On the perils of being a non-fiction writer

When meeting new people there is always a question I dread. The most innocuous of polite questions: ‘What do you do?’ The reason I dread it? The reasons are legion.

1) I am not a fiction writer

When I say I am a writer some people get quite excited. However, when I explain I write non-fiction the conversation falters, their face visibly falling as they realise I am not J. K. Rowling. Fiction has a gloss that non-fiction does not, people aspire to write fiction, people understand fiction, people want to meet glossy, aspirational fiction writers. Alas, that is not me. So when I ruin the tone by mentioning the ‘non’ word, the conversation generally returns to the weather.

RBbooksx600
fiction

2) Non-fiction is so hard to define

I really struggle to sum up my niche. Non-fiction is such a huge genre, ranging from academic textbooks, through self-help bibles and narrative non-fiction, to biography. If I wrote in a neat sub-genre it might be easier, but explaining my books in one easy sentence is no mean feat. I usually resort to describing them as ‘gift books’ or worse, books you read on the loo (which when I’m feeling crass I might call ‘shiterature’). But really that doesn’t characterise what I do, it makes it sound too easy, like I just pluck any old thing off the internet, when in fact most of my books are the result of hours of research in the library. I think the problem is I always try and sum up my diverse body of work in a tidy blurb, which inevitably fails. I think from now on I am just going to describe the book I am currently working on, instead of trying to squash my work into a genre which doesn’t exist.

3) People are really patronising

I often find myself on the receiving end of some extremely patronising comments, usually from men or older people. Just this weekend I was chatting to a friend’s mum who I had not seen for a number of years. She said she’d heard I wrote books and summed it up with: ‘So you just collect together some trivia and then publish it’ and then added ‘It’s lucky your husband has a proper job so you can pay the bills’. I didn’t have the energy to explain the planning, research, thought and hard work that goes into every book. The pitches to publishers, the rejections, the revisions, the edits on the long road to publication.

pencil-and-idea-x600
the long journey from idea to publication

4) I am not a man

Sometimes I think if I were a man and I said I was a writer it would be different. People would perhaps instantly picture someone of substance, writing a serious book. I accept that some of the problem lies with myself, I am naturally self-depreciating and as I mentioned in point 2, I do struggle to describe what I do in a short sentence. However, there are many occasions where I feel like people react to me differently because I am a woman, especially a woman with three children. It’s as if the fact that I have kids instantly makes any endeavour a sideline to my actual real job of ‘being a parent’. That writing is just something I do with my spare time while waiting for my children to get home from school, not a real job at all.

5) Everyone is an expert

I write quite a lot of articles for Mental Floss, often fun lists such as 6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones or 5 of the Shortest Reigns in History. Readers often track me down on Twitter to berate me for my ignorance. Irate reader: ‘You didn’t include the mystic stone of Slough [not an actual stone] in your list of mysterious stones!’ Me: ‘That is because I only had room to do six, the article is not called ‘The Definitive List of All Mysterious Standing Stones Ever’ but ‘6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones’. Reader: ‘Yes, but the mystic stone of Slough is clearly the most important mystic stone ever! You don’t know anything, the whole article is now null and void.’ Me: block.

It’s like this at parties. I might say I am writing a book about the Golden Age of the Garden and the person I am speaking to will then talk to me at length about that time they went to Chatsworth and fell in the fountain. Or I might say I am writing about the history of the Bodleian Library and I’ll get an anecdote about their time as a student at Oxford. Obviously it’s lovely to hear people’s personal stories but sometimes it feel like people don’t expect me to actually know anything about my subject.

DSC_1803
Some of my books

7) It’s not a real job

If I were an accountant or a doctor or a hairdresser people would instantly have a picture in their mind of what my job entails. Say writer and people imagine a fiction writer. Say non-fiction writer and the frame of reference is lost.

Saying all this I have recently discovered that being a writer is actually a real job. A friend asked me to sign the back of her photos for her passport. I expressed doubts that I was eligible, after all I think you have to be a professional to qualify. My friend threw caution to the wind and got me to do it anyway, and in the space where I had to put profession, I wrote ‘writer’. Two weeks later she got her new passport and with that I realised at least someone, somewhere thought I had a real job.

