Episode 19: Deborah Harkness Does Her Best Historical Work

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In this episode, I spoke with historian and bestselling novelist Dr. Deborah Harkness. Deb’s first novel, A Discovery of Witches, debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list. She has written three more books in the All Souls Series, including the most recent, Time’s Convert, which was published in 2018. Before that, Deb was trained and worked as a historian of science. She is the author of two academic books. Deb also teaches European history and the history of science to undergraduates and graduate students at the University of Southern California. We had a great time talking about the relationship between her work as a historian and as a novelist, the research that goes into her books, and why she believes her fantasy novels are her best historical work.




Deborah Harkness 0:00
I sat and I thought for a minute, and I said, You know what? I’m a full professor of history at a research one institution, if I can’t do it, who can?

Kate Carpenter 0:16
Welcome back to Drafting the Past, a podcast all about the craft of writing history. I’m your host, Kate Carpenter. And in this episode, I was thrilled to talk with historian and best selling novelist Deborah Harkness.

Deborah Harkness 0:28
It’s so good to be here. Thank you.

Kate Carpenter 0:30
Dr. Harkness is a historian of science who teaches at the University of Southern California. She published two academic books before publishing the first novel of her All Soul Series, A Discovery of Witches, in 2011. And it became a New York Times bestseller. The fourth and most recent book in the series, Time’s Convert, was published in 2018. I was delighted to have the chance to talk to Deb about the relationship between her work as a historian and as a novelist, the research that goes into her books, and why she sees her fantasy novels as some of her most significant historical work. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Deborah Harkness 1:11
I think it started in 10th grade. When I did, wrote a had to write a short story for my 10th grade English class for Barbara Little, Hatboro-Horsham High School, I wrote a story about a young girl’s first day in the New World, the action took place mostly up a tree with her watching. So it was like, you know, it was it was historical, it was set in the 17th century. It was fictional. I think if I had to put in a pin in it, that would be that would be sort of the starting point. I also it was also a traumatic experience, because I was late to class one day, and I can’t remember the reason I when I opened the door, I heard someone reading my story out loud. And my teacher was reading hadn’t you know, this is back in the good old days, no permissions granted as for given, she was simply reading this story to the class. I sat down and thought, Oh, God, oh, God, no, no, my life is ending my life is over that was private. And she reached the end, and she slapped it down on my desk. That was the first sign to anyone who had actually written it. And she said, that’s how you write a story. So that was the good, the bad, the terrible, the traumatic. And so from then on, you know, I devoted my writing to academic papers, I went to college at Mount Holyoke, I loved to seminar papers, the longer the better. I wrote a thesis, I liked that much longer than a seminar paper, went to graduate school, got my ma at Northwestern, wrote a thesis, really liked that, after having some trouble at first figuring out with what a historical argument actually was. I had problems identifying it with two hands and a flashlight. And finally, at the, at the nick of time did and then went on to write, you know, my PhD, which became my first book, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels. And that was really great. It was two volumes, my dissertation because I had, I was clearly finding my niche in the long format, the longer the better format. So I published that and I wrote articles and checked all the boxes that we check as historians so that our writing meets the tenure standard, all the while juggling teaching, which is, you know, this comes as news to no one in higher education, but in case is anybody listening, the kind of idea that we sit in an ivory tower, and right away on our monograph is not true. You know, we make lunches we take kids to school, we take our elders to doctor’s appointments, we sit in interminable meetings, we teach a full docket of classes, and we write books. So that’s an important thing. I think about my trajectory as a writer, because I have never assumed that what writing involves is to sit in a room in perfect peace and serenity, all the planets aligned and right. I have to say that at that point in my life, I hated writing. I loved researching, but I felt like I’d satisfied myself about the answer. And I kind of resented having to write it up. Have you ever felt that way? Absolutely. You just like really? I have to write this down. For other people. This was about my intellectual journey and my understanding and now I have to like chump through this You. So having jumped through that hoop, I set out on writing my second academic book, The Jewel House, which was about science in Elizabethan London. And that was important to my trajectory, because it basically slapped me right up the side of the head in terms of what I actually knew about Elizabethan England, having written a book on the subject, and, you know, gone through extent, many, many years of graduate training. But it was, I was on a very, very steep learning curve, which I think it’s also the next key step in my trajectory, because I loved it. I sort of retooled myself from being an intellectual historian of science to a social historian of science, there weren’t a lot of role models for that, at the time, a few. And I loved, I love and still love research. And so it involves an enormous amount of research in manuscript sources, which I had started out thinking, I could just use printed books, it would be faster, it would be easier. I’m a manuscript scholar to the bone. So years later, I finally produced the Jewel House, along with teaching and faculty meetings, and living life. And I got promoted to full professor. And I thought, What am I going to do now. And I started writing a book on scientific and domestic practices in the early scientific revolution, how domestic work fueled techniques of science that we associate with a male dominated scientific revolution. And it just started feeling like, you know, Son of Jewel House, it was not, I was sort of ringing all the same bells, just in a slightly later period. And I thought, Okay, put this aside for a little bit. And I found myself self at sixes and sevens, in the autumn of 2009, you know, and I wrote a vampire, and witch novel, because I thought, well, this will be fun. And I thought, I learn something, no one will ever read it, and go back refreshed and reinvigorated and go back to the book on domestic science in the 17th century. And that didn’t happen. Because people did read the book, and the book after it. And the book after it, I was enormously blessed by the success of the novels, they provided me with a chance to do some of what I think is my best historical work, because I could tell readers, what I felt was true in my bones based on my experience, and knowledge, even if I couldn’t prove it, by the standards of the historical profession. And so my writing trajectory, you know, started with a blend of history and fiction. And that’s where I am, again, from 10th grade to the age of 57. And it’s just, it’s just kind of been a remarkable growth. And now, I love writing. Now that I’m writing fiction, it’s still hard, but I have a very different relationship to my writing than I did when I was writing scholarly monographs and articles and conference talks.

