Welcome to Non-Boring History: How It Works

Meet Annette Laing, the Non-Boring Historian, and learn what this site offers

Welcome to Non-Boring History! I’m Annette Laing. I'm a real historian (and formerly tenured professor), novelist, Brit in the US, and missionary for history. I turn fascinating ideas and jawdropping stories from forbidding academic history and the raw material of documents into posts you'll enjoy reading in spare moments, instead of doomscrolling through Facebook. Already hooked?

Not convinced but haven’t yet run away screaming?

Good! Go on, have a bit of a scroll.

Bio

Why, yes, that is me on board a covered wagon, about to start a 2.5 hour journey in summer heat on the 1849 Oregon/California Trail somewhere in Wyoming, and develop a sore bum in the process. Did I mention the driver is 18 and has two weeks experience? This uncomfortable and mildly terrifying experience is one of many I use to rewrite academic history and old documents into short, entertaining, fascinating posts for busy normal people who are mildly curious about the past. Like you!

Non-Boring History is the catchphrase I coined some years ago to describe my work.

The Showing-Off Bit of this Bio: I’m a former tenured professor of  history and member of the Africana Studies department  at Georgia Southern University, with a PhD in Early American and British history. As a historian, I’m best known for a piece on 18th century African-American religion (title on request, because it’s long and boring). It hit the historical big time! That means professors might talk to me at history conferences after they glance at my nametag, and graduate students (some of them, anyway) bow down before me. Bwahaha.

The More Fun Bit: Mostly, though, I have decades of experience teaching hungover freshmen at 8 a.m., and more surprisingly, entertaining ten year olds (more about that in a minute). I’m also  the author of series of historical time-travel middle-grades/YA novels (The Snipesville Chronicles) featuring a diverse cast, including a Black protagonist, and set in Britain and a small town in the Deep South. I was kind of ahead of my time on that.

But wait, there's more: I’m also a lower middle-class white woman from Scotland who grew up in a working-class town in England. I have lived for extended periods in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Atlanta, a small town in rural Georgia called Statesboro, and now Madison, Wisconsin (although I still spend a lot of time Down South, and speak fluent Georgian: Hey, y'all! How's your mama ‘n them?)

I started working with The Public (you) back in 2003 in the throes of a midlife crisis, when I realized modern university life wasn’t for me. I could complain at length about that, but I will spare you the juicy details for now. Normal people having a mid-life crisis buy a Maserati. I held a children’s program.

With 4th graders and their questions at Austell Elementary in Atlanta, after presenting Gone West, a program about the Gold Rush. 4th graders have more intellectual curiosity than most adults. I'm trying to tell you your kids are smarter than you are.

My work with kids quickly drew national attention. But I soon realized that I was never just talking to kids (delightful though that was and is). My “non-boring history” presentations in schools, museums, and public libraries in rural Georgia were also engaging  and entertaining a diverse audience of teachers, parents, and grandparents.

And appreciative adult readers, especially but not exclusively women, sent me fan mail about my first book, always apologizing (unnecessarily) for being adult readers.

All this prompted me to make a few changes: I started consciously writing The Snipesville Chronicles on two levels, for young and adult readers. When I performed in schools, I made over-the-kids’-heads jokes for the adults in the room. More recently, I started giving talks to adult community groups.

In short, I’m a missionary for history for everyone.

Strangely, though, apart from a mostly neglected blog, I never seriously tried to reach a bigger public beyond the fans of my books, and the adults I met while entertaining kids. And then I found Substack. Wow.

Non-Boring History on Substack

So this is where you come in! Join us, your fellow readers and me, as we discover and explore mind-blowing stories that connect the past to our present. Don't worry about these active verbs, because you can relax and let me tell the stories: I have a lifetime of heavy lifting in archives and libraries to draw on, not to mention more than a decade of encountering museums, historic sites, and fascinating people on my travels throughout the US and my native UK. I specialize in pillaging wonderful (yet huge, expensive, and seldom readable) academic books and original documents (some in spidery 18th century handwriting) for the astonishing tales they tell. And I shine a spotlight on how historians work.

Hanging out with two of the thousands of usually normal British folks who gather each year for a weekend in Haworth, Yorkshire, where they cosplay WWII. Seriously, great fun.

Most of my posts will likely focus on what I know best: American and British history, with an emphasis on real life stories about real people. I am especially fascinated by African-American history. I often get stuck into new enthusiasms, ranging from ancient Rome to the Gold Rush, from the surprising untold stories of the Civil Rights movement to the eating habits of ordinary Brits in World War II, and (this is the important bit) I show how history isn't boring facts for facts sake, or stale nostalgia, but a living body of knowledge that connects to our daily lives, and to who we are. Or aren't.

So I'll also let you into my head. I am not an archeologist: I do not nerd out at the sight of a pottery fragment. Nor am I a buff, who knows exactly what color socks George Washington wore when he crossed the Delaware.

Even though I'm writing for you in real time as a journalist, I am a historian, and my first question is always Who Cares? I don’t do random trivia from the past for the sake of random trivia. I don't tell you stuff just to tell you stuff. That would be boring.