 

 

Book announcement: The Book Lovers’ Miscellany

Exciting news, in September 2017 my next book will be published by Bodleian Library Publishing. I wanted to share here the gorgeous cover art and some more details:

3D low res

The  Blurb

Ever wondered how ink is made? Or what is the bestselling book of all time? Or which are the oldest known books in the world? Highbrow to lowbrow, all aspects of the book are celebrated and explored in The Book Lovers’ Miscellany.

From a list of unfinished novels, a short history of the comic, the story behind Mills and Boon and an entry on books printed with mistakes to a guide to the colours of Penguin paperback jackets and a list of the most influential academic books of all time.

Between these pages you will discover the history of paper, binding, printing and dust jackets; which books have faced bans; which are the longest established literary families; and which bestsellers were initially rejected. You can explore the output of the most prolific writers and marvel at the youth of the youngest published authors; learn which natural pigments were used to decorate a medieval bible; and what animal is needed for the making of vellum.

The ideal gift for every bibliophile, The Book Lovers’ Miscellany is full of fun facts, potted histories and curious lists, perfect for dipping into and sharing.

It was so much fun writing and researching this book as it allowed me to combine my love of history with my book-wormish tendencies. I really hope readers will be equally delighted by delving into its depths and I look forward to hearing your feedback!

Pre-order your copy here.

The birth of the bloomer: women’s dress reform

In 1840s America, women were weighted down by the heavy, long skirts which fashion and convention dictated they wear. The skirts dragged in the mud, restricted movement and prevented women from carrying out even basic physical tasks. Clothes began to be perceived as yet another way women were held back in society.

Enter Elizabeth Smith Miller

AmeliaBloomer-sig
Amelia Jenks Bloomer

of New York , who was inspired by the traditional dress of the Turkish and began sporting a shorter length of skirt with a pair of loose trousers, gathered at the ankle, underneath. Miller’s outfit immediately caught attention, with some marking it as scandalous, but others saw it as freeing and began to copy the style.

 

Amelia Jenks Bloomer, editor of the women’s temperance journal, The Lily, was impressed by the outfit and began to wear the ‘reform dress’ herself. She wrote about it in The Lily and such was the positive response that she decided to print drawings and patterns for the bloomers, encouraging others to make their own.

As Bloomer began wearing the outfit to her talks on women’s rights and dress reform she became indelibly associated with the garment and the press began to dub it ‘Bloomer’s costume’ and the name stuck. Fellow women’s rights activists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone also began sporting bloomers, aligning the issue of dress reform with the call for women’s suffrage and sparking a craze for the costume amongst forward-thinking women all over America.

Bloomer
‘bloomers’

But as so often happens today, the furore in the press over the impropriety of bloomers, began to over-shadow the issues the reformers were trying to promote. With regret many of the leading women’s right activists returned to wearing more conventional long skirts in order to keep the emphasis on their message rather than their fashion.

 

Consequentially the bloomer craze of the 1850s began to fade, but the issue of dress reform persisted well into the twenty-first century. Below is a transcript of Elizabeth Smith Miller’s recollection of the introduction of bloomers taken from the Elizabeth Smith Miller collection of the New York Public Library:

‘In the spring of 1851, while spending many hours at work in the garden, I became so thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt, that the dissatisfaction–the growth of years–suddenly ripened into the decision that this shackle should no longer be endured. The resolution was at once put into practice. Turkish trousers to the ankle with a skirt reaching some four inches below the knee, were substituted for the heavy, untidy and exasperating old garment.

Soon after making this change, I went to Seneca Falls to visit my cousin Mrs. Stanton. She had so long deplored with me our common misery in the toils of this crippling fashion, that this means of escape was hailed with joy and she at once joined me in wearing the new costume. Mrs. Bloomer, a friend and neighbor of Mrs. Stanton, then adopted the dress, and as she was editing a paper in which which she advocated it, the dress was christened with her name. Mrs. Stanton and I often exchanged visits and sometimes travelled together. We endured, in various places, much gaping curiosity and the harmless jeering of street boys. In the winter of 1852 and 1853, when my father was in congress, I was also in the cosmopolitan city of Washington, where I found my peculiar costume much less conspicuous. My street dress was a dark brown corded silk, short skirt and straight trousers, a short but graceful and richly trimmed French cloak of black velvet with drooping sleeves, called a “cantatrice”–a sable tippet and a low-crowned beaver hat with a long plume.

