Note: Links to books are affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you purchase books through these links, I’ll make a small commission, which helps me keep Drafting the Past going. Thanks for supporting our guests and the podcast! You can also support Drafting the Past by becoming a monthly contributor via Patreon.
In this episode, I interviewed historian Dr. Abby Mullen, assistant professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. In her former role at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Abby not only worked on software designed for historians, but she also created and hosted a narrative history podcast, Consolation Prize, which looked at U.S. diplomacy through the lens of the country’s consuls. Kate and Abby talk about what it takes to write for a listening audience, the joys of using Tropy to manage primary source research, and much more.
MENTIONED IN THE SHOW:
- Zotero, for bibliographic references
- Tropy, software that helps historians manage sources
- We break down a section of Consolation Prize season 2, episode 1, “Troublemakers in Tahiti”
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, where Mullen found the Tahitian bird sound
- The Preble Hall Podcast, from the U.S. Naval Academy Museum
- 99% Invisible podcast, which Mullen says is a great show for thinking about focus
- Ian W. Toll, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
- W. Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
- Jack Hart, Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction
- Eric Nuzum, Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling
- Glen Weldon, NPR’s Podcast Start Up Guide: Create, Launch, and Grow a Podcast on Any Budget
Abby Mullen 0:00
I think the best pieces of writing advice I’ve gotten were from reading books about podcasting. And those books more than anything helped me think about narrative.
Kate Carpenter 0:16
This is Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. And I am your host, Kate Carpenter. My guest in this episode is Dr. Abby Mullen.
Abby Mullen 0:25
Thanks for having me.
Kate Carpenter 0:26
Abby is a historian and assistant professor at the United States Naval Academy. Before that, she worked at the Royal Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, where she worked on research software for historians like Tropy, and also created and hosted a narrative history podcast called Consolation Prize, about U.S. diplomacy through the lens of American consuls. I was delighted to have the chance to talk to Abby about writing for a podcast, using Tropy for research, and much more. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Abby Mullen 1:01
So I was just talking to a colleague about this earlier this morning, actually. And I said, you know, I listen to this podcast. And all these people have such clear, obvious, like things that they do. I started my PhD when my daughter was one. And she’s 11 now, and my son is six. And so the trajectory has been complicated. Let’s put it that way. And so I did my PhD at Northeastern University. And then my last year of my PhD, I started working at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, as a project manager on Tropy, which I’m sure we will talk about later. And then I did that for a little while. And then I became non tenure track faculty at George Mason. And then just four weeks ago, I started as a tenure track assistant professor at the United States Naval Academy. And on that note, I should say, I don’t know if this is an absolute requirement for me to say, but everybody says it. So I’m going to say that is that the views expressed in this podcast are mine alone, they are not the opinions of the United States government, Department of the Navy or the United States Naval Academy. So just get that out of the way. That’s the first time I’ve been able to say that feels very cool.
Kate Carpenter 2:20
it does sound cool.
Abby Mullen 2:21
So as a writer, I think my trajectory has been a little bit unusual. Yes, of course, I wrote my dissertation, and it’s getting turned into a book. But most of my professional writing that I’ve done, hasn’t been sort of monographic in form. I’ve written a lot of documentation. I’ve written podcast scripts, I’ve done quite a bit of sort of digital project writing. So it’s been kind of all over the place, not really traditional.
Kate Carpenter 2:49
Despite that, I want to ask you a little bit about how you work as a writer. So and I’m sure many of your answers will be different. But when and where do you do your writing?
Abby Mullen 2:59
Well, as I previously stated, I have two children who have been alive for the whole time I’ve been an academic. So I do my writing whenever and wherever I can. I’ve never been in a position until four weeks ago, where writing was a part of my job or research of my own work was a part of my job. So I’ve done a lot of writing at the kitchen counter. I’ve done a lot of writing holding a kid, I’ve done a lot of writing just whenever and wherever I can, but mostly weekends and evenings and not sort of during the traditional business hours.
Kate Carpenter 3:34
Within your writing itself, is there sort of a routine? Do you like to create an outline? How do you approach a project?