In Non-Boring History, I offer a transparently personal take on the past. You won't find footnotes here. Instead, I try to show you how I'm thinking about the subject at hand. I'm working to demo the weird ways in which historians think, and show why it would really help us out of the shouty mess we’re in if more people thought like we do.

Not that historians don't argue. Heck, I once listened to one suggest to a packed auditorium at a national conference that her colleague's brain had been kidnapped by space aliens. And that's a quote.{sharp intake of breath from grad students} I just won't be arguing here. As was once said of Thomas Jefferson, with whom I have nothing else in common, I'm a scholar, not a debater.

Another historian once called me a POH (Plain Old Historian) and I wear the label proudly: I pay close attention to evidence, investigate doubt, embrace complexity and empathy, play Devil’s advocate, consider my own biases, keep an open mind and refuse to accept something untrue just to be polite. This is also why I don’t get invited to parties.

Will I get things wrong, covering so many subjects, especially outside my research fields? Of course I will! And I invite academic historians to let me know if they see a problem. Then I'll fix it, and show you how and why it happened.

STILL want to know more about me? Good grief. Here you go: AnnetteLaing.com

How Non-Boring History Works for You

I don't just stay in one place when I write. I would love you to come with me (virtually) on my travels to unusual places and meet people as I go in search of connections to the past in the US and my native UK. For years, fans have asked if you can stow away in my suitcase. Now, you can! Posts and photos and videos make you feel like you're along for the ride.

Wherever I happen to be,  my goal is to help you find stories from the past and ideas from the present that speak to you personally, without taking up too much of your valuable time.

That’s why most of my posts are sorted into Collections, to help you decide quickly if certain kinds of my posts interest you, and to find them again right here on this site if you suddenly realize later that they do.

Sadly, Substack doesn’t yet allow us to search what it insists on calling my archive (like everything's old and irrelevant), an unacceptable state of affairs which had better get fixed soon, or I shall get very cross.

Until then, I'll occasionally post a guide to my previous posts, grouped in Collections, with dates, so you can find them.

So far, Collections include:

  • Annette Tells Tales: These short posts are at the heart of what I do. I tell a short story from history that relates to now, one you never heard in high school, by rewriting original documents or heavy academic prose into something you actually want to read!

  • Annette on the Road Photos, videos, and stories from my travels, especially in the US and UK, and usually to places you didn’t know existed, but will be really happy to know they do.

  • A Bit of History. Random Stuff From Annette’s Collection. I have a huge collection of random historical junque that I have purchased over the years. Each post explains why it caught my eye, and why it might speak to you, too. This can get quite exciting: my first post in this collection is about a mystery. What I discovered knocked all of our socks off.

  • Food for Thought: Cooking, Eating, and Shopping Then and Now? I’m there.  I’m a keen baker  and competent home cook, plus a foodie. I love highlighting food history, and maybe we can even have a go at the occasional recipe together! If that doesn't float your boat, no worries. Keep reading . . .

  • Thoughts on Education. I have been visiting schools and working directly with kids and teachers for nearly twenty years. This, with my transatlantic perspective and years as an academic, has given me unique insight into American education, especially in the humanities. I can get snarky.

  • Memory and History: How do we remember historical events, and how do those memories differ from what historians tell us actually happened? I’ll look at monuments, books, and museums, and consider what we  know (or think we know) and why we know it.

Go on! Give Non-Boring History a Spin!

SubStack is a new format for all of us, but I’m very excited about its possibilities. My writing experience isn’t just as an academic: I am also a novelist and was an award-winning student journalist. I don’t write for history “buffs”,  but for anyone who ever enjoyed 12 Years a Slave or Downton Abbey, Roots or Outlander, or who wished they had more ways to understand the world today.

 And most of my posts will be much shorter than this one.

How Much?

Sure, I have bills. But like most academics, I’m a schmuck who's not in this for the money. Most of my posts this first year are freely available to all subscribers, so signing up need not cost you a dime (or a penny). Just hop on the free plan and give it a spin.

If you would like the Luxury Experience (including fun giveaways, more engagement with me, and other opportunities available only to paid subscribers), or you simply are a lovely person who can spare some change to support my work making history accessible to everyone, you are warmly invited to chip in for as little as the price of a cup of coffee each month. I will appreciate it. And, since this is turning into a full-time job, I'll need it.

My goal, though, is not to shake you down to fund the luxury lifestyle I've read about in dentists' waiting rooms with a plaintive sigh. I am writing for you, whether you're a busy career person who probably hated high school history class, or miss college, a working parent about to lose your marbles, a retiree wondering uneasily if there's more to life than puttering about, or whoever you are. I want to inspire you, your family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, to read and talk about history, about ideas and stories, not clickbait.

And I do have an agenda: I want to intervene and tempt you away sometimes from doomscrolling on Twitter and Facebook. Because you don't want your grandchildren to learn from your obit that your hobbies were watching cat videos, sharing fake news, and shouting at random strangers, do you? No, I didn't think so.

I am delighted to see you subscribe! Because of course you will.

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