Top tips for history bloggers

21 April 2012

A group of history bloggers down the pub yesterday, discussing their stats and how to maximise SEO.

It a source of absolute delight to me that history blogs seem to be springing up like mushrooms at the moment. Okay, we may never be able to take the Mummy Blogger lot on in anything that comes to sheer numbers but I reckon we’d more than hold our own against them in a pub quiz type scenario. And, sadly, PR types aren’t as interested in us so parcels of chocolate and other such goodies are rather thin on the ground but do we care? No, because like them we are doing something that we adore and, hopefully, making others happy in the process.

That’s not to say either that we don’t build up our own contacts and get to do fun things! I personally have built a really nice relationship with the Royal Collections (it helps that the current Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures used to be my tutor at university and is a very very lovely, encouraging and helpful man), the Royal Palaces (who are super lovely and let me go to their press days to wander about in open mouthed awe and take photographs!), Bath Fashion Museum, Denis Severs’ House and so on. You’d be surprised how many places don’t want to engage though – the Victoria and Albert Museum for one, which is why I never feature them any more.

You can still have a lot of fun though – I’m constantly thinking of new and interesting things to do for my blog and I keep a record of them in the ‘Lists’ function on my iPad and iPhone so I always have SOMETHING to write about. I have a list of stately homes that I’d like to feature (although they generally get crossed off when I discover they don’t allow photography!) and I’m also keen to visit some re-enactment groups this summer so I can do a series of posts about them! Any invitations?

There’s a particular joy, for me at least, in the act of writing a history blog as it means connecting with like minded people who have the same interests as myself. I don’t know how school was for you, but for me it was tortuous and I was constantly mocked for being obsessed with history, for being more interested in what happened back in 1789 than whatever rubbish was in the charts and for finding the fashions of the 17th century far more becoming than whatever horrors were currently being sold in Miss Selfridges.

It’s an absolute PLEASURE therefore to feel myself amongst friends now, to know that if I post about fancying Thomas Cromwell or confessing to a love of the alleyways of Whitechapel, someone out there will reply with a resounding ‘me too!’.

A history blogger let loose in Whitechapel.

When I first started this blog back in July 2009, there weren’t all that many history blogs out there but now it seems as if there are new ones springing up all the time, which is just amazing. My personal taste tends towards blogs that focus on women’s history with a bit of flounce and a modern touch but there’s something for absolutely everything, whether you are into the Saxons, Wars of the Roses, Romans, Edwardians and everything in between. We’re spoiled for choice.

I’m often asked for advice about starting a history blog but thought it would be more fun to ask some really fabulous history blogging chums of mine to chime in with their thoughts.

Heather, who writes the superb The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide and @Georgianagossip on Twitter says:

‘I think one of the most important history-blogger lessons I could pass on is remember your blogger etiquette when promoting yourself. The historical blog community is a lovely one to be a part of, with some of the nicest people making up both readers and writers. Do not make a bad impression by shamelessly promoting your blog in another’s comments. And whatever you do DO NOT ask for link exchanges! There’s nothing that turns off a blogger more! If a blogger likes your blog they will link to it. To get your name out there, become part of the community by commenting, tweeting, and generally enjoying getting a conversation with like-minded people going. Like the field of dreams, write what you love and they will come!’

Lauren, who writes the always entertaining Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide and @mariegossip on Twitter says:

‘A word of advice for new history bloggers is to create a twitter account to compliment the blog. It is an easy way to get posts out there, and meet new like-minded people. In a way you would be expanding your network, and learning what other history/related blogs are active. You can also get creative with fun promotional bits on twitter like blog giveaways or polls. Take advantage of web 2.0 and use it to engage your readers and keep them coming back for more!

What else…. Have your email open for readers to get in touch. I get some amazing reference/research questions from readers, as well as tips and leads on upcoming exhibitions around the world. It is great.

What does bother me is when I take the time to help someone out and they can’t be bothered to say ‘thanks.’ Blogging is a time consuming (yet rewarding) job, like any other job and most of us, dare I say almost all of us, do not get paid for it. A little thank you is always appreciated, because we love helping out!’

Susan from the whimsical and lovely Life Takes Lemons and @LifeTakesLemons on Twitter has this to say:

‘Find your own voice within history blogging because on the surface the topic feels infinite and narrowing in on resources is like walking into a dense forest and picking one christmas tree to chop down. There are just so many!