I wore the short dress and trousers for many years, my husband, being at all times and in all places, my staunch supporter. My father, also gave the dress his full approval, and I was also blessed by the tonic of Mrs. Stanton’s inspiring words: “The question is no longer [rags], how do you look, but woman, how do you feel?”

The dress looked tolerably well in walking standing and walking, but in sitting, a more awkward, uncouth effect, could hardly be produced imagined–it was a perpetual violation of my love of the beautiful. So, by degrees, as my aesthetic senses gained claimed the ascendancy, I lost sight of the great advantages of my dress–its lightness and cleanliness on the streets, its allowing me to carry my babies up and down stairs with perfect ease and safety, and its beautiful harmony with sanitary laws–, consequently the skirt was lengthened several inches and the trousers abandoned. As months passed, I proceeded in this retrograde movement, until, after a period of some seven years, I quite “fell from grace” and found myself again in the bonds of the old swaddling clothes–a victim to my love of beauty.

In consideration of what I have previously said in regard to fashion, I feel at liberty to add that I do not wear a heavy, trailing skirt, nor have I ever worn a corset; my bonnet shades my face; my spine was preserved from the bustle, my feet from high heels; my shoulders are not turreted, nor has fashion clasped my neck with her choking collar.

All hail to the day when we shall have a reasonable and beautiful dress that shall encourage exercises on the road and in the field–that shall leave us the free use of our limbs–that shall help and not hinder, our perfect development.’

Chatting about weasels, insults and writing on Bookmark

On 11 February I was thrilled to be included in an edition of Leigh Chamber‘s Bookmark on Cambridge 105, alongside the author Tom Connolly.

You can listen here as we discuss research, inspiration and writing non-fiction.

Eponyms from Greek & Roman Mythology

Many commonly (or not so commonly) used words have their origins in characters from Greek or Roman history/mythology. Some stories behind these words named after people are below:

Draconianexcessively harsh laws

mercury-13
Mercury: Roman messenger god

Named after the Greek law maker named Draco, who in 621 BCE passed a number of very strict laws, including the death penalty for minor infringements.

Mercurialsomeone with sudden changes in mood or opinion.

Named from Mercury the Roman messenger god, who was changeable in nature.

Narcissistichaving an excessive obsession with one’s own appearance.

From the myth of Narcissus a beautiful hunter who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and fell madly in love with himself. Unable to tear himself away he spent all his time gazing lovingly at his own reflection, losing his will to live and eventually dying.

Martialrelating to war.

Named from Mars, the Roman God of war.

Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited
Narcissus: painting by Caravaggio

Tantalisingto be tormented by something desirable but unobtainable

From the myth of Tantalus who was handed down an eternal punishment to stand forever in a pool of water, which receded every time he stooped down to drink and with delicious low-hanging fruit just out of his grasp.

Thespianan actor

From Thespis, said to be the first actor to take to the stage in Ancient Greece.

Eroticrelating to sexual desire

Named from Eros, the Greek god of love.

Mentora trusted adviser

From the character Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was Odysseus’s good friend who gave sage advice during his epic voyage.

Panicuncontrollable fear and anxiety

From the Greek god Pan, who could cause sudden, contagious fear in people and animals through the power of his voice.

This is just a short summary of some of the eponyms I found from Greek and Roman mythology, please leave a comment to share others.

The Last Words of Evariste Galois

Evariste Galois (1811–32) was an extremely promising French mathematician however a series of strange events and a tragic early death would conspire to obscure his talents for many years.

Born in Bourg-la-Reine near Paris, France in 1811, Evariste’s father was Nicolas-Gabriel Galois, the village

Galois-P2
Evariste Galois by his brother, Alfred

mayor. From the age of twelve Evariste attended the lycée of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, but it was a time of great upheaval at the school and many pupils were expelled and the quality of the teaching greatly suffered. Evariste began to tire of his studies, all except for mathematics, for which he developed a precocious talent.