Abby Mullen 3:40
It varies depending on what it is that I’m working on. For my own research, I like to use the sources as a sort of outline, in some ways. So I develop a story that I’m writing based on what the sources say. So I put them in order. And then I kind of fill in, around or you know, ask questions like, Okay, what does this actually mean? Or why does this matter? And those are the questions that I fill in. And then for other kinds of writing, it’s similar, I would say it’s similar where the sources always drive things. But I have a slightly more focused process. So when I’m writing for podcasting, for instance, we always create a focus sentence that’s like a thesis. But it’s not like a thesis in that I feel like with a thesis, you can kind of break your own rules a little bit, sometimes where you write stuff that’s not exactly related to the thesis, but it’s kind of adjacent to the thesis. But when I’m writing for podcasts, that focus sentence, we try to really make sure that that’s driving absolutely every part of the script. So it’s a lot more focused and we’re a lot more rigorous about slashing things out if it’s not directly speaking to the focus sentence.
Kate Carpenter 5:00
How do you see then sort of the relationship between research and writing? Do you start writing as you research? Or do you like to research everything first?
Abby Mullen 5:07
Again, it depends. A lot of it depends on the time constraints more than anything. Ideally, I’d love to just, you know, immerse myself in the archives and spend a long time just reading and thinking before I ever set pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. But in reality, that’s never been the way that I’ve been able to write, I’ve always had to kind of jump in with both feet. And of course, the result of that is you end up writing stuff that you then find sources later, that contradict the things that you wrote in the past. So then you have to go back and revise. But you know, that’s like, that’s the job of a historian is to take into account all the sources that are available. So I in an ideal world, I think I’d rather do the research first and then do the writing. But in my actual life, it tends to be sort of concurrent.
Kate Carpenter 5:57
So you mentioned you mentioned pen to paper and fingers to keyboard, talk to me a little bit about the tools, either analog or digital that you use.
Abby Mullen 6:05
Yeah, so this has changed throughout my professional career, my tool box, so to speak, I would say to start with, I have to shout out Zotero, which is where I keep all my secondary sources organized. So that’s a really important piece of my process is getting stuff into Zotero, so that I can find it again. And then for the past six and a half years, an important part of my toolbox has been Tropy, organizing my primary sources, and then I wrote my dissertation in Markdown, using a text editor. I have since decided that that’s not worth my time and energy anymore. So now I just write in Microsoft Word like normal person. But I do also, like actually sitting right in front of me right now is a printed out copy of one of my chapters that I’ve just written all over. So there’s a mix of pen to paper, and fingers to keyboard. But those are my, those are the three things that I couldn’t live without.
Kate Carpenter 7:02
Has your work as a podcaster impacted the way you’re thinking about transforming your dissertation into a book?
Abby Mullen 7:09
100%. Yes, absolutely. Podcasting is such a focused discipline that you really have to make absolutely every single word count, at least the kind of podcasting that I do, which is sort of narrative scripted. Once you sort of internalize that, like every word counts, then you find yourself going back and do your written work and expunging stuff that didn’t count or didn’t matter. But also I think, it makes you think a lot more about the lyrical qualities of your writing. And reading it out loud, can actually really help you tend to end up with shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, which I think is also the good in terms of even a written monograph. Because complexity for complexity’s sake is not a virtue. So sometimes it’s nice to just cut things down to the bare minimum and say, Okay, what am I actually trying to accomplish here? Is it going to be clear, when someone records this as an audiobook are people going to get lost? Podcasting has something to say about that.
Kate Carpenter 8:12
I’m curious how you got got into podcasting? How did you find yourself in that realm?
Abby Mullen 8:16
Accidentally. So as I said, I worked at the Center for History and New Media. And I’ve always been interested in audio, but never really had the chance to do anything with audio in a concerted way. And we had kind of run up against somebody, an external person who wanted to do a project, which seemed like a really good podcast, and we decided to go for it. And then at the kind of at the last minute, we came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t have a competitive grant application to do a podcast, and that’s how the center runs is mostly on grant money, because we didn’t have any experience doing podcasting. And so it wouldn’t be competitive, because we wouldn’t be able to demonstrate that we could actually accomplish the thing. And so I was talking to my boss, and I was like, you know, like, the only way to get experience doing podcasting is to just do a podcast. And I had been batting around this idea about consuls, American consuls, which I had been sort of jokingly talking to a couple of colleagues about making a podcast and they were like, You know what, let’s just do it. Like, we can do this. So I read a bunch of books, and I listened to a lot of podcasts. And yeah, we did it.