Kate Carpenter 8:39
Was A Discovery of Witches the first novel then that you’d ever drafted?

Deborah Harkness 8:43
It was the first novel I’d ever started. Yes. So I started it in September, it was very gestational. And nine months later, I had a full draft. I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought I was writing one book, not three. And in my mind, it had three parts. And I thought, well, let’s play in the first part, with sort of fantasy and the second part with historical fiction, and the third part with science fiction, and I would, you know, because nobody was gonna read it. And indeed, when I finished the draft, it was 1100 pages long. Because I like a long format. I then spent, you know, months whittling it down to a manageable size for submission and to a publisher, and then that publisher whittled it down further, which is why you don’t need a suitcase to carry it around.

Kate Carpenter 9:36
What was that transition like from writing history to writing fiction?

Deborah Harkness 9:39
It came naturally in the first book, because I think it was because it was fantasy. So there was a lot of room for the imagination, and it felt like flying. It just felt like flying. I can’t put it any other way. It was strange, because as a historian, when we don’t know Know where to go next, we go back to the sources and look things up. But as a writer of fiction, if I get stuck, I have to make things up. And that was that was fascinating, challenging, intriguing, all of the things, but it was never boring. And it really did just feel like every day I went to my desk, and I had no idea what was going to happen. None, none at all, I’d given no advanced talks, I’d not run anything through a lecture filter to see if it made sense. It was it was just, you know, writing without a net. And after so many years of writing, you know, very craftsman like pieces for academic promotion and tenure. It was very liberating. Once you decided that maybe other people would see it, did you worry at all about what your colleagues might think, or the reception? Oh, yes. So the first person to sort of be concerned about this was my wife. And she said, Well, you’re going to publish this under a pseudonym, right? At which point, all of my early modern sensibility exploded all over. My wife is a 19th century historian. And I said, I most certainly am not, you know, I’m not going back into that closet. This is ridiculous. Why shouldn’t I be able to write what I want to write, and she just sort of went, Okay. And when the book sold, and it got into the press, I had to tell my colleagues, they also, of course, said, Oh, congratulations, you published it under another name, right. So that was the first thing I had to disabuse everyone of. And the day that I told people, I was teaching a graduate seminar, the intro to his history, historiography, you know, to the study of history, the kind of nuts and bolts survey for first year grad students. And in my seminars, graduate seminars, we always have a 20 minute, 20 minute session, after the break, which is I always call it the confessional, you know, it’s where they can ask me questions, I can respond, frankly, it’s kind of a little enclosure of safe space, where everybody can talk about what’s really in their mind, because I found graduate school to be a very difficult adjustment myself, and I always want to see if I can do anything better. And one of the students had, of course, picked up the press. Now, none of my colleagues had, but the graduate students had found this article online. They said, Is this you? And I said, Well, yes, it is. And one of them just basically said, what everyone else had been thinking but skirting around and just asked, aren’t you worried no one will ever take you seriously again. And that was a profound moment. We all have profound moments in the classroom, where our students articulate something, that it was such blinding clarity, that it advances, the whole, the whole seminar, the whole experience, that the higher learning takes place. And that was the that was the moment for me. Because I sat and I thought for a minute, and I said, You know what, I’m a full professor of history at a research one institution, if I can’t do it, who