At the age of fifteen, Evariste was already studying the original papers of the celebrated eighteenth -century mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange. He began to focus only on mathematics to the detriment to his other studies and despite working at a very advanced level in maths (he studied Leçons sur le calcul des fonctions which was aimed at professional mathematicians) he twice failed to secure a place at Paris’ prestigious École Polytechnique and much to his bitter disappointment instead went to the more modest École Normale. Here he continued to excel at mathematics and was able to make some very complex leaps of logic, however in his other studies he was unusually weak. His literature examiner remarked of his exam:

This is the only student who has answered me poorly, he knows absolutely nothing. I was told that this student has an extraordinary capacity for mathematics. This astonishes me greatly, for, after his examination, I believed him to have but little intelligence.’

Mathematical genius

At the age of just eighteen Evariste began publishing papers, one on continued fractions made it into Annales de mathématiques but another paper on the solvability of algebraic equations which he submitted to the French Academy of Sciences was lost and never published. Evariste’s disappointments were compounded by the tragic death of his father who, depressed by political infighting, committed suicide. His father’s death deeply affected the young Evariste and understandably caused him to behave somewhat erratically on occasion and become more engaged in political causes.

In 1830 Evariste re-wrote the lost paper he had previously submitted it to the French Academy of Sciences to be considered for the Grand Prix of the Academy in Mathematics. However in a strange quirk of fate his paper was lost once again as he gave it to Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier who took it home but unfortunately died a few weeks later and the paper was never found amongst his things.

Evariste was by now becoming increasingly political and in 1830 he penned a pro-Republican letter which got him expelled from the École Normale and he was twice arrested and once imprisoned for six months for his stridently Republican views.

In 1831 Evariste, demonstrating quite some determination, for a third time re-wrote his piece on the solvability of algebraic equations and again submitted it to the academy. This time it was read but received a negative critique – which modern mathematicians have subsequently suggested was simply because they failed to follow his advanced and original thinking and falsely presumed his theories to be wrong.

Death

7_102014_burr-hamilton-duel8201On 30th May 1832 twenty-year-old Evariste Galois took part in an ill-advised duel, the reasons for which are murky but some have suggested it was staged to resemble a police ambush, others have indicated that it was over a woman, Mademoiselle Stéphanie-Félicie Poterin du Motel. What we do know is that the night before the duel Evariste was aware he might not survive and so stayed up all night, feverishly writing out his many mathematical ideas, which he then sent to his friend, Auguste Chevalier.

His theories safely committed to paper, Evariste met his opponent but was shot in the stomach. Hours later a peasant discovered his prone body and he was taken to hospital where he managed to relay some tragic last words to his dear brother, Alfred:

Don’t cry. I need all my courage to die at twenty.’

Galois’s papers were annotated and posthumously published in 1846. These ideas and conjectures were built upon and refined by fellow mathematicians Joseph Liouville and Camille Jordan and have gone on to form the basis of group theory, finally bringing the brilliance of Evariste Galois to light.

 

For more Famous Last Words see my new book Famous Last Words: An Anthology published by Bodleian Library Publishing on 29 April 2016.

Bodleianalia: my upcoming book!

I am very pleased and excited to announce that Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library a book I have been working on with Violet Moller will be out in October 2016!

Here is a blurb on the book:

Bod_jacketWhich is the smallest book in the Bodleian Library? Who complained when their secret pen name was revealed in the library’s catalogue? How many miles of shelving are there in the Book Storage Facility? What is the story behind the library’s refusal to lend a book to King Charles I? And, what is fasciculing? The answers to these questions and many more can be found inside this intriguing miscellaneous collection of curious facts and stories about the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Home to more than 12 million books and a vast array of treasures including the Gutenberg bible, J.R.R. Tolkien’s hand-painted watercolours for The Hobbit, Shakespeare’s First Folio and four thirteenth-century copies of Magna Carta, the Bodleian Library is one of the most magnificent libraries in the world with a fascinating history.