Kate Carpenter 9:34
Did you have to learn to write differently for the podcast?
Abby Mullen 9:37
Yes, definitely. I’ve been told that I have a fairly readable style, in terms of my written work, but readable on the page is not listenable necessarily and so I really did have to learn how to write much more colloquially, but also much more directly and It’s funny because people in the podcasting industry say things like, write like you talk for a script. But the problem is that historians tend to talk more complicated than they need to. So even when I was writing like I talked, ordinarily, I was finding that I needed to be less complicated. So that was like, that was a real process. And if you go back and listen to early episodes of Consolation Prize, the podcast that I was mentioning, you can hear how much we grew over the course of two seasons, in really learning how to write for audio.
Kate Carpenter 10:39
Did you also have to think differently about structure of an episode versus, say, a dissertation chapter?
Abby Mullen 10:45
Yes, and no. I tend to be the kind of person who just likes to tell the story in the order in which it occurs. And that’s, generally speaking, the best strategy for a podcast as well. So there was a sense in which it was easy to do that part, because you just started, whatever you decide is the beginning. And you end at the end, and you know, you’re still in the middle, but it is more important to signal and signpost in audio. And so that was something we definitely had to work on being more explicit about the structure, then you might do in a written piece of work. So that was definitely something that we did work on. And again, I think you can hear the progress if you’ve listened to all the episodes.
Kate Carpenter 11:31
Is the revision process different when you’re writing a podcast?
Abby Mullen 11:34
Yes. So one thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that I wasn’t doing this alone, I worked on a team. And so I was the lead. And at the end of the day, it had to be written in my voice, because I was the one speaking the words, but it was a process to come to what we were actually going to focus on, write our focus sentence, and then write the script, and then go back and make sure that we had talked about everything in the focus sentence, and that we weren’t going off kind of off the beaten path, so to speak. And sometimes that process was really difficult, because we had these stories, which were just some of them incredibly complex. And we knew that we had to focus them in order to make them comprehensible. And so we were leaving a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor. And that like something, you have to do that anyway, when you’re writing, but it’s like, really a lot when you’re doing audio. And that was that was frustrating on a number of occasions where we were like, we are just leaving stuff out that it would be great if we could put it in there. But we have a limited amount of time, we have to hit these other things. So we’re leaving out some of the amazing complexity of the story. So that’s where the focus sentence really came into play. Because that was our guiding light. And if we didn’t, if we got off of that track, then we would end up kind of being all over the place. Because there’s so many different things we want to talk about. And they’re so cool. But then you lose the thread. And then it’s difficult for a listener to understand. So yeah, revision was a lot. We usually went through multiple rounds of revisions, sometimes we even, we would do our sort of internal review of the script. And then on a couple of occasions where we were talking about something that we felt, we needed a little bit of external thoughts on we sent it out to sort of an external peer reviewer in some ways, and got their feedback about whether or not we were doing justice to the story, whether we were talking about difficult concepts in an appropriate way. So yeah, sometimes the revision process was months long.
Kate Carpenter 13:48
Yeah, I mean, that that makes me wonder, and this may be a difficult question to answer. But how long does each episode of Consolation Prize take to put together?
Abby Mullen 13:56
Ee estimated, for one episode, I had everybody on the team kind of track their work on it. And it ended up being about an hour of work for every minute that you hear. So that was there roughly, you know, 30 to 40 minutes long, most of them so that’s, you know, 30 to 40 hours. Not every episode took that much work. Some episodes took more. But that’s a decent guess.
Kate Carpenter 14:24
So to dig into Abby’s process, we’re doing something just a little different in this episode. Instead of having Abby read an excerpt of her writing, she’s given me permission to play a short clip from an episode of the Consolation Prize podcast. This is from Consolation Prize season two, episode one called “Troublemakers in Tahiti.” I’ll link to the whole episode in our show notes.
