Our History Editor Emma Muscat's history blog is so successful she's been asked to talk on TV and radio. Here are her tips for starting your own...
History blogging - the early years
Welcome to my first article as Bloggeration’s History Editor. I am happy to report the history blogosphere is thriving with new websites emerging almost every month. I started blogging in 2011 (Come Step Back In Time), back then history bloggers were as rare as hen’s teeth. I was part of a small, eclectic, band of individuals who wanted to share their passion for the past and were happy to connect with anyone willing to read our musings.
Initially, finding an audience for my articles was a gargantuan struggle. I often stared at the Wordpress Dashboard willing my daily visitor figures to hit triple digits. I experienced many bouts of face-palming. All those endless hours of finding stories, research, editing photographs, then clicking ‘publish’ only to feel like you were just whistling Dixie! Was anybody actually reading my blog, apart from kindly relatives, friends and the family dog?
Most bloggers find their first 6 months particularly tough. You need endurance and a lot of self-belief to maintain your sanity whilst establishing a blog. In addition, history blogging has its own, unique, set of challenges. In those early years, we were not particularly attractive to PR companies with our relatively limited reach and low page views. Not a great platform for marketing product or advertising campaigns. Lifestyle bloggers and vloggers were snapping-up the majority of site traffic and subscribers. Brand collaborations? Well, we were a long way-off of that sort of opportunity.
Television gives history blogging a boost
By 2012/2013 the public’s interest in history went stratospheric. This was largely due to a plethora of documentaries, docu-dramas, living history series and costume dramas bursting onto our television screens here in Britain (three cheers for BBC Two and Four). Even popular entertainment shows, not normally associated with history such as The Great British Bake-Off, shoe-horned history segments into every episode.
History programming entered a golden age, one which I am happy to say we are still in. Television Producers trawled the internet looking for historical experts to appear as talking heads or featured contributors as well as help with production research. By the end of 2012, my site traffic sky-rocketed and I began to receive more media enquiries than I could shake a stick at! History bloggers found themselves in demand, taking some of the lion’s share of opportunities in this regard (much to the chagrin of traditional historians!).
Emerging also were a new breed of television historian, freshly plucked from academia. Some had a few years of broadcast experience under their belt others were relative unknowns. However, they all had one thing in common, the ability to bring history alive, making it fun and accessible to a diverse audience. Mary Beard, Suzannah Lipscomb, Amanda Vickery, Greg Jenner, Bettany Hughes, Dan Snow, Helen Castor, Annie Gray, Kate Williams, Ruth Goodman, Janina Ramirez, Fern Riddell and the ubiquitous Lucy Worsley were all trailblazers in this regard.
However, not everyone who writes a history blog wants to follow a career in broadcast media or become a publishing sensation. Although some history bloggers are academics, many are graduates, heritage professionals, amateur or local historians. A PhD is not a pre-requisite for writing a successful blog, but a passion for the past definitely is.
What makes a successful history blog?
The key to a successful history blog is to make your content accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Engage your readers by presenting fascinating subjects in a lively and innovative way. Use a mix of film clips, podcasts, quality illustrations, Pinterest boards and Periscope. Generate interest in your posts using Instagram and Twitter. Have look at other history blogs (see below). But remember, comparison is the thief of joy, so be inspired by other bloggers but not intimidated.
There are now a vast array of history blogs covering every conceivable topic/era in food, medicine, the macabre, military, genealogy, Regency, Victoriana and many, many more subjects besides. I also recommend looking on Twitter at #Twitterstorians for all the latest history news and articles, a good place to find other history bloggers too.
Another excellent resource is Active History’s list of #historians on Twitter, which is updated regularly. At the time of writing, there were over 3,500 #historians listed. I am rather proud of my ranking in the top 200 at 156! Have a look at the award-winning History Pin (Twitter: @Historypin) too.
History blogs to inspire you
- Madame Guillotine (wide variety of historical topics)
- Edwardian Promenade (time period 1880-1930)
- The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice (macabre medical history)
- The Chick and The Dead (macabre history, sex, death, culture of mortality)
- Come Step Back In Time (social history, wide variety of topics)
- Dr Alun Withey (medical history and history of beards)
- Musings on Food and History (food history by Dr Annie Gray)
- Two Nerdy History Girls (general history)
- Jeanne de Montbaston (gender in popular fiction and Medieval romance)
- Romantic History (historical costume construction, living history)
- Jane Austen’s World (Regency history and literature)
- Downton Abbey Cooks (inspired by the ITV series, food history)
- Museum of London Blog (inspired by the MOL’s collection)
- Faith In Wartime (religion and faith in World War One and Two)
- Effaced From History (history of disfigurement from antiquities to present-day)
- History Riot (women’s history and living history)
- Regency History (Regency history)
- Solentaviatrix (female pilots and aviation history of the Solent, Hampshire)
Top tips for creating a successful history blog
- Create a niche.
- The quirkier the content the quicker you will find an audience. Niche blogs, right across the blogosphere, are bang on trend at the moment.
- Write articles that feature hidden histories or lesser known individuals from the past.
