Back at the beginning of July, I chatted via Skype to Colin Greenstreet of the Marine Lives project about how I do my research.  It was one of a number of interviews that Colin carried out so that the project leaders could tweak the functionality of their database in order to make it as useful as possible for the end users.  It struck me at the time that this is something, in my experience at least, we rarely talk about: how we actually go about doing the research that leads to those papers and publications.

I’ve only ever done what felt natural to me.  Generally speaking, I Google things first, then I read a lot and make notes, usually in the form of direct quotations from the author with page numbers.  When I actually come to use them in my work, I often paraphrase, of course, but when I’m making notes I prefer to write down what the author actually said so that I know I’ve got it right.  As for primary sources, I tend to collect them in folders, both digitally and often physically as well – I scrawl all over the physical copies. I use a lot of online databases, especially Early English Books Online, and boy do I miss access to the State Papers Online

I collect my notes on a project in a single working document, then start another one for the end product – be it paper, article or chapter – so that I can swap easily from one to another.  When I think I’ve finished what I’m working on, I copy them into my (now rather enormous) ‘research file’.  It might be unwieldy, but at least it makes searching fairly straightforward – there’s only one place to look.

Colin posted the results of the interviews, including mine, on the Marine Lives project website (and you can keep up to date with Marine Lives developments via the project blog). I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how other people conduct their research.  I developed my methods by trial and error over time, and I wonder whether it would benefit us to chat a bit more about the methods we use – I’m sure that there are ideas that other people have that would work for me too, or even be more efficient.  Up to now, I’d never thought to ask.


With apologies for the length of the delay between posts (brought about by a computer faliure), here is the second piece about Elizabeth Parr and William Elderton:

William Elderton’s A proper new balad in praise of my Ladie Marques (London, 1569; STC (2nd ed.) / 7562) is unique among the surviving early ballad epitaphs in that it specifies the tune to which it was to be sung: ‘The Lusty Gallant’. With its implications of joyfulness and chivalry, ‘The Lusty Gallant’ may seem inappropriate for a verse epitaph, yet as you can see the words of A proper new balad fit the tune perfectly and the melody is in a minor mode – the Aeolian.

A proper new Balad in praise of my Ladie Marques whose Death is bewailed to the Tune of New lusty gallant-p1al7bfl541esn1sdtgt1it91qj8

Actually, it’s debateable whether the initial upbeat on the first verse is necessary. Originally, I put it in because it matched the bouncy crotchet-quaver rhythm of the rest of the line. The lyrics work equally well, however, with no upbeat, because it emphasises the first syllable of ‘Ladies’ by placing it on the stronger beat of the bar.  It also matches the three-quaver rhythm of the second line. I’ve played around with both and I’m undecided.

 Looking down, and south, from the A685.   © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Looking down, and south, from the A685.
© Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I seem to have been doing a lot of travelling lately, whizzing up and down the country on the pendolino and tootling across country on local trains.  I am, in the words of Doctor Seuss, a north going zax so frankly the journey through the valley in the Lakes where the west coast mainline and the M6 run alongside each other was infinitely preferable to the more familiar journey south towards London, although passing a trainload of mummified cars wrapped in bandages on a siding outside Oxford was a novelty.  The reason for all this travelling was academic, for once.  Early summer is conference season.  My twitter feed has been full of conference tweets for several weeks, which can be really interesting.  Several twitter hashtags have looked interesting enough to cause me to find out what the conference was that I was missing, and some of them I’ve really wished I could attend.   It’s a while since I gave a paper at an academic conference, so it was good to get back into the swing of things with trips to Reading and Newcastle.

Reading’s Early Modern Studies Conference was great fun. 410px-Codex_Mendoza_folio_2r Last time I went to Reading University I was on a two week accountancy training course and I hated every minute of it.  Reading was nothing like as unpleasant as I remembered it being, which just goes to show how much your experience colours your memories of a place.  The accommodation was lovely, although the lack of full wifi coverage if you couldn’t (like me and several other people) log into Eduroam was a distinct drawback. Because of my graduation, I wasn’t able to attend the whole conference, but on the Monday afternoon I very much enjoyed Maria de Jesus Crespo Candeias Velez Relvas‘s paper on ‘The Perception of the World in the Sixteenth Century’, as it took me back to undergraduate days of studying The First Hundred Years of the Spanish in the Americas and writing my dissertation.  I still find the impact of the Spanish conquest on the mainly oral tradition of the Aztecs and Inca’s fascinating and I recently downloaded the digital Codex Mendoza app!

The parallel sessions on Monday afternoon were all in seminar rooms, so I was somewhat surprised to find myself delivering my paper on Tuesday morning in a large lecture theatre.  My panel consisted of Richard Hoyle talking about ‘The King and the Poor Northern Man’, myself on ‘Ballads and the Public Sphere in Sixteenth Century England’ and Jonathan Arnold on ‘Music, Morality and Meaning: Humanist Critiqus of Musical Performance in Early Modern Europe’.  It seemed to go very well. I had to leave Reading mid-afternoon on the Tuesday in order to get home for my graduation, so unfortunately I missed Jennifer Richards’ plenary that evening.