I like stories about saucy and often disastrous women, l’amour fou, and fashion that bleeds into politics and culture. The 18th century is teeming with these types of tales and is glamour personified. Hello, Marie Antoinette!

The process is also circular for me, making posts purposeful and fun (which is incidentally tip #2) Research for my novel writing naturally feeds the blog and keeps me posting when my schedule gets crazy busy.

So, in short, be yourself, define your primary interests, and have fun! It’s insanely rewarding unearthing history fans and sharing interests. Readers inform me just as much as I inform them, and that’s easily the best part of the experience.’

Evangeline from the excellent Edwardian Promenade and @edwardian_era on Twitter says:

‘The number one advice I’d give is to absolutely love your topic. If you aren’t absolutely enthralled with what you plan to blog about, you’re likely to grow bored and abandon it. Also, in this crowded blogosphere, you will stand out by finding an angle from which to write your history blog rather than writing a general one. The finest example so far is Downton Abbey Cooks (http://downtonabbeycooks.com/), which is run by a chef who combines her love of cooking with her obsession with Downton Abbey.

2) Build your reference library immediately! After the first rush of enthusiasm runs its course, you’re going to wish you had a bunch of books from which to obtain inspiration for future blog posts (and on that note, don’t buy books unless you’ve read them. Chasing down OOP books can become a very expensive habit, and your mind and wallet will thank you when you borrow a dud from the library).

3) Read, read, read. When I began my history blog, I took everything I read in my research books at face value. After years of reading hundreds of books on the Edwardian era, I now can recognize biases and omissions (particularly in primary resources like diaries and memoirs). Plus, with all of this reading, you begin to understand the people and the hows, whats, and whys of the time period and move beyond mere recitation of facts and figures.

4) Humility! Thankfully, my emails correcting or complaining about my posts have been minimal, but it still stings a bit when I open an email to find someone wagging their finger at me. *g* However, you’ve got to brush off criticism, because that pang is just someone pricking your pride, and once you think you know everything you stop your capacity to wonder and learn.

5) Patience and shrewdness. Don’t pay attention to the number of your stats and comments, but do pay attention to which types of posts are most popular and what search phrases bring people to your blog.

As for what I like best about my history blog? The community! I’ve connected with so many amazing people through my blog and they keep me inspired and motivated. I also love blogging because it can be relaxing, and I don’t feel guilty for spending hours online or with my nose in a book.’

Samantha Morris from the new and really fascinating Loyalty Binds Me blog and @LadyHertford on Twitter has this to say:

‘My one bit of advice on history blogging is to love your subject, and research research research – if you’re going to be posting something publically for everyone to see then make sure you know your subject, but don’t write too much so people get bored. Make it interesting, make it snappy and include pictures of who it is you’re writing about.

And what I love most about history blogging? Sharing my love of certain historical eras (Stuarts *cough*) and knowing that others who share my enthusiasm can find it and hopefully learn a bit more through my over enthusiastic love of historical dead dudes.’

Finally, Dainty Ballerina who writes the really excellent and informative Shakespeare’s England blog and is @DaintyBallerina on Twitter has this to add:

‘Working in academia means that a lot of the time I’m reading very interesting historical sources which are not always easily accessible to members of the general public. Blogging about them on Shakespeare’e England is a way of sharing some of the more interesting aspects of seventeenth century life with lovers of history. Also my work requires me to take history very seriously, but on the blog I can have a bit more fun and enjoy some of the sillier aspects of history, such as learning how to swim and cut your toenails at the same time.

My advice to new history bloggers would be blog on what interests you, not what you think other people will be interested in. Use lots of illustrations to support your blog posts, and try and keep posts to a reading time of under three or four minutes, since most people don’t have time to read anything much longer. And enjoy it. It should be fun and definitely not a chore!’

I don’t have anything much to add to this to be honest (and in fact feel newly inspired myself) but I think it’s clear what shines through here – that enthusiasm, curiosity, a willingness to engage with readers and a genuine passion for your subject are the key parts of being a history blogger. Also don’t be put off by your amateur status – you have just as much to say as any professional historian – we all bring our unique perspectives to history and that’s one of the things that makes it such an endlessly fascinating subject.

Thanks so much Heather, Lauren, Susan, Evangeline, Dainty and Samantha for all the excellent advice!