There is nothing harder than starting.
Do historians feel this more keenly than other writers? Like our endings, our beginnings can feel arbitrary, as if there is something false about carving a piece out of History to say this is the story.
The only way to overcome this artificiality is to embrace it.
What does this mean for writing? It means freeing yourself from the idea that you need to begin by laying out the background to your argument. Often it means moving the key ideas that come later in a piece up to the front, and turning them into actions, vignettes, or questions that pull your reader straight in from the first words.
In the nineteenth century, theatre critics developed the term ‘table-dusting’ to refer to the way that key information was smuggled to the audience by the domestic staff in the first scene, who artificially revealed the key details about the lives of the protagonists. Table dusting is as redundant in writing history as it is in writing theatre. Rather than ‘exposition’, or ‘background’, think about how the material at the very beginning of your piece establishes conflict and problems.
In Jack. M. Bickham’s words: ‘Don’t warm up your engines.’ Instead: ‘Start your story from the first sentence.’ In his book Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell spells out how to do this: ‘Begin with a character in motion.’
This is how Carolyn Steedman began her book Landscape for a Good Woman, which blends autobiography and history:
She died like this. I didn’t witness it. My niece told me this. She’d moved everything down into the kitchen: a single bed, the television, the calor-gas heater. She said it was to save fuel.
Not only is the reader immediately drawn into the story, and given the first clues as to what kind of a person this woman is, but questions are forced upon them from the very start: who is ‘she’? What relation is she to the author?
A well-known example of plunging the reader into action is the beginning of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Quoting his primary sources at excruciating length, Foucault immerses the reader in a graphic description of the tortures inflicted on the eighteenth-century attempted regicide, Robert-François Damiens.
It may sound trite to say, but it is worth thinking about beginning with something puzzling, that hooks the reader. The opening sentence of Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution sticks in many people’s minds: ‘There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.’ As Rob Priest pointed out on Twitter, this opening line, like many other ‘classic’ beginnings to history books offers ‘instant clarity, but in a way that is not self-evident, so immediately necessitates reading on.’
But perhaps this is not for you. With beginnings, as with other aspects of writing history, there are many different ways to do things, and no one right way.
Your writing, your choices. The historian Matt Houlbrook put it like this on his blog:
You could go for something flash: turn those frustrated literary aspirations into a sentence that surprises or startles; get the best story from your sources up front and central to draw them in. You could play it safe and simple: here is my thesis or subject summed up in a sentence. Entertain or engage? Aesthetics or argument? Literary effect or learning? Whimsical or wise?
Chose your tone and take your chances.
- Write a short summary of your piece.
- Make this the opening sentence, or…
- Is there a story or vignette that would encapsulate these key ideas that you could use to introduce the piece?
- Try getting rid of all of that introductory background at the start of a piece, and give it to a reader. What do they actually need to know to make sense of your argument?
- Read through your piece for striking ideas. Perhaps they are the ones that most surprise you, or the ones that seem most important.
- Now move one of them to make it the very beginning of your piece.
- Repeat with several different options.
- Which makes the most powerful beginning?
 Yorke, Into the Woods, 152.
 Yorke, 156.
 This is cited from his book, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes in Bell Plot and Structure p.70.
 Bell, Plot and Structure, p.71.
 My thanks to Cath Feely for suggesting this example on Twitter.
 Among people who suggested this on Twitter were Chris Millard, Louise Falcini. On the ManyHeadedMonster blog, Brodie Waddell also drew attention to this example. See: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night/ On Twitter Maxine Montaigne also mentioned the opening lines of the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, which puts the reader in a strange position of complicity with the present.
 Among people who suggested this example on Twitter were Matt Wale, @journeymanhisto, @AbominableHMan.