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PhD Core Course 2 (Toolbox): Writing history using literary styles and techniques


This course for PhD candidates (RMA students may apply as well) consists of 3 sessions, in which the participants will discuss a broad spectrum of literary styles, compositions and narrative perspectives that are used in literary non-fiction (a genre that also includes many books on historical subjects). By analyzing chapters of some of the most successful historical books of recent date, and by putting literary techniques to practice in their own writing, students will get familiar with the different stylistic and narrative possibilities that exist in the field of literary non-fiction, find out which ones suit them the best, and discuss the meaning of literary techniques: are they just a means to an end, a way to make research accessible to a broad audience, or are style and substance more intimately connected? The first session needs to be prepared by reading a selection of opening chapters from recent historical bestsellers, the second session will focus on dealing with source material and historiography in literary non-fiction texts, the third session will be a discussion about the texts that the participants have written themselves.

Ewoud Kieft is writer and historian. After finishing his PhD on religious radicalization and war culture in Western Europe (1870-1914) (UU/NIOD), he published books on war enthusiasm (Oorlogsenthousiasme. Europa 1870-1918) and the attraction of nazi-ideology (Het Verboden Boek. Mein Kampf en de aantrekkingskracht van het nazisme), both of which were nominated for the shortlist of the Libris Geschiedenis Prijs. He wrote a musical history of Amsterdam, centered around a famous record store (Concerto), a future novel (De Onvolmaakten) and an essay on the state of democracy (Vechten voor democratie, which will appear nov 17th 2022). He has written articles for all major papers and magazines in the Netherlands and was regular contributer to NRC Boeken from 2006 untill 2014, where he review both non-fiction and fiction.

Learning aims and outcomes

  • getting familiar with the literary styles and techniques that are commonly used by historians and other literary non-fiction writers.
  • Practicing some basic literary analysis, not just by analyzing texts in historical books, but also understanding its benefits in the practice of historical research, for instance for analyzing source material, like diaries and letters.
  • exploring the possibilities to represent own research, including the creative search for suitable forms to integrate source material and historiographical discussion in texts.
  • practicing literary styles and techniques by writing a short chapter in which the participants will introduce their own research.
  • getting insight in the demands and criteria of publishers, editors, newspapers and reviewers.

 Assigments and Assessment

To complete the course (3 ECTS), participants will write a short chapter in which they process a part of their own research in a text (between 4.000 and 6.000 words) that uses some of the styles and/or techniques that have been discussed during the course, and that suits their own preferences and the demands of the source material. These texts will be discussed in the last session of the course. In preparation of the first two sessions, participants will be asked to read a selection of sections and to fill in a short questionnaire (on what they found to be remarkable in style, narrative perspective etc), the primary aim of which is to bring the discussion to some depth, but also serves as consideration in making the assessment. The assessment will be made by grades.

Indicative programme

Session 1  Opening a narrative, 16 April 2024, 14.00 – 17.00, P.C. Hoofthuis 5.37

By reading five opening sections of historical best-sellers, the participants will reflect on the variety of possibilities to open historical narratives and present their research to an audience.

Session 2  How to integrate source material and historiographical discussion in narratives, 23 April 2024, 14:00-17:00, P.C. Hoofthuis 5.37

In preparation of this session, the students will read a literary non-fiction book of their own choosing (presumably in their own field of research), in consultation with the teacher/organization.

Session 3  The practice of writing literary non-fiction on history, 21 May 2024, 14:00-17:00, P.C. Hoofthuis 5.37

In the four weeks between the second session and this last session, the students will have written a first draft of a short chapter on (an aspect of) their own research, using some of the styles and techniques that have been discussed during the course. They’re free to write in Dutch or in English. In the week preceding this session, each participant will be asked to read a chapter of another student, and offer a constructive reaction on it during this last session.


All titles on the list of literature except one (Isabel Wilkerson) are available both in Dutch and English. All participants are encouraged to read the titles in the language they’re most familiar with. Please note: participants are responsible for access to the literature, literature will not be made available by the Huizinga Institute.

  • Frank Westerman, Engineers of the Soul. In the footsteps of Stalin’s writers (London 2010)

Ingenieurs van de ziel (Amsterdam 2014)

  • Isabel Wilkerson, The warmth of other suns. The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York 2010)
  • David Van Reybrouck, The epic story of a people (Londen 2015)

Congo. Een geschiedenis (Amsterdam 2019)

  • Annejet van der Zijl, The Boy between worlds (Amazon Publishing, 2019)

Sonny Boy (Nederlands, Amsterdam 2011)

  • Philipp Blom, The Vertigo Years. Change and culture in the west (London 2009)

De Duizelingwekkende jaren (Amsterdam 2008)

The literature in preparation of the second session will be selected by the participants themselves (in consultation with the teacher/organization)


This course is fully booked. For a spot on the waiting list, contact