When most people think of history, they think of a story. They think of time passing, people acting, events happening, and the record of such things.
Certainly, that is part of what history is–the narrative. And certainly you can write this sort of history, filling in gaps in the timeline, discussing new archival materials, and broadening scope.
But, to be perfectly honest, I usually find this kind of history rather boring. Unless I’m already keenly interested in a time period or a person, reading a basic narrative doesn’t hold my attention. And it definitely won’t win my attention if the subject is new to me.
For that, I have to see that the author is answering a unique question, trying a new method of analysis, or issuing a challenge. Whether or not it’s narrative doesn’t really matter to me–I like a collection of stories or unexpected asides as much as I can dig on a strong central story.
And so, naturally, this questioning, analytical, challenging, not-necessarily-narrative sort of history is the sort of history I’m trying to write.
(“Trying” being the operative word there…)
The problem is, with non-narrative, analytical history, you can basically start anywhere in your project. There is no obvious beginning or ending, and literally everything that you’ve collected looks potentially important, because your brain is making non-linear patterns of everything.
As in, instead of following a chronologically complacent piece of twine, you’re standing in the middle of a room decorated by Sherlock Holmes.
So, it’s best to start by figuring out your research questions, and some preliminary answers, because they will help narrow down what it is that you’ll need to talk about. And I’ve also found it helpful to divide the asking of questions into two categories: practical and analytical.
This category consists of two parts, with one set of questions helping to define the project’s ephemeral scope, and another set of questions helping to define the project’s tangible parameters, AKA, purpose vs. page numbers
Purpose questions are things like “what is the central object of my project?” and “which of the tools and methods at my disposal should I use to discuss this object?”
Page number questions consist of questions like “how long will this project need to be to answer all my questions?”, “how many chapters will I need?”, “what goes in each chapter?”
Purpose questions I start with right away, but page number questions are easier to answer after I’ve nailed down analytical questions.
These will vary based on the discipline and the project. But whatever you’re doing you should be able to answer questions like “what does my investigation add to my field?”, “now that I’ve selected a method, what do I want to uncover with it?”, “what interdisciplinary approaches will I need to master in order to make sense of this material?”
You should also be able to shape those questions pretty specifically–the more pointed the question, the better it can direct you.
So, for example, here’s my “what am I adding to my field?” question:
When I look inside of middle-class Victorian asylums to see who/what designated a man as well or ill, what can I learn about Victorian culture, behavior, and medicine, and how do my findings fit into existing work on British masculinity and medicine? Also, how can I use my ethnographic observations to prove Victorian masculinity was a created, cultivated, perpetuated, often dangerous thing that continues to prescribe/limit accepted male behaviors (and affect male mental health) to this day?
As opposed to:
What am I adding to modern British history?
My method/theory questions pull this first question apart and ask me to consider how to discuss ethnography, cultivation of behavior, and diagnostic systems in precise but accessible manner. And my interdisciplinary questions ask me to consider how I fit into sociology and medical anthropology.
And now I’m off to the answering…