can? And would we tell Shakespeare he was a poet, therefore he shouldn’t write plays? Would we tell, you know, any, any of the authors, Voltaire, Machiavelli, you know, people who cross genres, would we? Would we want a world in which they had just stayed in their lane? Imagine what literature would look like, if you were only permitted to work in one genre, and never, never move around? And so I explained that and I said, and it was this was, you know, 2009 it was not, we’re in the early days of things like public history and, and digital humanities. And I said, it’s time as historians, we stopped talking to each other and started talking to people who are not in the academy. And that is what I’m doing with this book. That blinding clarity would never have come to me without the honesty and transparency of my graduate students. And once I had said those words out loud, that became, that became my mantra. That was my mission statement, and I became increasingly unapologetic, and just, you know, I thought I’d say to people, the world’s not going to stop spinning because I wrote a novel, even a novel about vampires and witches, really, it’s going to be okay. And it has been and it’s been amazing.

Kate Carpenter 15:16
Well, let me have you talk a little bit about some of these nuts and bolts questions. So when and where do you like to do your writing?

Deborah Harkness 15:22
Where I like to do my writing is in a room that has a door to it that no one that closes and no one opens it till I reach the end. But I actually write everywhere I write in the USC Cafe Literati in between classes, I write in the McDonald’s drive thru lane on a napkin, I write on airplanes, I write on trains, because what’s clear to me is that with very few exceptions, I in my best self, when I touch my work, at least once a day, and so I have very, very low bars, I think, okay, you have to touch your work for 30 minutes touching your work, work for an academic could be whatever the modern equivalent of the index card is, or reading a draft or line editing a draft or entering changes or contacting someone and ask if they’d read something you’ve written and check it out. It doesn’t matter. But you, for me, you know, obviously, when you’re in the hospital, I was, you know, I’m not writing or if I don’t, you know, have my computer eat, and my computer actually isn’t relevant. But there are times when life Trumps work. But I get back to that, touch your work for 30 minutes every day, as quickly as I can, because I’m a better human being. I am not angry waiting and checkout lines when I do that. And I try to do it as early in the day as I can. Because I know from experience that waiting to do it at 530, before you make dinner at six is not good. For at least up for me.

Kate Carpenter 17:11
Are there tools that you rely on to write? Do you write on the computer in a notebook?

Deborah Harkness 17:15
I keep notebooks, this is different than when you know, when I was an academic writer, I, I worked off note cards, good old fashioned index cards, because I like to shuffle them around and reorder them and make new connections. And I just never found working with files to be as as effective for me, because I’m a very visual person. And something happens when I see it kind of laid out in a way and can see oh, wait, I need to do that it would take me hours on a text to come up with the same thing that I can see immediately. But I don’t use index cards in my fiction. Instead, I use notebooks, I have a notebook going all the time. And I have notebooks for the next project and the next project and the next project. So if I get an idea, I know where it’s going. I’m not writing it on a McDonald’s napkin and then losing the napkin or throwing the napkin away. And then I write on the computer itself go I go straight to the computer, which is true. For my first book, my my two academic books, and every article I’ve ever written, you know, I got my first computer in 1985, it was the size of the Singer sewing machine. I learned you know, my junior year of college really how to write straight to computer and I’ve done so ever since.

Kate Carpenter 18:41
Even for your fiction you do obviously a ton of research. How do you keep that all organized?