Bodleianalia delights in uncovering some of the lesser known facts about Britain’s oldest university library. Through a combination of lists, statistics and bitesize nuggets of information, it reveals many of the quirks of fate, eccentric characters and remarkable events which have contributed to the making of this renowned institution. The perfect book for trivia-lovers and bibliophiles, it also offers readers a behind-the-scenes peek into the complex workings of a modern, world-class library in the twenty-first century.

******

It was such a pleasure to work on this book and get such fantastic access to the amazing Bodleian Library and the people who work there. Over the past few months I have been trundling back and forth from Cambridge to Oxford (where happily my parents still reside) to visit the Bodleian and meet librarians, book conservators and keepers of the records to research Bodleianalia.

I hope the fruits of my research will make Bodleianalia an interesting read and that readers will share in my fascination with this august library and enjoy a glimpse behind the scenes.

Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library will be published in October 2016 by Bodleian Library Publishing.

Meet the explorers

The Age of Discovery was fuelled by the dreams of a number of fascinating characters who set sail to find unknown lands, collect new commodities and pursue glory. Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins uses the first-hand accounts from a wide variety of explorers from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries to bring to life the wonder of encountering exotic animals, foods and peoples for the first time. The story behind these voyages and the people who made them possible are themselves compelling.

I thought it might be nice to introduce some of the explorers whose vivid accounts of their travels furnished me with a wealth of information for the book.

Meet the explorers

George Barrington (1755–1804) provides the perfect story of redemption. Arrested as a petty pickpocket, Barrington was shipped to Australia on a convict ship, later gaining emancipation and proving himself to be an upright sort of fellow he was made high constable of Parramatta.

George_Barrington
George Barrington

Andrew Battel (1565–1614) was an English privateer (some may say pirate) who was kidnapped by the Portuguese in 1590 and taken into the interior of Africa where he spent many years under the control of his Portuguese masters trading with the natives. When he was released some twenty years later in 1610 he travelled back to his home in Essex. There he recounted the fascinating story of the people, cultures and animals he had encountered to Samuel Purchas, a keen collector and compiler of travelogues, who published Battell’s account which provided the first European description of Angola and the Congo.

Hapless sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Mendez Pinto (c.1509–83) suffered several shipwrecks, was sold into slavery on at least three separate occasions and was attacked by pirates but lived to tell the, at times far-fetched, tale.

John Saris (c.1580–1643) captained the first British ship to land in Japan and secured a trade deal with the Japanese. However on his return to England he disgraced himself by showing off his collection of Japanese Shunga (erotic paintings) in polite society.

William Dampier (NPG 538)
Captain William Dampier, Oil on canvas, c. 1697-1698

Captain William Dampier (1651–1715), was the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times and during his voyages was involved in a wealth of adventures, including getting court martialled for cruelty, becoming involved in piracy and rescuing Andrew Selkirk from an uninhabited island in the South Pacific where he had been marooned alone for over four years (and is thought to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).

Lionel Wafer (1640–1705): After quarrelling with Captain William Dampier on a journey through South America he was abandoned on the Isthmus of Darien in Panama and went to live with the Cuna Indians. Wafer studied the Indian’s culture and language and became assimilated, taking on their dress and sporting a nose ring. After jilting the Indian chief’s daughter he eventually reunited with Captain Dampier and travelled back to England where he wrote an enthralling account of his travels.

d54f6-wafer1
An image from Lionel Wafer’s travelogue

It is interesting to note that many of these men dabbled in criminality, indicating perhaps that to adventure into the unknown at that time an individual needs a certain devil-may-care attitude. However we are greatly in their debt for recording their stories and sharing with us the wonderment of discovering new lands, foods, animals and peoples.

Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic is published on 7 April 2016 by British Library Publishing.

Fidel Castro, caviar and fossilised poop!

What do Fidel Castro, caviar and fossilised poo all have in common? They have all featured in articles I have recently written!Fidel_Castro_-_MATS_Terminal_Washington_1959

I have been rather busy recently so have not had much time to update my blog, but I thought I would share the latest articles I have written for Mental Floss.

Firstly, eight famous historical people excommunicated by the Catholic Church.

Secondly, the world’s most expensive ingredients.

Lastly, fascinating trace fossils you can visit.