Podcast episode 14:54
So, if Tahiti is just a tiny pinprick, why do we even care about it? From the first time Europeans set eyes on Tahiti in the 1760s, there were lots of reasons to be interested in it. The most famous voyager to Tahiti, Captain James Cook, went there to watch the transit of the planet Venus. But he also had other reasons, and so did the Europeans that followed him. According to Patty O’Brien, a historian of the Pacific, Tahiti offered a nice stop over for ships traveling through the Pacific.
Patty O’Brien 15:27
Tahiti was a very convenient port in which to refresh ships and refresh has a whole lot of meanings in terms of taking on water, food, and also a huge part of the story of Tahiti is the interactions between the incoming men, these voyaging men from Europe and Indigenous people, and particularly, the interactions with Indigenous women, the highly sexualized interactions with Indigenous women.
Podcast episode 16:02
Patty O’Brien told me that Tahiti was also attractive for its natural resources. First, there was sandalwood, which Europeans wanted for its scent. And then in the 19th century, there were whales. The United States wanted in on these things too. Commercial vessels went into the Pacific Ocean from the earliest days of American independence. But in the 1820s, the United States sent another emissary, the Navy.
Gene Smith 16:29
By the early 1820s, the US has created a Pacific Squadron. And it was an opportunity for the US to start trying to expand its reach out in the Pacific. And I argue that this is all a part of this concept, an unwritten concept at the time called Manifest Destiny.
Podcast episode 16:49
This is Gene Smith,
Podcast episode 16:51
a naval historian. He said that even though the term Manifest Destiny wasn’t coined until 1845, the idea was present in the very earliest days of American culture. And here in the 1820s, the Pacific Squadron had some goals to achieve in order to make the Pacific a better place for Americans. We’re gonna zero in on just one member of this squadron, an officer named Thomas ap Catesby Jones.
Kate Carpenter 17:20
This is you know, this is a great example of kind of like, framing an episode doing some signposting to listeners. What does it take to pull together? I mean, like you just said, there’s a lot of time, this is just a couple minutes of audio, what does it take to pull this all together?
Abby Mullen 17:36
Well, I think introductions in audio are kind of like introductions in written work, which is that most people tend to write them last. And that’s what we tended to do. Also, because we didn’t know exactly how things were going to shake out until we had kind of done the meat of this story. In this particular episode, though, I actually almost started with the introduction, or was the thing that sort of caught my eye. Because when I was first, we ran across this, this consul, just from reading the consular dispatches in Tahiti, and he’s a mess, the two people in this story are just a mess. And they’re just disasters. And so I started thinking, like, what is the deal with this island? That’s so little. And I don’t even think I know where it is. Except like, I know, it’s in the South Pacific. I know, it’s like a place that people use as a, an example of paradise. And you know, like, and so we actually talked to an expert about this, Patty O’Brien, whose voice you hear. But I started thinking like, how does this tiny little place even matter? It’s so tiny that you can’t even see it on the map. And so the first thing we do in the episode is I’ve talked about, like looking it up on Google Maps and zooming out and zooming out and zooming out until you can’t even see it anymore. And you still just see ocean. And it’s because this is one of the animating questions of the whole podcast is like, these consuls are not special. They’re not like they’re not awesome people. They’re not amazing diplomats, they’re in these far flung places that feel like they shouldn’t matter at all. And yet, these two guys in Tahiti, change the history of Tahiti by not functioning as they should have and handing basically helping hand over Tahiti to the French. So that’s kind of the feel that I wanted was that there’s this tiny little island that feels like it doesn’t matter at all, but actually does matter. And we should care about it because there’s real people that live on that island, and it wasn’t just an imperial conquest. But there’s like an actual story to how this island of Tahiti ended up being French and it still is part of French Polynesia. So that one, we actually, we didn’t exactly start with that specific introduction. But that was kind of the the framing that we had been thinking about already. It was like to deal with this tiny little island. Does it matter? Yes, it matters.
Kate Carpenter 20:17
So this, this section has narration, of course, a couple of expert interviews. And then there’s also like, some background sound effects, you know, things pulling it all together. How do you think about weaving those pieces?