Deborah Harkness 18:46
Badly at first, because it goes into my first journal. And that’s just things that I little tantalizing things are following up. And it’s very inchoate. But I just I just write it longhand in journals. And usually, after about one or two, up filling one or two of those journals. So they’re like about 200 pages, each with longhand, and maps and sketches and ideas and music that I’m listening to, I get to a place where I’m ready to start writing the note booking phase, those initial notebooks fill up pretty quickly, because you have no idea what you’re doing. And it’s fun, you know, to just it’s like that first day in the archives when you’re just like woohoo, I have a list. But let’s add all around first. And you always learn such amazing things when you do that. But as the story kind of gels and comes together, I started a new notebook and I distill things from the old notebooks into the new one. And the new one has sections for things like key characters and scenes. I’m thinking about worldview pages, you know, all of those sorts of things. I’m just about to run out of that notebook for the project I’m working on now. And so it’ll just I will just go into another notebook. That will just be, it’ll be just been divided chapter by chapter now that I have a sense of where I’m going. I’m not an outliner. I never have been, I could never understand it. I just don’t think that way. Do you outline?

Kate Carpenter 20:25
I do outline,

Deborah Harkness 20:26
I’m so jealous. I don’t know, because I think it’s much more efficient. And you, I have to write myself into a brick wall and then bang my head on it for about three weeks before I think, okay, you have to go back to the beginning and start over with conceptualizing it. And from what I see, outliners don’t have to do that. Because they’re seeing something, you know, as a problem emerges. There, like, oh, so I’m very jealous that you’re an outliner. I am not, I always feel like a crash test dummy. I mean, I go into the wall full speed, and I ricochet back and forth, and I get really stuck. Normally, for me, that’s about 120 pages into a book, it’s pretty reliable. And that’s, you know, and then I have to go back to the beginning. And I right past that to about maybe 200. And I hit another brick wall, and then go back to the beginning. So most of my books have some pretty major conceptual changes from notebook to like, the first draft that actually is complete, because I’ve gone down lots of probably useful, but ultimately alleyways that lead to a dead end.

Kate Carpenter 21:45
That makes me curious then to know what your revision process looks like, generally. So it sounds like you kind of revise as you go, is that right?

Deborah Harkness 21:53
I do. Because this is also true of my academic writing. When I begin a new chapter, I immediately know the flaws in the old one things I didn’t set up right things that weren’t clear things that I just repeated without advancing the argument. These are all true for a work of fiction, right? It’s fun, fundamentally, whether you’re a history historian or a novelist, you’re telling a story about the past. And in both cases, you have an argument that you’re making, I think this is thought that like, no fiction is argument free, what fun not. So you are making a bigger point, there’s a bigger overarching claim that you’re making in both genres. So for me, revision is an absolutely essential part of writing, and must be done consistently through, as I’ve gotten more experience with this genre, I am better able to write for a few chapters before I feel like I want to go in and line at it. But not always. Usually, it’s like, I got to do it. The minute it’s done, you know, I sleep on it. Next day, red pen comes out. You know, I just did it for a chapter. It was just the pages were barely legible with all the red ink. And I’ll go through probably four more revisions of that with input from others. So one of the things I think that always makes great good writing is good revising, and getting feedback. And again, that’s something I happily got used to as an academic, I think maybe some fiction writers find it harder. But we had, you know, you and I have had that kind of structured introduction to criticism, and how to respond to criticism. And we’ve developed some thick skin about criticism, all of which stands you in really good stead if you want to be a writer.

Kate Carpenter 24:03
To dig into the historical research and narrative that goes into Dr. Harkness’ novels, I asked her to talk me through the creation of a passage from her most recent book. Here’s Dr. Deborah Harkness, reading from Chapter Nine of the novel Time’s Convert.