- Take note of current affairs – straplines can inspire you to research historical backstories, e.g. the Sugar Tax, gender issues, the refugee crisis, immigration, libraries, boxing, celebrity/political/royal scandals etc. I am about to write-up my research on refugee children arriving in southern England during the 1930s, all inspired by recent news events;
- Blog upcoming historical Anniversaries.
- Broadcasters and readers love these! Best website for checking future anniversaries is the Mary Evans Picture Library. Their list is comprehensive covering high profile anniversaries as well as obscure ones, from 2016 through to 2019, so should keep you busy for a while;
- Explore the history of your local area.
- Plunder the local history section at your library. You will be amazed at incredible stories, right on your doorstep, just waiting to be told. If you can, visit historic locations near to you, take photographs, vlog, Periscope.
- When you are next on your local high street, look-up at the architecture, see if you can find any historic plaques on properties.
- Attend history and heritage events in your area. Visit your local museum, explain you are setting-up a history blog, ask for a contact name. In my experience, you will find staff and volunteers most helpful. Museum professionals understand the importance of public engagement, the power of social media and bloggers (at last!). Your Museum may have an upcoming event they would be delighted to receive some extra coverage for. However, don’t presume you will always be given free admission to museums/heritage sites in order to write your blog but build a relationship with your contacts and you should be treated well in return. I have been on some incredible press trips (usually run by heritage/tourism PR companies) but as the saying goes, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch!’. It goes without saying that you must be professional and prepared to work hard in return for any complimentary visits/entry fees.
- Rummage in your local charity shop or boot sale
- You may not think so, but history blogging is actually a fairly low cost pastime and something you can enjoy with the whole family. You don’t need to purchase expensive products or pay for fancy trips or activities to obtain material for a killer article.
- Look in your local charity shop, got to a boot sale or even rummage in your friends and family’s attic or junk room. Their trash could be your treasure. I am not kidding here, my most viewed articles have been based around amazing finds from my parents’ home. A Victorian blancmange mould, a 1930’s wedding dress and a 1940’s Singer sewing machine are just a few of the fascinating artefacts I have found in their home. A collection of Victorian family photos featuring some rather splendid beards also went down a storm on Twitter.
- Delve into your own family’s history for inspiration
- You don’t need to be a genealogist to write a fascinating blog post based on your family history. Talk to family members about their memories of the past. Ask if they have any photos or objects they would be willing to have featured in a blog post. This will also give your history blog a unique and very personal edge.
- Use plenty of illustrations and be copyright aware.
- History blogs need a lot more illustrations to bring the text alive than other types of blog. It can be a challenge but don’t let it put you off. It is much easier to source free, copyright safe digital images than it was a few years ago.
- Many museums and heritage venues also now allow you to take photographs (no flash or tripods of course) for non-commercial use. If in doubt always check at the front desk before you start snapping away.
- A small word of warning, paintings and photographs in exhibitions/museums/galleries are rarely allowed to be photographed. An exception to this would be if you are invited to a VIP blogger event/press preview where taking photographs is actively encouraged and it does feel deliciously naughty when you can snap away in this context.
- If you are blogging on behalf of a PR/marketing firm they should provide you with hi-res images and appropriate copyright citations.
- Be copyright aware, if you don’t do your own photography then below are some useful resources where you can safely download images that have been made available in the Public Domain or specifically for non-commercial blogs (Getty Images).
- Be careful downloading images from Wikipedia, don’t assume because it states Public Domain that this is in fact the case in your own country:
- Getty Images - brilliant resource, coding only works on Wordpress blogs though. Images are strictly for non-commercial blogs, so do check Getty’s terms and conditions before embedding code;
- Wellcome Images – mainly medical history but a large number of images have now been released, completely free-of-charge, in high resolution under CC-BY licence. Some images can be used, free, for commercial purposes but check their terms and conditions carefully before downloading (details can be found on the ‘How do I?’ page);
- British Library – good resource but not the easiest to use/navigate. There are over 1 million images released onto Flickr Commons for anyone to use, remix and repurpose. These images are from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft. There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and much more. Terms and Conditions
- British Pathé on You Tube. I absolutely adore BP, it is a vital resource for all history bloggers! Since 2014, a majority of their film archives have now been uploaded to You Tube which allows you to embed, free, high quality, historical film clips in your blog. BP films really bring a blog post to life;
- Quality not quantity
- History bloggers tend not to post daily. Articles take a lot longer to research, write-up and illustrate. If you are averaging two or three a month then I salute you!
- Be a proof-reading Ninja. Your readers will quickly lose confidence in you if articles are full of spelling and grammatical errors or broken web links.
- If appropriate add further resources at the end of your article and always reference your sources and quotes. Easiest way to do this is to insert details of source, in brackets, directly after the reference/quote or add a bibliography at the end. Always include links to websites that you have referenced from. If you quote from a book currently in print then link back to either the author’s website or Amazon. This is just good netiquette.
- Be prepared for comments correcting your content. It can be scary but I have found, on the whole, this to be a positive experience. History bloggers tend not to be trolled but if you get something wrong or your content is inaccurate (we are only human after all) then be prepared that someone will correct you. Be humble and don’t take offence. I have connected with some amazing individuals thanks to my blog’s below the line comments.
Good luck if you decide to start a history blog. I would love to hear from you if you do or have any questions about history blogging in general. Tweet me @emmahistorian.