Abby Mullen 20:31
Yeah, so again, here, you know, I was talking earlier about how, when I write the sources are the sort of the skeleton and then I fill in around, that’s how I typically did scripts, as well. The experts were our skeleton, and primary sources were part of that skeleton as well. And then my goal for the narration wasn’t for me to be telling the story all the time. It ended up being like that, because I used a lot of, you know, that was my chance to do the context and to set things in their proper framing. But the goal was for people who actually have spent years or decades studying these things to have their voices heard. So Patty O’Brien is a scholar of Tahiti. And Gene Smith is a naval historian who wrote about the naval commander that we talked about, Thomas ap Catesby Jones. And so we want their voices to be front and center, because they’re at work. And we’re just kind of pulling it all together. So I sort of thought of myself as being just a connective piece of bringing together basically secondary sources with our experts and primary sources. And then the music and the sound effects. Those are really part of the story as well, because audio is an emotive thing, you hear things and you feel emotion. That’s what all the experts on podcasting say is that, you know, you read for information and you listen to things for emotion. And so without being overly manipulative, I guess maybe it’s the right word with the sound, we did want to evoke a feeling. And so you know, in this episode, I think this is the episode I can be totally wrong about this. I think this is the episode that we really wanted to get a sense of what Tahiti sounded like. It’s impossible to find, like a sound effect of Tahiti, beaches or whatever. But beaches sound mostly the same. You can use like normal beach sound effects. But then I went and I found from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they have sound recordings for birds from all around the world. And so I wrote to them and asked them if we could use I think it was the Tahitian Black Duck sound effect. And it’s like, a 10th of a second. I mean, like, it’s almost nothing. But it’s just enough for us to say, this isn’t just a generic beach, this is Tahiti, that we want you to be thinking about. And this is what you might hear if you go to Tahiti. So it’s part of setting the tone and the framing, that we use those sound effects. And we had an amazing composer who wrote original music for every episode, who was really good at when I gave him sort of instructions about what I wanted it to sound like he was great at actually doing it. So yeah, it’s all part of the field.
Kate Carpenter 23:27
So Consolation Prize has ended its run. You have a new job now. How are you feeling about podcasting as a way to tell historical narratives these days, with all this experience you’ve gained?
Abby Mullen 23:41
I still think it’s great. I still think people more people should be doing it. I’ve, you know, I’ve got 100 new narrative podcast ideas in my brain, which I maybe will get to make at some point in the future. Right now, I’m focusing on getting my book done. So that’s, that’s the number one thing on the agenda. But once I’m done with that, I have a few other ideas that I think I’m going to see if I can pull together and there’s so many amazing sources here at the Naval Academy, that I can be plumbing the depths of that I’m sure. There are great stories, and I still am a little bit involved in podcasting. I do. I host an interview show here at the Naval Academy Museum. I’m one of the co-hosts so I haven’t totally stepped away but yeah, it’s taking a backseat just to like kind of get my sea legs here at the academy. But then I’ll be back probably.
Kate Carpenter 24:35
I think we will be looking forward to your your return. I want to switch gears and talk a little bit about Tropy. So I know you’re no longer at the Rosenzweig Center. But while you were there one of as I understand it, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but one of your roles was to sort of represent Tropy, I think I took a seminar from you at one point on using Tropy. If you don’t mind continuing to be an expert on Tropy for us. Could you actually just just say what Tropy is for people who still haven’t heard of it?
Abby Mullen 25:05
Yeah, absolutely. And I will be a Tropy evangelist for the rest of my life, I’m sure. So I have no problem continuing to brag about it. So Tropy is a piece of software that is designed to help you organize and describe research photos. Originally, the conception was, I think this is still true that historians go to archives. And since the advent of digital cameras, and the ability to take digital cameras into the archives, this sort of phenomenon has occurred, where people go into the archives, and they just take photos of as many documents as they can. They don’t necessarily sit down to even read them while they’re in the archives. They’re just photographing so that they can go home, and then read them later. And of course, this is partially because there’s a lot of documents, and you can read them all no matter how long you have in the archive. But also, with the reduction of graduate student funding, or even junior faculty funding or people who aren’t in academia, people just don’t have time to sit in the archives for a whole summer, or whatever, and just read the documents in the archives. So this photographing of documents is a way to help you be able to have access to all those documents, and not have to actually be physically present in an archive. And of course, for the past two and a half years, that’s been especially important because archives have been closed. And so having digital copies of your photo of your documents is incredibly important. So Tropy, the problem is that you take all these photographs, you come home from your research trip with two or 3000 photographs, and they all look exactly the same. They are all called IMG, 01 to IMG 2001. And you don’t know what they’re what they are, or where they came from. And so Tropy is designed to make it possible for you to attach metadata to your photographs, such that you can organize them in many different ways. You can describe them, you can transcribe them, you can make them more legible. And it’s really designed to take you from that place where you’re almost paralyzed by the number of photographs that you have that are just horrifyingly identical to something that you can actually use. And you can find stuff again, without having to go through a long process of remembering your specific file structure, for instance, or your naming conventions. It’s all meant to make it much easier.
