history but extensive oral records from much later in time?

To answer your question indirectly by relating it to the paragraph above it, it is actually possible to attempt a reconstruction of a historical milieu based on biased primary source material. This is done all the time in order to understand medieval "popular culture". Since most medieval sources that come down to us were written by ecclesiastics, one must (and often can, though of course it's not easy) filter out their biases and get what is arguably a reasonably accurate picture of what they are actually describing.

Such work was big stuff in the 70s and early 80s. Two classics of the genre for the early modern period are The Return of Martin Guerre and The Cheese and the Worms...both quick reads well worth reading.

This can be tricky business, but it's possible that this or that scholar has done the hard work for you, so it's best to search out relevant articles and books. The trick is to get a feel for the material you're looking at - understand the motivations of your writers and their perceptions of what they are writing about.
posted by hiteleven at 5:37 PM on May 3, 2009

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