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Writing Local History

Faculty Spotlight: Professor helps bring local history to forefront

A new book co-authored by Thomas Alexander Mason, a history faculty member within the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, will help guide non-academic writers as they research, write, and attempt to publish local history narratives. The local history field has seen a recent resurgence, spurred by grassroots movements and trying times that echo those seen in the early 19th and 20th centuries during the Progressive Era, a time period when the field flourished.

Writing Local History Today: A Guide to Researching, Publishing, and Marketing Your Book (Rowman & Littlefield) features topics such as identifying an audience; working with contracts and proposal requests; using social media to help publication; and the positives and negatives of self-publishing. The book also includes an essay about financial issues in publishing from Gregory Britton, the editorial director of Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mason and his coauthor, Kent Calder, bring decades of experience writing about local history to their new book. Mason is the author of Serving God and Mammon: William Juxon, 1582-1663, Bishop of London, Lord High Treasurer of England, and Archbishop of Canterbury. The IUPUI professor also was  the project director for The Papers of Lew and Susan Wallace, a five DVD-ROMs edition forthcoming from the Indiana Historical Society Press, and helped edit volumes 14-15 of The Papers of James Madison. Both men have served for years on the Editorial Advisory Board of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), the professional society of people working at places such as historical societies and historic house museums.

"[Calder and I] and other [AASLH] board members were aware that the standard book on the subject of publishing in the field of local history was long out of print. So we hope and intend that our book will fill that need," he says.

Parallels between the Progressive Era, when local history prospered, and modern times include issues of corporate consolidation and the rise of political reform groups such as the Occupy Movement.  The general public’s support of grassroots environmental/ art/ and business movements have ushered in new interests in local history and created a renaissance in the available literature documenting historical events on smaller scale.

"Good ideas and topics are plentiful, but implementation, execution, and quality of writing are everything," Mason said of writing a local history. In addition, a good local history book must also communicate specialized knowledge to a wide, nonspecialist audience, he said.

"‘Who is your audience?’ is the first question an author and a publisher must ask," Mason said. "Our first chapter concentrates on how to identify an audience, and our final chapter explains how to market a publication to that audience."

The book also looks at the way computers, the Internet, and social media have changed the writing and research of local histories.

 "We hope our book will be a useful guide to practitioners in the field of local history-to the newcomer and the seasoned veteran alike," Mason says.