Deborah Harkness 24:20
Chapter Nine: Crown. April to June 1775. Marcus juggled the pail of fish between his hands and pushed open the door to Thomas Buckland’s Northampton surgery. Buckland was one of the few medical men west of Worcester, and though he was neither the most prosperous nor the best educated, he was by far the safest choice if you wanted to survive a visit to the doctor, the metal bell that hung over the door tinkled brightly announcing Marcus’s arrival. The surgeon’s wife was working in the front room where bucklins equipment forceps teeth pullers and catheterization irons lay In a gleaming row on a clean towel, pots of herbs, medicines and sobs are displayed on the shelves. The surgeries windows overlook North Hampton’s Main Street so that interested passers by could witness the pain and suffering going on inside as Buckland that bones peered into mouths and ears through teeth and examined aching limbs. Marcus McNeil, what are you doing here? Mercy, Buckland looked up from the table where she was putting ointment into a stone crock. I was hoping to trade some fish for a bit of that today and you gave my mother last month. Mark has held up his pail shad. Freshly caught at the Fall south of Hadley Does your father know where you are? Mrs Buckland had witnessed the argument that broke out a few months ago when Obadiah caught him talking with Tom about how to make a salve to heal bruises. After that, as father had forbidden him from going to Northampton for cures, Obadiah insisted the family see the nearsighted doctor and Hadley instead, was half as good and twice as expensive, but whose age and tendency to overindulgent spirits made him less likely to interfere in McNeil family business. There’s no point in asking mercy. Marcus won’t answer. He’s become a man of few words. Tom Buckland joined his wife is balding head shining in the spring light. For myself, I missed the boy who couldn’t stop talking. Marcus felt Mrs. bucklins eyes on him as she studied his thin arms, the piece of rope that cinched his breeches into his narrow waist, the hole in the toe of his left shoe, the patches on his blue and white checkered shirt, made from coarse cloth sister patients that woven from the flax grown on their farm. But he didn’t want the bucklins Pity. He didn’t want anything except some chizine Marcus’s mother was able to sleep after she had some of Mrs. bucklins famous concoction. The surgeons wife had taught him what was in it, the Larian, and hops and skullcap. But these plants weren’t grown in the McNeil family garden. Is their news from Boston, Marcus said trying to change the subject. The Sons of Liberty are rallying against the Red Coats, Tom replied, hearing through his spectacles at the shelves and search of the right herbal mixture. Everyone is fired up thanks to Dr. Warren. Diamond passing through Springfield said more trouble is expected. Though God hopes it won’t be another massacre. I heard the same down at the falls, Marcus replied. It was how news traveled through small towns like these one piece of gossip at a time. Tom Buckland pressed a packet into his hand for your mother. Thank you Dr. Buckland, Marcus said putting his pail on the counter. Bees are for you. They’ll make a fine dinner. No, Marcus, that’s too much mercy protested. Half of that bucket is more than enough for Thomas and me. You should take the rest home. I’ve moved the buttons on Thomas’s breeches twice this winter. Marcus shook his head refusing the offer. Thank you. Dr. Bucklin. Mrs. Buckland, you keep it, I’ve got to get home.

Kate Carpenter 28:16
I chose this passage, for two reasons, one practical because it didn’t require a lot of trying to train to explain the setup. The second is because this passage is just a marvelous example of the amount of historical detail that is packed into your books. I’m curious to know how you balance detail with narrative. As a historian, it must be tempting to include more and more.

Deborah Harkness 28:38
I always say that historical detail is like tarragon, you have to use it very, very sparingly, or it overwhelms everything. So I learned this writing Shadow of Night, the book that set in Elizabethan England, which was my patch of ground, right. So it was somewhere around page four of a rapturous description of a table that I thought my readers don’t maybe want to do this. And I asked myself the simple question. If I was describing a modern table, would I take four pages to do it? And the answer was, of course, no, you just say the oak table, or the long oak table, or the short, okay, whatever you might be, but you would certainly not spend four pages, but every bit of information. And again, there was a lot of it that I didn’t know I never seen Elizabethan coins, so therefore I didn’t know their relative sizes. Well, if you’re writing a novel, you need to know what the size of of a crown is, and what the size of a penny is. And so everything was like, Oh my gosh, I’d never studied early modern furniture making before. So I wanted to share everything I learned and this is a I see this a lot in My students in my graduate students and my colleagues work and my own academic work, you want to take, you don’t want to miss a single step in your intellectual pilgrimage, you want to take them on that journey with you. They do not want to go, and any more than any of my readers do. And so I just realized that less is more. I’m not a historical reenactor I am somebody who is driven by historical research into a field. So in the case of that passage, from times convert, I read things about family structure in the 18th century, I read, you know, the all the books and articles like kind of retooled into an 18th century historian and realized, not for me, but it was, you know, I read primary sources, surgical manuals, I researched Northampton, I researched the medical scene in Northampton. You know, I picked Hadley, because it’s where my one a branch of my family came from. So it was a town I knew pretty well, and the vague outlines of it. But you know, it was a lot of research. Of course, I, you know, I treasured every historical morsel. But you need to sprinkle it lightly through. And I think that’s true with the historian. In terms of evidence versus argument, you don’t want to pile up so many instances, in an effort to really prove yourself that nobody can remember what point you’re even making with that evidence, right. And so that’s always a balancing act. And I think we sadly have to learn it with every project, we never really get to that place where we know what to say and what not to say, until we’ve done it and realize it’s too much.

