The Protean Chapter

There was one chapter of my doctoral thesis I just couldn’t crack. I must have rewritten it four or five times, hating it every time, and the incarnation which finally made its way into my first book had more or less nothing in common with the initial draft other than subject. My basic problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to talk about a difficult text – Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme – but I think most writers have had the experience of the “difficult chapter”, the one that keeps changing and shifting underneath your hands in spite of your best efforts to bring it to some kind of final form.

Right now I’m dealing with another difficult chapter. When I drew up the plan for this book I knew I wanted to say something about a genre I’d loosely and anachronistically defined as “local history”, the sort of antiquarian or geographical text which focuses on a specific area – be that burgh, parish, county, whatever – and I thought I had a good idea of what that would look like. As I researched the chapter, though, the texts and concepts I wanted to address within that remit kept changing and now as I’ve been outlining it preparatory to doing a generative draft, they’ve been changing again.

Title page from Theatrum Scotiae by John Slezer 1693.

Slezer’s Theatrum Scotiae, one of the key texts I’ll be discussing in this chapter.

Some of that change naturally came from honing my research questions. Some sources which had originally seemed relevant came to be less so, while others proved to be far more central than I’d expected. There have been other matters to consider in the process as well. Any discussion of Scottish geography or chorography would be incomplete without Robert Sibbald, but I’ve been trying not to let Sibbald and his thousand and one projects dominate this chapter; in a book that’s meant to survey an entire intellectual movement I think it’s important to discuss a variety of scholars and their texts. But spending more time (and words) on texts I had been thinking less about at the beginning of the project has opened up new avenues of research and other ways of thinking about the material. I’ve now added a new writer altogether – a previously unknown female érudit whose writings include not only a geographical text, but also contributions to Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire – which has not only affected this chapter but has led to discoveries altering some of my arguments in a subsequent chapter. At what point do you stop researching and revising and start writing?

For me, I think I’ve finally reached that tipping point. Yes, I could spend a day or two in the NLS and come up with yet another iteration of the chapter outline, but I think I know what I need to say and it’s that which matters more than exactly how I say it and with what suite of primary sources. The protean chapter isn’t finished yet, but it’s getting there.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

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