How I Really Footnote History
Last night, I wondered how many people would find it interesting that I wrote the first draft of my upcoming Footnoting History episode about Charles Stewart Parnell and Katharine O'Shea by hand, with a pen containing purple ink and decorated with yellow pieces of candy.
I think people must be curious, because I often get asked about how I approach podcasting. As a result, back in 2018, I hosted a series of guest blog posts written by some pretty wonderful folks in the history podcasting world. Called #PodcastingHistory, it chronicled the process each of these people used to create one episode of their podcast, and they all did a great job. (Should I host another round of this? Hmm...) Yet, there is so much about podcast creating that I didn't mention in my own piece for that series. Over the past 7+ years, I've developed a true system for episode creation. Below are the ten steps (or perhaps 'phases' is a better term) of my process: the good, the bad, and the stress-filled. If you are a podcaster, maybe you'll identify with this. If you're not, maybe it'll be interesting to see how one person's process works. Either way, I hope you enjoy it - and don't judge me too harshly.
Get inspired. One of the best things about Footnoting History, is that we don't have a specific theme. This means I can alternate between discussing things that I already specialize in and things I am learning about from scratch. Plus, because we have multiple hosts, I never have to cover a topic that doesn't interest me. I started a list of potential topics in 2013 when we first started and only about 20% of them have been done. (A Royal Son: Henry the Young King and The Unquiet Afterlife of Elizabeth Siddal, came from this original list.) Mostly though, I do whatever piques my interest in a given moment. For example, Gustav III was the result of accidentally stumbling across his death story when researching On This Day posts for Twitter, Pocahontas came from my desire to cover something from Disney, and Jumbo the Elephant combined my interest in elephants and love of the score from The Greatest Showman. Whether or not I will act on my desire to cover a topic generally boils down to this: Do I have enough time to research something brand new or should I stick to what I already know? How readily available and accessible are sources? Will I be excited to discuss it?
Create a bibliography. I live for creating bibliographies. I love every minute of it. I start with anything I already own, or that was written by the person I'm covering (memoirs are my favorite historical sources, hands down) then turn to places like WorldCat and reviews in journals to decide what books I'll need. I find immense value in scholarly articles, because often they will focus specifically on my desired aspect of a topic, so I consult databases like JSTOR and see what's going on there. Another source I love is a newspaper or other periodical. If I'm covering something that I know would have been in the papers of the time, you know I'll end up with at least one or two of those cited. I admit I have some of the longer Further Reading sections on the Footnoting History site, but I don't regret it - and I don't even usually list every source I've consulted. For me, a project isn't real until I've created my bibliography, because it provides a guide. Once I know what's out there, I can begin my research. Then I can add and remove things from it as I work and learn what sources actually were useful as opposed to once I thought might be before I consulted them.
Craft my title and blurb, then find a corresponding image. I'm listing this separately, but it often happens at the same time as the bibliography, because I like to know my focus as much as possible before I begin. It's surprisingly a lot of work to nail what you want to say. I aim to express what will be discussed without telling you everything in advance. It's more like writing a very short blurb for the back of a book than it is writing an academic abstract. The images we use are public domain or photographs we took ourselves. I adore a good deep dive into public domain images and have collected a massive folder of links to databases of them over time. You'll often find multiple additional images in the blog posts for my episodes because I find it so hard to narrow it down to just one. Images from the past can really make a story hit home, and I want to give people as much of a full picture of it as I can.
Spend roughly 6-8 weeks researching. There have been times when I had to push an episode out quickly, usually if I am covering for someone else who discovered they wouldn't be able to complete theirs in time. In those cases I definitely insert a topic where I already have a lot of knowledge. However, for a normal situation, I follow a specific process: -Set up a new notebook (if the topics are related, I will continue in a notebook from an old episode, but it is rare that I end up without my notebook full by the end of researching one). Each new source gets a page tab to mark it, then I put the number of the source on the top of the page, with the title and author. When the notebook is full (or my work is complete for the topic) I make a list of all the sources in it and attach it to the inside cover of the notebook. -First articles, then books. I start with articles because I can move through them faster than books, which makes me feel like I'm making progress, and I get a good overview of the topic before going into the details. -Get grumpy when a source I thought was going to be useful isn't, and then get happy when one I didn't think would be great actually is. -Frantically text my friends because I have discovered something exciting. -Realize I have taken far too many notes and won't be able to use (or don't need to use) at least half of it in the episode. I hate having to read a book twice, so I prefer to outline a source in its entirety. Then, if I need it again later for any reason, I can go straight to my notebook. For my upcoming Parnell episode, I tried a different approach. I outlined articles like normal and then read through books, marking pertinent passages as opposed to stopping to constantly write. The lead image for this podcast shows how that turned out. Did I read the books faster? Yes. Did it make writing the episode much more difficult? Also yes. It turns out that the way I retain information has not changed since I was in school. I need to write things down to recall them later on.