Kate Carpenter 31:56
How do you decide what what details help the reader versus hinder?

Deborah Harkness 32:00
Well, I like to be evocative. I like my readers to feel like they’re right there. In the midst of the action, this was also true of my history was very character centered, and people centered, it was not about you know, ideas, ideas, the total ideas dancing, it was about real life on the ground conditions for those ideas. So I, I like that. And so I have to ask myself, What work does this do for me? This historical morsel this tidbit? Does it advance my characters internal emotional growth? The, you know, the character arc in the book? Does it serve a plot arc? In some, some sense? Or is it just set dressing, where you’re sort of, you know, you’re just making all that you’re building the surround that bellette, those other two arcs really stand out. And you know, you have to be, you have to be very economical, if it’s just set dressing, or you have to find a way to make whatever you want to include desperately do actual work. Again, I think that’s, that’s, this is something that’s going to resonate with any historian, right? You find all kinds of weird stuff in the archives and you desperate to share them? And you know, you got to be able to pick it, you know, yeah, it’s, that’s terrific. But does it actually do anything to further the narrative along? And you have to ask the same question as a fiction writer.

Kate Carpenter 33:33
For a passage like this one, what what kind of research goes into it? You mentioned reading books and articles is that is that the bulk of it?

Deborah Harkness 33:40
Books, articles, visiting house museums, looking at a lot of online pictures of actual items, often choosing one of those to describe, it’s interesting, they say, you can’t actually make up a face, you’re always drawing on features from somebody that you know, or have seen or whatever. I think the same thing can be said for tangible objects that appear in fiction. My fiction has a lot of objects in it. Those objects do do work. I find the real thing much it just relaxes me as a historian right to not be like inventing some that thing and then realize, oh, they didn’t use stretcher bars then or they, you know, oak wasn’t available or whatever it might be. So I tend to do very specific searches in museum catalogs to find items from exactly the right place at exactly the right time, because I feel like I owe it to my readers, just as I owe it to my students to be as accurate and grounded in the information I share with them as possible. I don’t want to conjecture if it’s historically knowable, be it In my classroom, my academic writing or my fiction, then that’s what I’m going to rely on. Lots of object based work, a lot of times, I can’t get a sense of scale, like with the coins. So, you know, I go to a coin dealer, and I say, you know, show me your 18th century Massachusetts coins, please. Or what did an 18th century forcep look like, you know, off to the welcome museum or similar to check that out. So I would encourage historians to do that as much as possible with their academic work. There’s a real difference from looking at an image of something and actually picking it up, or seeing it in three dimensions, it changes that need to think, wow, that’s bigger than I thought or smaller, or, wait a minute, what’s that thing over there do and it’s, it can just be invaluable to your understanding of what was really going on. In the, in the historical narrative that you’re sharing.

Kate Carpenter 35:59
I was struck as I was revisiting your books this week, that Okay, so we have passages like this one, which is just set in the past, we have passages in which there are, say, historians describing a past that they have studied quite well, there are people in the contemporary moment, but who have also lived through the past, talking about the past. And then you have contemporary characters traveling to the past, is it challenging to juggle how all those different perspectives, see the things that you’ve researched?

