Occupation: For me, being an independent historian is a full-time job. I hold no other posts. I was originally set on an academic track but got sidelined into becoming a journalist (editorial writing, not reporting). For a time I worked as a hack who wrote history books on the side but eventually I realized that I had to focus on one or the other. History won. My departure was no great loss to journalism, though some might say my arrival has been no victory for Clio.
Area of Research: One of the benefits to being independent, or at least unaccountable to deans, donors, and department heads, is that I can skip around whenever I feel like it. I began my career, such as it is, researching the early history of radar and its impact on the Battle of Britain, then became a bit of a medievalist for a familial biography of the Percy earls of Northumberland (1066-1485), after which I investigated Washington’s intelligence operations during the War of Independence before moving on to a technological, economic, and cultural history of rifles in American history. These days, I’m looking into some well-known battles and gearing up for some work on the seventeenth century. (I apologize for the vagueness of that last sentence but you’ll understand that, to paraphrase the psalmist, I must keep my mouth with a bridle regarding certain projects.)
Education: Cambridge University granted me a doctorate in history, which was nice of them. Before that, the usual B.A.
Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002).
Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (Bantam Dell, 2006).
American Rifle: A Biography.(Delacorte, 2008).
The Great Red God (Random House; 2034 by the time I finish it).
The first thing I had to learn about establishing myself as an indie was that I had to think and behave as a small business, not as a tortured artist to whom rewards should, in a fair world, flow naturally.
To that end, independents must concentrate on conceiving ideas that stand some chance of success (i.e., will earn a profit for you, your agent, and your publisher). You need to think hard about your audience and what it’s interested in. You must think commercially, not academically.
That doesn’t mean that you have to write stupidly. I use as many primary sources and visit as many archives as anyone, and each of my books is accompanied by a full scholarly bibliography and endnotes. But all that stuff is tucked unobtrusively away at the back so it doesn’t interfere with the narrative.
In the text itself, the key challenge is to stop, desist, cease writing like a professor. The hideous jargon and incomprehensibility that has infected academic prose may aid your quest for tenure and make you sound frightfully smart but you can forget about selling a book to a commercial publisher. What I’m saying is, learn some style.
There are two related ways to improve one’s style. I hope I don’t sound too much like a port-swilling Young Fogey, but you must read the Greats and learn some of their tricks. There is more erudition and wit, clarity and irony in a single paragraph of Gibbon, Trevor-Roper, Macaulay, Joseph Ellis, or Parkman, than in the entirety of most scholarly monographs.
The second is, well, just write. For this, a couple of years in journalism (or blogging) writing to a deadline is a wondrous tonic to most of what ails young scholars seeking to go commercial. After that, you need to learn to edit yourself. Remember, easy reading means hard writing.
So, becoming an independent historian isn’t effortless and there are any number of obstacles to success. On the other hand, the rewards are tempting. Unlike institutional historians, I don’t have to mark papers or attend boring conferences; neither does my research hinge on getting a grant, or my advancement on pleasing committees.
Better still, being independent means that I can afford to take risks in terms of format or subject. At the moment, for example, I’m experimenting with new and original forms of style, content, and structure that certainly wouldn’t pass muster with any academic press or journal. Now, these projects may never pan out—or may just get panned—but the point is that I am able, at least, to do it.
Being an independent writer is not, of course, for everyone. You need a head for taking calculated risks, and a body that can take blows, but it’s really not so bad once you get used it.
For more on Alexander Rose and his publications, visit his website at http://www.alexrose.com.
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