Kate Carpenter 27:40
So I won’t make you give us like a mini seminar on using Tropy. There’s lots of good documentation, much of which I suspect you created. But I’m wondering if you could say, is there anything you wish people knew more about Tropy? I think every once in a while you tweet something about it. And I’m like, I had no idea that was even a feature.
Abby Mullen 27:58
I mean, the thing that I wish the most that people knew about Tropy is that it exists. To be honest, I worked on the project, as I said, for about six years, really from the beginning until just a few months ago. And I have said this many times. But it’s still true that even if I had no connection to the project whatsoever, it would have been an absolute game changer. For me, it really has been an incredible, incredible game changer for me, because I use it literally every day. I was just using it a few minutes ago, because I’m working on my chapter and I wanted to look at a map that I had found a while ago. I’m like, oh, that’s in Tropy, I’m just gonna go search for it, and it came right up. That’s amazing. That’s something that you should be able to do. So that’s my main thing is I just wish people knew that it existed. But I think the other thing that is good is when you whenever you start using a piece of software, if you can, just reading through the documentation from start to finish can be really helpful. Because then you do learn about features that aren’t necessarily obvious unless you know that they’re there. So a great example of that is probably the thing I tweeted out the most recently about was the Watch folder in Tropy, where if you put photos into a folder that you’ve designated, then those photos get sucked into Tropy automatically. And that’s so, so helpful. If you’re pulling things down from for instance, an archive on the internet, where you’re kind of downloading things one photograph at a time, which can be kind of annoying for keeping track of but if you just set them to download into a folder and they get sucked into Tropy automatically, then you can go back and easily do your metadata work, knowing what all those things are without having to like manually drag them in. So that’s that’s just one example.
Kate Carpenter 29:49
Absolutely. That one blew my mind
Abby Mullen 29:51
It’s so great. It’s so good.
Kate Carpenter 29:53
Yeah, I suspect, too, I sometimes run into people who maybe tried Tropy like five years ago and haven’t returned to it since then. So I also suspect people don’t necessarily realize how many new features there have been in the past five years.
Abby Mullen 30:06
Yeah, that’s a really great point. You know, it’s not a particularly old piece of software, but it is mature. Now, of course, there’s always features that people want, and you can make it happen. But it is fully functional. Everything works really, really well.
Kate Carpenter 30:22
What do you listen to for your own inspiration or read?
Abby Mullen 30:26
So I tend to go in spurts or streaks of stuff, but I just listen to the same thing for a long time. And then I quit listening to it. So like, I went through a 99% Invisible phase. But I haven’t actually listened to that in a while. But that’s a great show for thinking about focus. Because that is a really good example of that. I don’t love like historian interview shows. I don’t listen to a lot of those unless I, even though I’m like the host of one. So I should, but I don’t. Recently, in my new job, I have a long commute. So I’ve actually been listening to audiobooks more than podcasts. So like, right now, I’m listening to a global history of World War Two, because that’s not something I know a lot about. And it’s like 25 hours long. So that’ll get me to and from Annapolis for a while. My listening habits change frequently.
Kate Carpenter 31:22
Are there writers you look to for inspiration?