One of the interesting things about delivering a paper to most conferences and seminar series is that people seem surprised when I sing a verse or two of a ballad. Not so at the Voices and Books conference, where breaking into song mid-paper is normal!  I have really enjoyed all the Voices and Books meetings that I’ve attended, and they helped to cement the idea that I had early on in my ballad studies that we need to think of ballads as songs that were sung and read aloud.  It is a truly interdisciplinary network, with supportive scholars from music, history, drama, literature and language all sharing ther ideas and bringing their expertise to the table.  I can honestly say that I’ve come away from the conference with more ideas than I could possibly carry out in the rest of my working life, so I want to say a big thank you to the ever-smiling network organisers Jennifer Richards and Richard Wistreich for all their hard work and their inspiring example!

Voices and Books his was a really busy conference with parallel sessions and plenaries filling the days, leaving little space for tea and the wonderful food that was provided.  Having started the second day of the conference at 9.30am, I left the conference dinner the moment that I finished my main course through sheer exhaustion (in a good way) at 9.30pm, and, disappointingly, before the chewy strawberry pavlova.  My family would testify to how tired I must have been to walk away from a meringue!  And, by the way, the conference also had far and away the best food of any that I’ve ever been to, what with Thai beef salad; wild rice with currants, chickpeas and herbs; mini Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish; lemon posset; and dipped strawberries.

There wasn’t a single session that didn’t include fascinating papers, but the plenaries were particularly excellent. Heidi Brayman Hackel spoke on the relationship between hearing and speaking and the the role of the dumb-show in early modern drama.  Anne Karpf was truly inspiring when she talked about restoring the voice, pointing out that even oral history tends to priviledge the recorded or transcribed voice over the act of speaking itself, making me wonder again how to weave in to my  studies the ballads collected from the oral tradition.  I was struck by her comment that the first voice we hear is the maternal voice which we hear in the womb and can even feel its vibration – it made me wonder if the maternal lullaby works in a similar way to skin-to-skin contact for babies? Perry Mills, talking about performing early modern drama with a company of boys, reminded me of everything I miss about teaching.  And then, of course, there was Christopher Marsh and the Carnival Band demonstrating how to write a hit song in the seventeenth century – the first plenary session any of us had been to with a beer break in the middle!  Apparently the Carnival Band had been given free reign to interpret the songs  as they saw fit, and I noticed that they had chosen to accompany them using major and minor keys rather than modal harmony.  Apologies also for the state of my photographs of them, as my camera didn’t cope well with the limited light!

On Friday I talked about ‘Reinterpreting  the Sixteenth Century English Ballad’, giving a brief airing to my theories about tonality and knowingness, but my main point was that ballads were good for spreading news because they were passed from person to person and used tunes that were easy to pick up and remember.   I decided to demonstrate this by having my very own Gareth Malone moment and getting the conference delegates to sing!  I had been having kittens prior to the conference – as a teacher I used to get children to sing all the time but I’ve never tried it with adults, and if they didn’t go for it and join in I would end up looking rather daft.  Fortunately, they almost all joined in with varying amounts of enthusiasm and learned the first verse of ‘The Hunt is Up’ very  quickly.

At the conference dinner on Friday evening, Jonathan Gibson asked if I might be able to sing a verse of a ballad during his paper the following morning, which I was pleased to do.  So  after retreating from the dinner I went back to my hotel, where I attempted to learn the tune of Wilson’s Wild, while feeling the bass and vocals of ‘I-I-I-I-I’m not your stepping sto-one‘ vibrate through the floor.   On the final day I particularly enjoyed Jonathan’s paper, Naomi Barker on traces of orality in Italian keyboard music and John Gallagher‘s paper on the teaching of foreign languages.  I’m very interested  in the idea of learning a language through singing its songs, so that’s something we’re both going to look out for.

So I’m home, brimming over with ideas, just as my institutional login is about to run out.  Ho hum.

I have finally sent off my commonwealth chapter to my panel, ahead of my meeting with them next week.  I’m in a slightly different position to normal in that I was able to send it with a message telling them where I wanted help and where I hoped to expand it when I come to re-write it in the summer.  I identified two sections where the writing was flabby and repetitive, where some serious editing will be needed, but on the whole, I think it has something to say, at last.  That something is about radical ballads and the activities of ballad collectors, which isn’t how I expected the chapter to turn out when I started work on it last September.  It has been the hardest chapter I’ve had to write by far.  I’m glad that it turned out to be about the manuscript collections of ballads, because compared to the broadside ballads they’ve had much less attention.  I think that they are interesting in their own right, because someone chose to collect them and made the effort to write them down.

The rest of the week has been split between secondary reading for my final chapter on ballads and the news; cataloguing and analysing more ballads; and preparing my paper for the Print and Materiality Seminar Series at the John Rylands Library next week.  The paper should be fun because for once, I actually get to sing!  On Sunday last week I recorded a couple of the ballads I’ve been working on recently, one of which took three and a half minutes and the other was more than twelve!   I’m going to keep recording them as I work on them from now on, with the aim of having them all recorded by July.