Deborah Harkness 36:33
Yes, but it’s a challenge I love. And I again, I think it’s very similar to the way I operated as a historian. So I always felt like trips to the archives were traveling back to the past I was I was seeing the raw stuff of history or go into a museum. And I feel like the historian talking about a period that they’ve studied is me and lecture and, and the setting, putting some when something’s actually in the past, that’s the fun part, because that’s where I really feel like I’m doing the best historical work of my life, because I get to go from objects and texts to, you know, a multi perspective intricate world that I’ve created based on the best historians work, I could read. And the most primary sources I could get my hands on, including objects and images. And I couldn’t write that article. As a scholar, I can write it as a novelist. I love the challenge. And it’s just again, part of that multifaceted life we experience if we are historians working in the academy,

Kate Carpenter 37:48
So you teach students at the University of Southern California, and I know because you have been very kindly supportive of this podcast that you talk about writing with them, how has your work as a writer, impacted the way you teach your students?

Deborah Harkness 38:01
First of all, thank you for doing the podcast, because that’s part of their assignments is to listen to the podcast, which is a wonderful. I’ve been very influenced by Cate Denial’s Pedagogy of Kindness, and bringing more empathy and more variety into the classroom in terms of readings, and assignments and papers and exams. And so I love to be able to say you don’t have any reading this week, you have to listen to this podcast. In terms of the writing itself, I think it’s made me a better critic, I tended to line edit a lot without really being able to sort of read a paper and go in and, and locate where the problem was, and what the possible solution might be. Unless I line edited, which I think can often be very overwhelming for a student and a writer, right? There are times when you want line editing, and there’s time when you just you want notes, you want somebody to just say, I didn’t find this part of the argument persuasive, because that just tells you what you have to work on. You don’t need somebody to dissect your prose at that stage. Because you know, that comes later. It makes me appreciate as well that they’re at a different place in their journey as historians and writers than I am and that I need to meet them there and help them take the next step not just set this bar and say clear it and you know those who clear it get A’s and those who bash into the pole get B’s and those who fall down get you know, I mean it’s it’s just it’s not effective. So, my writing with my students and my my interactions with those students has become much more individual The world much more targeted much more about solving one problem at a time rather than saying work on these five things. Because it’s, it’s hard. It’s not what we’re asking them to do is not easy. It is not natural to them. And many of them are never going to go on to do academic history. So we need to be able to ask them to write and produce analysis in alternative forms that they will very likely be using in the future, as well as the academic forum. So it goes back to that idea. As historians, we should be able to work in multiple genres, tweets, blog posts, Op Ed pieces, scholarly monographs, conference, papers, articles, lectures, I mean, it just goes on and on and on. And that’s what should we should be teaching our students not just how to write a five page, argumentative essay. That’s important. But it’s not the only thing that’s important. So that’s all changed for me since 2011. So the past decade, I’ve been slowly but surely chipping away at how I thought how history had to be taught to undergraduates and graduate students to the way that I think will serve them best.

Kate Carpenter 41:28
What influential writing advice have you gotten?

Deborah Harkness 41:31
To put your butt in a chair, and write. That rearranging your desk making a snack, checking your email is not writing, it’s preparing to write. So is a trip to Staples to buy a supplies? You know, I could spend an afternoon in Staples, and say, I did my writing today. No, you prepare for it, but you didn’t actually touch your work. That idea that a lot of the procrastination and delaying tactics we use does not qualify as writing and being a good cop, you have to go to Staples, but that you also have to do something more to further it along. And I think I’ve just been, you know, I always marvel at very productive writers. I’m not I’m not fast in novel terms. I’m not fast and scholarly terms. I’m a slow burn kind of person. I’m a perfectionist. So the most advice I’ve ever gotten, you know, that I’ve gotten that I still can’t actually take, although I’m trying work in progress is to let go of things before you think they’re ready. And get let some air into them. Get a perspective on them from someone else. The novelist Neil Gaiman is it has some of the best writing advice ever, which is to accept that all criticism is 100%. Right? And that all the solutions people offer are 100% Wrong. When somebody criticizes something, think, oh, okay, there’s a problem there, and I need to investigate it. They’re like, I just need this here. That’s not really going to solve the problem. Because only you know, the source material, the argument, in my case, the characters, the long epic scope of what I’m trying to do. So people solutions are usually not super valuable. But their criticism is always important, and always has to be taken seriously, because it flags a flaw in your work. When there’s nothing that stops the reader. There’s nothing to criticize. And so that’s probably that idea that, you know, don’t be such a perfectionist. Let it go. It’ll come back to you. You’ll you’ll fix it then is is it’s the only sustainable model for writing. I think, although I am still a perfectionist. So…

Kate Carpenter 44:09
Do you have a writing community you rely on?