Abby Mullen 31:25
Yes. But again, it varies depending on what I’m doing. So the best writer of naval history, I think, personally, is a journalist named Ian Toll. He wrote a great book about the early American Navy, which is like the book about the early American Navy. He also wrote a trilogy about World War Two, which is great. He’s just a really good writer. He’s a good researcher. So I, I sort of look to him and being someone that I aspire to writing with his ease, and with his lyricism. So this is an interesting phenomenon for me, which I thought I was alone in. But I’ve actually heard from other people that I’m not alone in. And that is that graduate school slash maybe having children really hindered my ability to read. So I don’t actually read a lot of history books, if I don’t have to, which I know sounds very bad for a historian to admit that. But like, I do read books, obviously. And I use them in my work, but like, my ability to just like sit down and read a book of history for quote, unquote, pleasure, it has to be really good to keep my attention. So I’ll give you an example of a book that that is true of, and that’s Caleb McDaniel’s Sweet Tastes of Liberty, which is incredibly well written and a very engaging story. So that one was great. I read that one cover to cover no problem. He won a Pulitzer for it. So I guess I wasn’t the only one that thought that but but, you know, I do find it very difficult to read a lot of books, just for fun, so to speak. And I don’t know, I think graduate school killed me in that regard.
Kate Carpenter 33:08
Have you ever gotten any particularly good pieces of writing advice?
Unknown Speaker 33:11
I think the best pieces of writing advice I’ve gotten were from reading books about podcasting. So there’s a book by Jack Hart called Storycraft, which is not about podcasting, but I read it in the context of podcasting. And then there’s a couple of podcasting books. One is Make Noise by Eric Nuzum, and the other one is by Glen Weldon, I cannot think of like the NPR Podcast Guide Startup, the NPR Podcast Startup Guide. And those books more than anything helped me think about narrative, and what it means to write an effective narrative that zooms in and out that covers all of the things that you need to cover without doing anything extraneous. And so I think those books more than anything have helped my writing. The podcasting books really changed how I thought about what I was producing. And I think that’s a useful exercise. And something that I’ve done with my students is to kind of get them out of the groove, they have this idea about what writing is, because they’ve had to write the same kinds of things for their whole lives. And so pushing them out to think about, you know, writing a podcast, or writing a text adventure game or something like that. It’s not about whether or not they turn out something that’s amazing, although they often do, but it’s about pushing them out of their comfort zone so that they are having to really think about what it is they’re doing. And it’s not just sort of the default. And that I think that it’s been really good for me as well, to just push myself out of this sort of default historian thing into doing something where you really have to think about what is my goal here? Who am I trying to reach? What is the plan, and how do I get there? Which is, that’s something that I really, I don’t know that I ever really thought about it before when I was just writing for academic purposes.
Kate Carpenter 35:06
I know what you’re primarily focused on right now is working on your book project. Would you be willing to tell us a little bit about it?
Abby Mullen 35:12
Yeah, so my book is a history of the first Barbary war from 1801 to 1805. Interestingly, it has been also shaped by podcasting, because when I first started working on it, it was going to be kind of a straight up naval history with an emphasis on logistics and on how the United States fought this war in the Mediterranean without having any bases in the Mediterranean, which is still what it’s about. But as I’ve worked on it more and more, and as I’ve become more and more familiar with the US consular service, the consuls have crept into the book in a much bigger way. So now, I would characterize it more as a more holistic approach to the first Barbary war and to Mediterranean affairs more generally. So it’s still about logistics, it’s still about the goals of fighting the war in Tripoli, against Tripoli. But it’s turned much more into thinking about how the Navy and the State Department work together, or don’t work together as the case often is, and how they interact with other people in the Mediterranean who aren’t Tripoli. So that is kind of the big thrust of the book is thinking about what it means when your goal is to become part of a community of nations, and also to be to feel superior to those nations. And then sort of as a tertiary concern, to actually beat the person that the nation that you’re at war with, which is Tripoli, and the State Department and the Navy worked together. And sometimes they work separately, and sometimes they work in opposition to each other because nobody ever actually articulates these goals in a way that is uniform.
Kate Carpenter 36:58
Excellent. Looking forward to it. Thanks again to Dr. Abby Mullen for joining me on this episode of Drafting the Past. And as always, thanks to you for listening, and extra huge thanks to the supporters who are helping to fund the show on Patreon. If you would like to help keep Drafting the Past going, you can go to patreon.com/draftingthepast. Just a couple of dollars a month makes a huge difference. For links to the books and podcasts that Abby and I talked about in this episode, find the show notes at draftingthepast.com. Until next time, remember that friends don’t let friends write boring history.