Next week is half term, so I expect to have some days out if the weather permits, instead of working all week.

I was warned on Wednesday that my luck will have to run out eventually.  That may not sound too much like good news, but the converse is, of course, that,  in order to provoke the comment, things must be going relatively well at the moment.  Work on the commonwealth chapter continues, with some quite major revisions to the opening of the chapter and smaller changes to individual sentences.  It’s getting closer.  I still need to check a couple of references and make some alterations to one of the musical examples, but it’s certainly getting closer. (And about time too, I might add, considering that it’s taken the best part of six months!)

I spent almost all of yesterday just working on the footnotes, trying to get Endnote to play ball.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like Endnote.  I used to enjoy writing my footnotes by hand, but the way that Endnote does it for me is, usually, enormously labour saving.   But for some reason, yesterday, it got its knickers in an almightly twist and started putting in references to whatever manuscript it felt like.  It wasn’t a problem with the books, or the journal articles, or the webpages: just the manuscripts.  Since the chapter is  based around manuscript collections, it caused a bit of a problem.  I have no idea  what caused the glitch, but I ended up typing in the manuscript references  manually.

I’ve also started secondary reading for my concluding chapter on the news.   If anyone has any suggestions of things I should read on early modern news, I’d be very glad to hear of them.  The reading that I’ve done this week surprised me by giving me several ideas for  my first couple of chapters on ballad music.  In fact, I had to leap out of bed at 11 one night this week to write down an idea!  It’s the first time that that’s happened for a very long time, so I think I can safely say that the thesis is out of the doldrums and on the move again.

This afternoon I briefly revisited my chapter plan, taking into account some of the comments that my supervisors made when they looked at it last and writing an abstract for the commonwealth chapter now that it’s completed.  The rest of the afternoon I spent  transcribing documents in the State Papers.  For once, the handwriting is relatively easy to read.  Unfortunately, the digital scan of one page is so dark that it is illegible in places – I suppose a girl can’t have everything.

On Wednesday evening I went to the committee meeting for the Historical Association in Bolton.  A very productive meeting and plenty of things to work on in the coming months, not least of which is putting together the programme of lectures for next season.

After a couple of dodgy days at the beginning, the week has definitely ended on a high.  I spent quite a lot of time at the beginning of the week consolidating the ideas that my trip to the British Library generated and I wrote a thousand words in a couple of hours, bringing together my thoughts .  It was very satisfying, especially in the light of the 6 months I’ve been struggling with the 7000 words of the commonwealth chapter.  In a sense, it made the chapter all the more frustrating.  Although the chapter had improved, I was still really struggling  to make it flow.  Everything was there, in vaguely the right order, but with no grace and no flow.  Cue accusations that the naughty child in me didn’t want it to flow yet.   My response was along the lines of ‘get lost’.  There is nothing fun about spending six months messing with the same set of words.  But at least writing about London proved to me that I hadn’t lost it (whatever ‘it’ is) completely.

On Wednesday night I did something a bit different.  I read the chapter aloud.  Perhaps I should have done it a long time ago, because it was so obvious when I thought about it, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me.  I printed the chapter out and attacked it with a red pen and scissors.  And it worked.  Bashing it out line by line, aloud, showed exactly where the  problems were and what didn’t make sense, what needed more explanation and what would be better broken down into more sentences.   Thursday I spent typing up all the changes that I had made and by 2.30 that afternoon, I was a very happy girl.  It’s not ready, by any stretch of the imagination, but it will do as a first draft.  What’s more, it has lost its hold on my nightmares and no longer causes me feelings of guilt and insecurity.  Maybe it won’t be the best chapter in the thesis (who knows, maybe it will), but at least I’ve now got something down that I’m confident about.

I celebrated by unpacking a box-load of books.  I’ve inherited another library, he second in three months, so my brand new shelves are now groaning under the weight of scholarship I could never have afforded to buy.

Today I checked through the results of some searches that I ran on State Papers Online and found a perfect little nugget to help with one of my arguments, so I am very happy indeed.

Finally, I’d like to pass on my very best wishes to Glyn Redworth who retires from the University of Manchester this week after more years than either of us probably cares to think about.  Time to start a new chapter, in more ways than one.

DSCF3072I don’t have a lot to tell, this week (after all, it’s only a couple of days since I last posted) so I thought I’d just share the good news that I’d managed to write a bit of my common weal chapter and then post some photos of some of my favourite birds from today’s visit to Martin Mere.

Yesterday morning I intended to spend a couple of hours on my common weal chapter, but just as I got stuck in and finally started making something that feels like proper progress, I had to abandon it in favour of looking after a dying hamster.  The hamster is still with us, just, but I doubt it will be much longer.  The chapter remains unfinished, but I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.  I hope it isn’t the oncoming train.

To the left is a fibre optic crane.  At least that’s what we call it – really it’s a grey-crowned crane.  Fabulous creatures.  And below are some avocets.