Deborah Harkness 44:11
I have a wonderful group of beta readers that I called the Mystical Sisters. And they read everything as I’m writing, sort of like my own private coven. I have writing people who helped me stay accountable. So I have a writing group with two other authors. That’s very much about accountability, creative ways to think about how to unstick yourself when you’re stuck. And I’ve also got a writing partner partner who’s just works in a very similar genre genre, and I call them writing partners. We’re not co writing things. It’s my writing companion, I guess. But we’re in a very similar place in our in our lives in our writing careers and We write a similar kind of book, albeit for different audiences, we just are. So in sync, we understand the problems of high concept, fantasy, and sort of golf disc, in ways that are, you know, you have to be in the trenches to really understand. So I think, you know, those are like, you know, people who are really close to you in the field, versus someone in a totally different field, you want both perspectives. So those are, those are my sort of writing communities. And then I’ve got, you know, in fiction, you go through a great deal more in the editorial process than you do as an academic. So I have multiple people, reading, commenting, criticizing, from a developmental editor, to a submission editor, to my agent, to my editor at the press, there’s a lot of people in that kitchen, as you really start writing, start producing draft and then go through revisions, apart from the revisions you’ve already done. So that’s my sort of, I consider them part of the writing community because they’re about how to make the best book that can possibly go out into the world.

Kate Carpenter 46:18
Are there other writers that you look to for inspiration? Or are things you’ve read recently?

Deborah Harkness 46:22
you know, it’s so funny, I, I’m a professional nonfiction reader, like all of us are, I and so I don’t read much fiction. And so whenever somebody asked me to, like recommend the last novel I wrote, I read on like, I think it was The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, when I was a graduate student. I choose, I don’t have time, I’m always because I like a steep learning curve, I tried to keep very current with my own fields. And because of the nature of the books I write, I have to delve deep into areas I’ve never explored before. Every day, I’m reading, historical work, and historical work. And I go to a colleague or a friend and say, All right, you know, Karen Wolf, you are an 18th century historian, she was my go to person for, you know, what should I read, in 18th century history to get this right. Or if I ran into a promise, I got the best stuff on childbirth, these days in the in the 18th century. So I rely on the expertise of others to guide me to those books. And there, you know, as always, when you read a great work of history, it transforms the way you think about the past. And, again, as a as a novelist, I’m not as concerned with which button would have been on that waistcoat, as I am about what really smart historians are saying about the period more broadly, the arguments they’re making, because that’s how you write a passage like the one you wrote, it’s not about historic detail. It’s actually about the arguments that other historians have so carefully and general slippy made for that’s where the that’s where the real fun begins.

Kate Carpenter 48:20
Before I let you go, can I ask you what you’re working on now?

Deborah Harkness 48:23
Yes, but I can’t tell you. I am working. I am working on a novel I am working on the next book in the All Souls series, it’s going very well. Now I have to knock on wood to keep any evil, evil influences at bay, I took a nice little break after Time’s Convert. It was exhausting to write a sort of really historically based book in a period I didn’t know as well. And so I’m ready to go now with the next next entry into the saga. And, you know, hope to be able to have concrete news like a title and what it’s about to share, when I get the green light from higher powers that it’s okay to go forward.

Kate Carpenter 49:12
Fantastic. Well, Dr. Deb Harkness, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past.

Deborah Harkness 49:17
This has really been fun. We, as historians, we should do this more often. Talk about our process. That’s good thing.

Kate Carpenter 49:25
Thank you again to Dr. Deborah Harkness, for joining me on Drafting the Past. Thanks to you for listening. As always, you can find show notes and links to the books that we talked about in this episode at While you’re there, you can also leave me a voicemail telling me about some of the best writing advice you’ve ever received. I may use your message in an upcoming bonus episode of Drafting the Past. In the meantime, remember, friends don’t let friends write boring history.

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