Write the script - by hand. I think better when I have a pen in my hand. I'll shut the bedroom door, then plant myself on my bed with my notebook and all the books and articles so I can reference them while I write. I'll open another notebook (I own many notebooks) and start drafting it. At some point, I realize that at the rate I'm going the episode will be 100 minutes long and full of rambling. Even though this happens every time, I will momentarily get down about it and frustrated. Then I'll go for a walk or watch television and suddenly have an epiphany about how I want the episode to go. I've taken to thinking of this portion of my process as the Vomit Draft. I have to spew out all the complicated details in order to figure out what I need to keep, what can get cut, and how to synthesize everything down to the standard 15-25 minutes.
Rewrite the script - on the computer. Once my epiphany has occurred, I sit at the computer and churn out the script with quite a bit of speed. I write in Word (or Google Docs) with a Times New Roman font, 12pt, and double spaced, because with those settings I know each page amounts to two minutes. At this point, I know what I want to say enough that I can write the entire thing without reference. Then I go back and fill in any gaps from my memory by referring to my notebook - which is basically a topic Bible. I always have at least a few details that need to get cut for time, but mostly when I go back through the typed script I can tighten my language enough that 90% of the information gets to stay.
Obsessively pour over each detail. The phase between writing and recording is the most intense, because my obsessive nature and need for perfection come into play. I get incredibly stressed and usually become friends with my eye drops. I print the script out and go through it with a pen, rewording things, adding definitions, etc. Then I incorporate those changes into the Word document and print it out again. The next step is that I go through it and highlight every single date in the episode. Why? First, so I can verify each one and make sure I didn't make an error. Second, because once when we first started I accidentally transposed the numbers in a year. I was horrified when I realized it after the episode was already released, but I did change it and re-upload the episode so no one would have the incorrect date now. If I highlight the dates in the script I know to pay special attention to them when I'm recording. Finally, I go through the script with my notes side-by-side. I'll put check marks over each thing in the script as I verify it with my notes. Sometimes I'll go through this process twice. I don't feel ready to record until I've done it.
Investigate pronunciations. I have never met someone who could correctly pronounce my surname without my guidance. I have, however, met many people who have brazenly told me the way I say my own name (which is Italian, but with an Americanized pronunciation) incorrectly. It's bothered me since the dawn of time, and it means a lot to me to make sure I get the names of my subjects correct. Typically, I begin with identifying names of people and places that I don't already know how to say. Sometimes I'll ask my friends. In other cases, I turn to YouTube. I can't tell you the amount of hours I've spent over the years looking for local news coverage where people from the region can be heard saying place names. Online documentaries or lectures have helped me with people's names, too. But sometimes (as the Parnell episode will show) I learn how a historical figure would have said their name directly from the actual person - which brings me great joy. There have been times I've made mistakes (like when I learned St. Augustine, Florida was not pronounced the way I thought) and re-recorded to correct it and others when a non-American pronunciation has tripped me up, but I still try my best, because I want to do right by my subjects and I hope others would do the same for me.
Record episode, and do minor edits. Recording is the easy part. I set up at my PC with my Blue Yeti mic and pop filter. I have a bottle of water at my side, close my window and door to limit outside noise, and kick my family out of the house, promising to text them when I'm done. (Now that we're quarantined, I just make them promise not to do anything other than read or nap while I record.) I use Audacity and always record an episode twice, though I usually end up using the first take. I don't stop until I finish the entire script, and if I mess up, I just take a breath and start from the beginning of the section again. Sometimes I change sentences as I go, usually because I've written something that sucks the breath out of you when you say it aloud but reads fine. When I'm done, I listen to both takes to see which one I like better. Then I go through it and remove all the times I messed up so it is clean. Once that is done, I play the episode straight through, script in hand, following along to make sure I got everything right and don't need to record again because I misspoke.
Pass recording to Elizabeth, accompanied by email expressing Impostor Syndrome. Sending the episode to Elizabeth, the Footnoting History founder, is great because it means I stop tinkering with it. She will then listen to it, clean up anything I missed, and add our theme music. I always include a message in my email about how I love the topic and hope I did it justice. It's difficult to take massive topics and cut them down to bite-sized chunks while still conveying as much of the complexity as you can. I love my topics, and I want them to be represented in the best possible fashion. Once the file is out of my hands, and I've added my printed script to the binder where I keep one hard copy of each episode I do, I feel human again. My shoulders relax. I take a break of a few days before considering my next topic and read a book for fun or (as my Twitter followers know) watch a lot of television.
I must admit, my nerves resurface the day it is released, because I want other people to like listening to my episode as much as I like creating it. I love history, and every time I send a bit more of it into the world I feel like I'm watching another History Baby take flight. I'm known for biographical episodes, and there's a reason for that. I love humans and their life stories and I think we are better off for knowing them. I don't have to agree with (or even like) a subject personally in order to find the story fascinating and worth covering. Now you know the steps that I take over the span of a few months to create an episode you can listen to in under half of an hour. It's a little bit crazy, but I wouldn't change it for anything.
I send you my best wishes, warmest regards, and hope this finds you safe and well.